The temple of Apollo was inscribed with the aphorism of the Oracle of Delphi: "Know Thyself". What is known is often a reflection of the self as a projection from the mind of others. In the digital age where our identities and relationships are mediated through social networking sites and online profiles, knowledge and determination of self fundamentally change in the public sphere.
In his book The Fall of Public Man, the sociologist Richard Sennett describes the notion of the “purification of self”. This is a process whereby we disavow and deny any painful dissonance of our self-image in order to “preserve intact a clear and articulated image of oneself”. Sennett laments the rise of this purification process in our public leaders. One implication of this is that as their identities become so hyper-edited that they in fact less and less resemble and reflect the citizenry they are supposed to represent.
“Our ‘one stop windows’ direct us to a lowest common denominator identity that is more aspirational than reality, more one-dimensional than multitudinous.”
This process of purification is now occurring on an individual level in a world where our identities are increasingly mediated by social networks and online profiles. The result is that there is an increasing ‘sameness’ as members of the same cohort reflect analogous hyper-crafted identities.
What partly fuels this process is that our online profiles are increasingly becoming the window through which the world interacts with us. When we could separate our worlds through physical spaces, we could express a multitude of dimensions to our identities. We could display different traits and characteristics at university than we would at work, or behave differently with our friends than we would with our partners. Now, our ‘one stop windows’ direct us to a lowest common denominator identity that is more aspirational than reality, more one-dimensional that multitudinous.
At the moment, social networks are operating like the new suburbs of the Internet – a new dimension to identify with social groups and like-minded tribes. The more we derive our sense of self from social groupings determined by sites like Facebook, the more we purify our identity. The result is that we polarise and separate each other and we risk the possibility that we become socially ignorant and less empathetic.
It could be that what we consider an “efficient” form of social communication is creating a new social ignorance via ultra purification of self and group identity. This is true for content as well. The paradox of modern communication is that as the size of audiences decreases for older mediums (e.g. TV) or any particular website (e.g. NYTimes.com), and as the content of these channels is more precisely calibrated to the tastes of a narrower audience, it becomes less likely that viewers/readers/etc. will stumble upon something new, something intellectually foreign (e.g. ideas, opinions, etc.) that will challenge their pre-conceived notions or encourage them to understand people and groups who are different. As Sennett states in a different context, “…when the dangers of surprise are avoided, there can be no exploration, and so no inner growth." The proliferation of content and identities, and our ability to self-select what and whom we interact with, may actually be encouraging a new form of parochial mindset and weakening the possibility of a broader, cosmopolitan community.
An inherent fallacy in our behaviours is our belief that we determine decisions about our identity in complete isolation. This forgoes a fundamental truth of identity: we are formed not for people but because of people. Our identities do not exist independently of concomitant actors in a social world, but because of exposure, interaction, and interdependence.”
Defining our individual personalities, complexities, and nuances in the simplistic language and rules of online personas has created a generation who are thinking about, manipulating, and editing who they are and what image they want to portray before they register their first digital profile.
We are taught to believe that clearly delineated identities not only help us determine whom we are; they are signposts for the outside world to know what we represent. In practice, when we consciously fabricate our identities, in a social arena of other pre-fabricated identities, we collectively reduce our interpersonal relationships to commoditised transactions.
The people we spend our time with, who we are seen with, whose pictures occupy the precious real-estate of our social networking profiles, are vetted not by our genuine, altruistic desires for friendship, but by the symbolism they emit to the outside world.
An inherent fallacy in our behaviour is our belief that we determine decisions about our identity in complete isolation. This forgoes a fundamental truth of identity: we are formed not for people but because of people. Our identities do not exist independently of concomitant actors in a social world, but because of exposure, interaction, and interdependence. When we engage in the shallow, digital narcissism of online profiles, we must not forget that truth.
The great writer and thinker David Foster Wallace once gave a commencement speech before his tragic death, and his words seem like a fitting message to end with:
And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in a myriad of petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.