The formation of the ‘self’ – one’s personal and unique identity – has always been an integral part of human nature; however, while this concept remains stable, the way people go about constructing and producing their ideal versions of self have evolved.
Politicians throughout time have dealt with this notion. Always being in the public eye they have had to strategically create their own personal brands – likely correlated with their political platforms – in order to build a following and to market themselves to society. This can be done by calling press conferences, being seen at certain events, supporting particular groups, etc. But for them their jobs depend on being in the public eye, and therefore, they have always had the resources to be seen and heard.
What social media has done for society is opened up opportunities for exposure and even (potential) success for us ‘common folk’ – those that did not initially have these resources. Anyone who has access to the internet (be it on a computer, tablet, smart phone) has the opportunity to present his-or-herself to the internet universe. This doesn’t mean they will be heard by everyone, but it means they could be heard by everyone (anyone who can get onto the internet that is).
We might look to public figures like singer Justin Bieber, who was discovered on YouTube – or famous bloggers like Perez Hilton and BryanBoy – as prime examples of the way the internet and social media has torn down societal walls, almost eliminating the communication blocks between the modern bourgeois and proletariat.
In The New Yorker’s article, “You Are What You Tweet,” author Tony Tulathimutte explores the way ‘personal branding’ is constructed online and the potential threat to privacy it possesses. He comes to the conclusion that the real threat it poses isn’t to our privacy, but rather to our identities, which we choose to forfeit due to our inclination to create our own public brand.
He states, “to perfect the total image of an impressive life, we prune off the parts of ourselves that can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t be seen.” Likewise, he quotes a branding coach who made the statement, “what you look like online is actually what is real.” This idea of perception as reality is why people so willingly ‘forfeit’ their identities over to these online platforms, even though they risk presenting skewed versions of who they actually are.
As Tom Peters reiterates in his famous 1997 essay, “The Brand Called You,” which went on to coin the term ‘personal branding,’ we are either “distinct or extinct.” In other words, average doesn’t cut it. So even though these new technological innovations brought the ability for people to expand their social networks and personal identities, the ‘domestication’ (a term used by Nancy Baym in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age) of these new platforms has integrated the technology into society. This has created new societal norms for us to follow.
This new landscape we feel entitled to live by is why we need to consider authenticity when thinking about social construction online. As mentioned in Slater’s article, “Social Relationships and Identity,” “new forms of mediation are historically first experienced as ‘virtual’ in that they seem to replace or mediate other forms of mediation which have historically been established as ‘real.’” So then what is one’s real identity? Can it ever be defined? Is this new online world really any different from other innovations in the past?
It’s clear that Tulathimutte firmly believes that in order to be successful with self-branding you have to be authentic. He urges to “project seamless consistency and competence across every department of your life—you know, be yourself.” However, while this seems like an option most would take, realistically that is not the case. So to reiterate my question: how can we define an authentic identity?
As Tulathimutte mentions, consistency is key. This becomes tricky due to the inevitable fast-changing nature of social media. As Ellison and boyd mention in “Sociality through Social Networking Sites” this “perpetual beta” – constantly changing dynamic – is causing a shift towards ‘media-centric’ sites, which relies on co-construction with both bi-directional and uni-directional interactions. This is an issue in relation to identity formation because it includes others in the building of one’s own personal brand. One example is Facebook. Whenever we are tagged in pictures or posts, added to a group, mentioned in a comment, shared a link on our wall, we are co-constructing our identities with the help of a friend. We might not even want this association but we have no control over the initial tag – just the option to remove it once its already gone through.
The second main issue around authenticity is what Marwick and boyd termed, “context collapse.” They state, “there is no such thing as universal authenticity; rather, the authentic is a localized, temporally situated social construct that varies widely based on community.” Therefore, this creates the need for ‘balance’ within someones online persona. Offline we each act differently towards different people depending on the context. Online this separation is obliterated and we are forced to consolidate ourselves into one whole being. It is ironic to state that this then creates the potential for issues around authenticity, but when we begin to censor ourselves and watch what we both do and say, it takes away the organic flow of communication.
So to reiterate what Peters talked about, we are all like CEO’s of our own brand, and therefore we are all working to market our appearance to others. But while social media has made it easier to expand our horizons, it has come with a slew of speculations surrounding reliability of these online identities. Unfortunately it seems as though this might be an issue with human nature more so than social media. To go back to Slater, the fear of how new technology will affect society is a cycle, but it doesn’t mean there is any new threat posed. Social networking sites might just be making it easier to spot this conflict of authenticity, but it is something that has always been around. As Tulathimutte mentions, “we can choose to carry on conversations that are forgotten, have thoughts that go untweeted, leave the house without our phones,” but it is we who choose not to.