French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, no doubt with a typically French sneer, once commented, “Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth”. Well, compared to Europeans, we do indeed have wonderful teeth, but in addition to that we have learned the fine art of living without an identity, or rather living with a multitude of identities simultaneously. Now, I’m not talking about clinically diagnosed Dissociative Identity Disorder (or as it’s more popularly conceptualized, “multiple personality disorder”, and often confused with paranoid schizophrenia), rather our ability to adopt, project, and live a myriad of different lives through the major mode of social communication for this century—the social media platform. On the internet, nobody knows which “you” you are.
Not that I’m suggesting any sort of correlation, but interestingly, not only has diagnosis with multiple personality disorder risen in the past few decades, but the average number of alternate personalities has gone from two to ten. Do you have a Facebook page? Do you Tweet? Are you a WordPress or a Blogspot blogger? Posting pictures on Tumblr or Instagram? Do you Reddit? Do you have your resume up on LinkedIn? Perhaps all of the above? Odds are that you are not the same person across these social mediums (although there are certainly the occasional anomalies that manage to maintain the same voice across platforms). I’m not judging. If you maintained the same identity across all the social media outlets you use, it would not be an optimal use of any particular medium. On LinkedIn you present your very best professional you. On Facebook you present the charming, personal you. On Tumblr, the artistic you. On Reddit, the social critic you. On twitter, you are the angry activist. Your blog presents the intellectual or quirky you. And as each of these platforms is designed with social interaction in mind, a particular aspect of your social-self emerges front and center, as the image you wish to project to the world.
Is it just coincidence that the social media are dominated by North Americans, and North America has a higher rate of dissociative identity disorder diagnosis (about 2% of the population) than other parts of the world? I don’t know. Let me ask myself. Yes, I agree. Social Media use is about attention to audience (if you didn’t care about the image you projected, you wouldn’t bother; wouldn’t look for validation in the universe; probably lock yourself in the basement and write manifestos to be published after your untimely demise at the hands of a SWAT team). Are the ubiquitous social media that figure so prominently in many of our lives forcibly reverting us to a universal state of teenage being, for as the poet W.H. Auden said, “Young people, who are still uncertain of their identity, often try on a succession of masks in the hope of finding the one which suits them the one, in fact, which is not a mask.” So, which social media mask fits you best? Who are you trying to be and for what audience? Are you trying to hodl on to multiple masks?
Too heavy? Okay, let’s talk about The Three Faces of Eve, a 1957 American movie based on the true story of Chris Costner Sizemore, aka Eve White, a woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder and which also garnered the Academy Award for Best Actress for the at the time relatively unknown Joanne Woodward. I mean, she was playing three roles for the price of one – I wonder what the Studio Actors Guild has to say about salary in that instance. Eve contented with three personalities – a “good”, a “bad”, and an integrated version of herself. Things are not nearly so simple these days. Imagine I’m Eve in 2013, rather than 1957, with all our fancy technology. Let’s start with Facebook, which in my mind is the virtual embodiment of Robin William’s dancing advice in The Birdcage: “You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!…but you keep it all inside”.
Facebook is the very best social you—the image you want to project as a social creature. You, but the very best you (whether that involves the very best “creepy” you or the very best “party-girl” you, or the very best “mother” you, is largely dependent on how you want the world to see you). Facebook, originally meant to connect elite college students, morphed into a means for connecting with a wide social network of friends. Maybe you are not “besties” with all those Facebook friends, but its people with which you feel you should have some sort of social connection, no matter how tenuous. A connection as a social being, rather than as a working professional or a means to spread your ideas, art, or fetishes. Somewhere along the line, it got competitive. The size of your network reflected your social value, and “friending” everybody and their mother was fairly normative in order to expand your social capital while advertising what you regarded as the very best about you (your brilliant offspring, the publication of your latest novel, the fact that you looked “hot” in that dress), carefully calculated to put forward not just you, but the very best version of you. A never-ending game of one-upmanship with people, who if you had to have the same interaction with in real life, would not impact your social identity in any significant way. People often abandon Facebook when they feel inadequate in comparison with their “friends”. Psychologically, Facebook lends itself to many upward comparisons, which in turn can lead to feeling depressed. Social Comparison Theory is centered on the belief that there is an innate drive within individuals to strive for accurate self-evaluations. But is Facebook the place to gain an accurate self-evaluation? Past research has argued that people who are similar to an individual are especially good in generating accurate evaluations of abilities and opinions and thus more valid upward comparisons. However, if everyone is “friending” every single person they meet, for even a second, are those really similar individuals upon which to evaluate oneself?
