Last week I had the sheer pleasure of running amok around Brazil, a paradise landscape replete with beautiful people, radiant attractions and molten energy. It was one of the first times in the last couple years where I also “unplugged,” at least from a constant stream of mobile activity, and tried to live by the Carioca model of “work to live,” versus the New Yorker “live to work.”
Chugging downhill in cog train from Corcovado, the mountain which hosts the famous Christ statute (see my earlier post for a picture from the top), we passed through a pristine national park, steering by abandoned, ivy-clad houses and one of the nearby favelas. Somewhere between the house covered in Japanese graffiti and momentary cliff-side terror-inducing turn, I had a thought about identity, naturally.
An assignment from fourth grade that I recently found in my mom’s “CARINE CHILDHOOD” drawer came to mind. We were asked to complete a “who are you” exercise, where you made a list of your identities, likes, dislikes, hobbies, etc. My list included: sister, daughter, friend, soccer player, aspiring actress (so cliche LA childhood, I know…), etc. I then turned it into a poem, which I will paste below because who doesn’t love public humiliation?
Although it might not be readily apparent from my crafty poem, the original list focused on characteristics that are defined first by relations to others (sister, daughter, friend), then by how I spend my leisure time (soccer, music), and finally by my career aspirations, or how I plan to spend my non-leisure time (actress). According to this 9 year old perspective, identity is comprised of how you relate to others and how you spend your time.
Fast forward to 2011 and the rise of the e-identity. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that much has changed, except maybe the answers to the questions or the breadth of categories to include. Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of other sites ask users to create profiles that construct conceptions of who you are. Your list of friends then serves to answer the “how do you fit into society” question. According to these formats, individuals are defined by their gender, geography, sexual orientation, languages, host of philosophies, work history, cultural influences and hobbies. The result is a neatly constructed constellation of tidbits and factoids that lets others piece together an impression of you, often filtered through their own social historic lens (e.g., female from LA with over 1 zillion friends who likes NPR, Planet Earth, and Spanglish… read as: hipster, dork, socially challenged, or just seriously awesome and highly popular). Then comes the awkward meeting with someone who you already think you know everything about.
So how different are our e-identities and real ones? And has social media really led to the fragmentation of self as so many have argued? I have to admit that the jury is leaning toward a resilient yes.
First, while profiles and online identities force us to ask some questions of ourselves that we might otherwise neglect to answer (namely, what do you find important in this world and what of that do you want to share with people?), the forcing mechanism also engenders false representations or commitments. Yes, I like the show True Blood, but does it define me as a person? HBO might want me to say yes, but let’s hope I’ll continue to have a sense of self after vampires lose their cache.
Second, there is some very interesting research that indicates our answers to the important “who are you” questions are increasingly falsified or exaggerated. And the danger is that we are not only lying to others, we are lying to ourselves. Harvard professor Elias Aboujaoude explains in a recent HBR post titled, “Grandiose, Narcissistic, Impulsive E-Personalities — and What They Might Do to the Economy”
My research shows that, online, we take on new character traits that add up to a full-fledged “e-personality” — a disinhibited way of behaving and transacting that can be very different from how we have always operated. E-personality traits found in our online alter egos include grandiosity, or the sense that sky is the limit when it comes to what we can accomplish; narcissism, or how we tend to think of ourselves as the center of the World Wide Web; and impulsivity, or the urge-driven lifestyle many of us are falling into. As a consequence of adopting these traits, we feel more potent, special, and spontaneous. There is something very empowering about these qualities, which helps blind us to their consequences. When it comes to online spending, for example, the effects become less near and concrete. Fueled by grandiose, narcissistic, and impulsive notions, it is easier online to feel as special, deserving, and immune to bankruptcy as a Marie Antoinette — and to shop accordingly.
Aboujaoude’s post aptly describes a fragmentation of self into virtual and real-world identities. We are not totally doomed, though. He thoughtfully responded to a comment as such, “The cure, to the extent that it exists, lies in becoming aware of these transformations and trying actively to make virtual life more like real life, rather than the other way around…”
Connective technology is not going anywhere, and neither is the “online personal brand.” But hopefully we will see some more innovation in devices and platforms that help us fuse the physical and digital, and systems that reward keeping it real.