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Who Are You? A Short History of Identity Online

What social media does with us and what we do with it…

The Internet is a bit like gravity, immune systems, or verbal communication — a humble miracle which we abuse, and which becomes more improbable and complicated the more we try to comprehend it. And despite bookending our waking days and being the topic and medium of so much conversation, how much do we actually know about the effect of Mark Zuckerberg’s apps — through which a huge part of our contribution to and understanding of the world occurs — on our identities?

Social media is* an era-defining phenomenon because it has reinvented communication; up to the beginning of any adult’s lifetime, human interaction took place predominantly in a single time or place — mostly both. The TV news was shown at a specific time in your country, and if it made you want to call Tony Blair a liar you probably said it to your partner or cat. Now, anything can be viewed by anyone, anywhere if content is made accessible to the public. Private communication can also occur in any place and at any time. This turns out to be quite a big deal when you consider how much of our lives — work, music, politics, family, and religion — is mediated by apps. So, how exactly are our identities being reshaped?

An initial line of thinking might be this:

globalisation (fact) = increased awareness of the lives of others (feeling)

Or, in other words:

visibility beyond borders (fact) = mutual understanding and cultural homogenisation (feeling)

This is the idea that the Internet breaks down national barriers and gives the world a more singular identity. In some respects, it seems intuitive — there are plenty of examples of cultural practices spreading rapidly with the movement of people and things, from the ubiquitous consumption of coffee and potatoes to the birth of such precious international music genres as Turkish psychedelic rock or Nigerian synth funk. In fact, culture no longer has to spread across borders, but already exists in its own delocalised and often anonymous world online. This is why we see a kind of universal culture emerging synchronously through the likes of Instagram and TikTok, manifested in the form of dances, clothes, images (memes), interests (likes and follows), and crazes.

Global village, global pillage, local knowledge

Are we becoming homogenised, then? While it is tempting to assume so, the more we explore the idea of homogenisation, the less certain it seems. Yes, a given human being will likely have a Samsung or Apple device somewhere on her person. Yes, democracy more or less reigns in all continents (I’m counting the social dynamics of penguin huddles). But economies are one thing and culture another; in terms of our values and practices, while there are bound to be similarities emerging, in many ways we are still different.

In the UK and the US we aren’t adopting foreign styles of dressing or dancing — and are mostly discouraged from doing so. It also seems obvious that nationalism and wilful ignorance of the experience of others is rife; on the morning of writing, the BBC headlines include two separate disputes over national waters in the Aegean and the Strait of Taiwan, and a MAGA rally that defied Covid-19 regulations — each of them backed by no small number of nationalists. Also in the news today is the emergence of ‘LGBT-free zones’, the result of a movement whose leader cites Western sexual ideology as a threat to Polish traditions. The movement distributes stickers that show an ‘X’ running through the rainbow flag, placing itself in opposition to an image that is understood globally as a symbol of tolerance. So much for mutual understanding, then.

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Nevertheless, like with any complex phenomenon the natural human reaction is to latch onto a belief to make sense of it all — hence ‘globalisation’ is taken for granted as something that has happened over the last 20 or so years. Yet evidence that globalisation is not a straightforward process can be found in the collective belief that it is. In other words, the mere perception that Western culture is taking over leads to acts of resistance; anti-English language and anti-cultural appropriation sentiments express understandable fears that traditions which define identities are being broken down and/or illegitimately consumed. Naturally, people from minority cultures might therefore place more importance on their identities and practices, and use the global resource of social media to do so.

But, you might say, those interested in foreign cultural practices can engage with them on their phones. Absolutely — our window to the outside world has rapidly moved from collective mass media consumption to personalised feeds and if I’m into capoeira I will see Brazilians doing flips when I open up Instagram. My social media feeds are like no one else’s in the world — I define it and it defines me. But would this indicate that we are homogenised, or that we are fragmented? Are we now defined by our membership to microcultural groups, as gamers, korfball players, yoga practitioners, and horticulturalists? Rather than all being same, we could now be infinitely different. Given that we are now in control of our media, and it makes no difference whether our interlocutors are sitting in the house next door or in Paraguay, aren’t locality and nationality irrelevant to our identities?

Not quite — life online is still bound to geographical location. Our Facebook friends are still mostly made up of people physically close to us and our news consumption is probably national or local. Also, if social media can strengthen ties for those with niche cultural interests, it can do so for those with an interest in their nation as well. Moments of collective national experience — royal weddings and elections — are still published, consumed, and discussed with disgust, zeal, and venom on Twitter. We may process the world in a delocalised cyberspace, but that is still a place with frontiers.

What’s more, those frontiers may be policed by nation-states that (try to) ban certain apps and exploit the popularity of others. Cambridge Analytica certainly made a good go of harvesting our contributions to the world while manipulating the aforementioned personalised flow of information to push not-so-personalised nationalist rhetoric on the receiver. We are not in control of our feeds after all. Social media has not quite signalled the ‘death of the state’ as some claim. Rather, governments maintain the power to promote ideal values and identities from both above and below, at both macro-levels of communication (by manipulating advertising/posting content on official accounts) and micro-level ones (generating shares, comments, and discussion).

The verdict

So, which is it, fragmentation or homogenisation?

Hmm. It is probably impossible to measure at the level of academic research, though is seems that these two ideas, although contradictory, are not mutually exclusive. A curious and convincing answer from Prof. Stig Hjarvard suggests that various things are happening at once, and it cannot be said that new technologies move society in any single direction. Crudely summarised, he describes how, in two separate ways, our cultural identity flows freely across borders:

Global identity:
  • Fortnite dances, dabbing, bottle flips, things generally done by adolescent boys that drink Monster.
  • Cardi B, Despacito, Kim Kardashian, and other phenomena that are the topic of conversation for millions (billions?) of people worldwide.
Individual identity:
  • The ability to be part of transnational ‘microcultures’ of your choosing — gamers, knitters, samba for Satanists, etc.
  • Your personal feed (when not violated by Dominic Cummings)
  • Uploading content of yourself for public consumption

And in two ways, our identities are still connected to where we live:

National identity:
  • Collective ripping of Prince Andrew on Twitter
  • Captain Tom’s fundraiser
  • (Possibly sneaky) social media activity of political parties
Local identity:
  • Neighbourhood Facebook groups
  • Political separatist media

It would be extremely wanting to conclude that life is just the same as before, just online. A world where you can figuratively walk up to the global elite and call them dinguses is not the same as a world with one radio station and no television. I think we would all agree that social media has changed us in some way, and I would argue that it does so variably in these four ways, and sometimes simultaneously. Sometimes, social media allows us to extend our preexisting, physical lives, but it can also expose us to all manner of novelties and take us away from our surroundings. Where the balance is drawn is impossible to tell and will inevitably vary depending on the person. And perhaps that’s just it — which of these four identities predominates will depend on what we believe, who and what we’re influenced by, what we (dis)like, and who we want to be. In true spirit of the age of personalised content, it is tailor-made for each one of us.

* Yes, I shall be using ‘media’ in the singular — please don’t @ me.

Hamish Pottinger