I recently met up with a friend who dropped out of Facebook entirely, after years of use. She explained that she was tired of the constant posting of baby pictures and progress reports on other people’s spawn. She didn’t like children, wasn’t interested in having any, and could care less about the fact that your grimy little offspring finally used the potty by themselves. Her Facebook friends were ostensibly her peer group, but she shared none of their goals or ideals. If you were communicating the same information about your children to her in person, you would no doubt see the look of boredom and disdain and change the subject. Facebook largely breaks that communicative feedback loop. I used to post pictures of my son on Facebook all the time, but now I tend to post my many airport check-ins, hoping that if I put my insufferable travel schedule out there in the universe, someone or something will have some sympathy for me. I never cross-post my blogs onto Facebook. I keep my WordPress and Facebook accounts completely separate, both in terms of content and of social identity. I keep those two worlds, and two identities at a distance from each other. I want your sympathy on Facebook for my (sigh…) hectic life as a working mother. On my blog, I rage against the machine and the oppression of the Man.
Speaking of rage, have you ever experienced the joy that is Reddit? Reddit bills itself as “The Front Page of the Internet” where users submit links to articles and other information they deem newsworthy. A complex system of downvoting, upvoting, time calculations, rate of voting, and the editorial hand of Reddit moderators (self-appointed subject experts) results in a continuously moving stream of posts to information deemed to be particularly relevant by some 43 million users. Very democratic. Also proof why democracy doesn’t work i.e. people are in aggregate, morons. The front page of Reddit is overwhelmingly dominated by cute animal photos, videos of people injuring themselves, and goofy internet memes. And many of the largest and most popular sub-reddits (topic specific streams) are essentially porn. I was horrified to find out that the “Latina” subreddit was one of these NSFW areas. Maybe I’ll post some scientific articles written by Latinas there just to be a pain in the ass. All this is loosely overseen by Reddit moderators, who by and large seem to be a pretty scary lot themselves (big news in the recent past was a bunch of redditors accused of collecting child pornography). If you get a big enough pool of people together, you’re always going to get some serious weridos, but let’s try not to be judgmental. Then again, I just looked at a sub-reddit called Reddit “Moderators Club”, where the redditors of the larger subreddits can discuss their occupation. Screw it. I’ll be judgmental. These basement-dwellers (who mind you do this job on a volunteer basis – clearly having plenty of free time) do not seem to be nice people, whining about being downvoted because they “clean up” reddit. Mind you this consists largely of intelligent comments like “Holy Shit, what a piece of garbage”. Oh, and they hate blogs. Any crap can make it to the front page, but they refer to a posting of a blog as “blogspam”. Maybe if I write my blog over a picture of a grinning dog, it would be more palatable. So, clearly, “The Front Page of the Internet” is kittens, odd fetishes, and porn with the occasional paranoid rant about the government spying on you thrown in. This is an excellent venue for downward comparisons.
In 1981, in response to the concept of upward comparison Wills introduced “downward comparisons”, a defensive tendency that people use as a means of self-evaluation. These individuals will look to another individual or comparison groups who are considered to be worse off in order to make them feel better about their self or personal situation. Social psychological research has shown that comparisons with others who are better off (upward comparison) can lower self-regard whereas downward comparisons can elevate self-regard. This may seem obvious – “Things may be bad, but at least I’m not that guy”. Interesting that through social media people tend to do upward comparisons with supposed friends (via Facebook) and with strangers people tend to engage in downward comparisons (for example, Reddit). Interestingly, a larger percentage of Facebook users are women–and women tend to make more upward comparisons; a larger percentage of Reddit users are male–and men tend to make more downward comparisons. Yup, Reddit clearly ain’t for me. I don’t need to get my kick out of voting someone down.
