Guest blogger Savantemeritus appears courtesy of “The Project for Sustained Mental Stimulation.” She is a fellow grad student in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. Gorditamedia knows talent. You can thank me later. Comments encouraged.
I had the opportunity to consider the issue of the online identity recently for a class on digital media. The superstar controversies were of course privacy, data-mining, oversharing, and, rather obliquely, a consideration of the plausibility of a Skynet/ HAL-like device coming into reality (the discussion ran quite the gamut). While it was the tendency of most (full disclosure: myself as well) to pontificate their views on these phenomena on a macrosocial scale, I turned the lens inward after class and asked myself the question: when did I stop caring about my overtly liberal link posts and clearly er, dishonorable pictures on Facebook, this despite knowing my ultra-conservative, hyper-Catholic family members lurked in the shadows of my ‘recent activity’? I knew the answer immediately and I borrow the words of my favorite romantic line of all time, courtesy of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’:
“I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
Perhaps a big reason is that 1) I know they are not online enough to be offended by my ‘true’ self (while the nature of truth and self is another cogitation requiring a lot more meditation and neuroscience than I can afford right now, for the purposes of this post, let us say that one’s ‘true self’ online is the behavior one exhibits when one is burdened with the least amount of hesitation and the most amount of what we feel is an action most loyal to our sense of personal authenticity). Or if they are like the average online American who spends about 14 minutes on Facebook per day, it might also be because they 2) don’t care about me as much as the narcissism promoted by Facebook has led me to believe or 3) I’m safely lost in the overwhelming stream of their newsfeed. The other category of justification has a tangential relationship to reason #3: most of my Facebook friends are young, like-minded individuals and by constituting a majority of that friend list, they give me enough comfort to express my (contested) ‘true self’.
I remember late in 2006 when slowly but surely, people outside my college life started trickling into the service. First it was the more hip younger relatives, friends from high school and friends from abroad. It was becoming what Friendster or MySpace just never got to- the global critical mass that allowed for a one-stop site where I could find people and be found. I was thrilled; I reveled; I went on mad friend request frenzies. And then, a relative who was head of the local church organization popped up on the request page. And once you go down that path of saying yes to one, it becomes a slippery slope, a snowball… a bloody disaster. Pretty soon there were over thirty members from various branches of both maternal and paternal family tree. What followed was an equally mad frenzy of photo untagging and eventually, a near cessation of active Facebooking.
That was censorship for the sake of politeness. It wasn’t all the fault of Facebook’s open registration- I was graduating from college, neck-up in a thesis and looking for jobs. But no doubt, a significant part of the decline was that it became too onerous to consider whether I could stand to live with dissenting kin, and even dissenting ‘friends’ knowing my stand on reproductive rights or marijuana legalization.
By seeing the scale of variation among my relatives, friends and acquaintances, the painful wonder of the multi-faceted self, that the self is quite variable, hit me and the difficulty of maintaining any sense of authentic self in the face of an audience of such aggregated temporal, geographic and personal difference just became too hard.
So instead I became a voyeur, a casual Facebook stalker on nights when I ran out of episodes to catch up on the DVR. But about a year later, I found myself in grad school– tagging myself in the same dishonorable photos I forswore, thoughtlessly liking pro-gay marriage links and sharing an analysis of the health care overhaul for my own little discordant Facebook world to see. And just like the start of Mr. Darcy’s love for Elizabeth Bennett, I could not “fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation.” I just was. And upon reflection, this change in behavior was a reflection of a change in focus- I was no longer thinking that what I was putting out there was for everyone. I was posting mostly for my graduate peers, who were actively engaged in all sorts of social networks. Their activity inspired me to participate and they became my primary audience. This happens to coincide with Lento et. al’s findings that “a user’s retention and interest in blogging could be predicted by the comments received and continued relationship with other active members of that community” (quoted from Java et. al). It is not that I stopped caring what everyone thought… it is because my social barometer had adjusted to be more sensitive to my immediate community (graduate students) online than the rest of the digi-zens populating my online social network.
Ever dependable is our brain. Responding to the contradictory pressures wrought by bringing one’s divergent offline worlds to one virtual universe, it develops an adaptation: caring about what certain people think. This isn’t new, if you really think about it. I remember living in an analog world and selectively caring-what-other-people-think as a sanity preserving tool. I learned this fairly quickly. The only difference is, back then, a massive server in some anonymous data center was not there to document one’s personal evolution for posterity’s review.