Then you have the Twitter users. These are the shouters. The self-branders. Twitter is the equivalent of Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park. It gives one a chance to vent and express an opinion. It doesn’t matter how many followers a person has, they can just tweet statements into an ongoing conversation. This ability to openly voice one’s opinion (well, except for celebrities with a set brand) could be why larger percentages of ethnic minorities (in comparison to Caucasians) use twitter. Specifically, 28% of online African-Americans use Twitter. For the marginalized, twitter can help bring them into the middle of ongoing debates giving them a voice. This is a slight tangent but did you see the recent research that says that the happiest tweets come from Time Square in New York City–take that Disneyland! See, Twitter has become a human seismograph measuring everyday sentiment, reactions to world events (i.e. debates, Pope Francis’ election), popular culture (how much do we really like Kim Kardashian). It’s quite a powerful feeling to be able to weigh in on any topic. Americans, who are the most over-surveyed group in the world and are perfectly willing to offer an opinion on almost anything, are also the top Twitter users (Japan & Brazil round out the top three twitter-user countries). When I post to twitter, I am usually posting a news item that for some reason I feel is important and shouldn’t be overlooked. It allows me to share my news obsession with others. I guess Twitter is the vehicle by which I show that I am up on current events and thus am worldly? Although, I must admit that lately I have been using twitter loudly voice my complaints with certain companies–whether it entails complaining about a hotel ladybug infestation I had to endure recently or the misfortune of having to eat an unimpressive, overpriced salad (well, which salad isn’t overpriced, really. Its lettuce people, lettuce and a few other things grown in the dirt).
Instagram allows one the opportunity to give others insight into how you see the world. Supposedly, a large percentage of the users are women. Are women more visual or is it more important to women for the world to understand how they see things? Instagram recently made headlines with its efforts to keep the “Insta-universe” as a positive space, prohibiting any hashtags or photographs that promote self-harm. Yet, right before Christmas Instagram tried to give itself a gift by updating its Terms of Service to allow Instagram the right to sell users’ photos to third parties without notification or compensation starting on January 16, 2013. That has since been rescinded thanks in part to the great advocacy efforts by Kim Kardashian to stop this travesty from happening. You know, I kid, right? Anyway, Instagram gives me a feeling that I’ve gone down the rabbit hole with Alice in Wonderland. It seems a little loopy and that when I post a photo I should be wearing a mad hatter hat. Well, I actually do have one. I may just have to put it on before my next Instagram post. You’re showing me how you want me to think you see the world. Or convince me that the way you see the world is somehow different and interesting.
Now, what about blogging. Clearly a superior class of beautiful and smart individuals dominate. Okay, maybe I’m a little biased. At any rate, blogging is a different kind of social media effort. In personality psychology there are the big Five–which I have blogged about previously. The Big Five personality inventory measures personality based on five key traits: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. I have argued previously that openness is associated with trying new foods –and cocktails! The results of two recent psychology studies (Guadagno et al., 2007) indicate that people who are high in openness to new experience and high in neuroticism are likely to be a blogger. Bam. Openness with a twinge of the neurotic: it’s as if David Copperfield meets Woody Allen. As a blogger, one can blog where one receives comments or one can blog in places where you can only get a heart or reblogged (i.e. Tumblr). How open are you to feedback?
So, there we have it. Do you have more than one social media account? Which face of Eve are you on which social media platform? Is there a bit of neuroticism in you? Do you feel the need to shout above the crowd in 140 characters? Do you feel the need to put yourself above others by amassing followers or upvotes? Does that down vote button get your juices and self-esteem going? Do you feel the need to get sympathy from one group of people while putting your innermost thoughts and rants before another set of people? Are you multi-personality? Ask yourself. If you get an answer, well there you have it. Go ahead, tell me your social media platforms and I will tell you who you are – or who you would like me to believe you are.