Who We Are Online
Author: Uma Nambiar
I grew up in the mid-to-late 2000s, spending my days playing random games online with strangers. Back then, my understanding of social media was limited to Facebook and YouTube. Looking back, I realize that the explosion of the Internet since the 90s has had many unintended consequences. Social media can give people a chance to redefine their identity, at least to the online world. They are no longer constrained to a location, a name, or an age — to an extent, individuals can be whoever they want to be, and with this freedom comes an obsessive desire to control that image. The discussion of identity in the twenty-first century would be incomplete without examining the way social media completely colors our lives, for better or for worse.
For many people, their social media identities are an idealistic and carefully constructed portrayal of themselves. While a picture on Instagram can be scrutinized, posted, and then later deleted, someone’s impression of you in real life is harder to control and understand. Although this may seem harmless enough, it begins to pose problems when people feel as though they cannot live up to the online image they’ve crafted for themselves. This can range from worrying that you don’t look as good in real life as you do on social media to feeling like you are a more funny or charismatic person when you have time to think about your responses. As a result, people may become insecure about parts of themselves which do not match up to the versions they have created online. Additionally, it has become common to use multiple accounts meant to reach different audiences. Doing so shows a desire to split your identity for different audiences, which mimics real life where it is common to project a different personality to strangers than you would to close friends. To better understand the idea of compartmentalizing different parts of oneself for different groups online, I contacted Roya Adel, a visual artist and RANI Creative team lead who has three Instagram accounts. She explained how at the end of 2019, she became tired of her “main” Instagram because of the heavy anxiety and fear of judgement she felt surrounding it. It was as if she had been “holding onto a part of [her] that existed in high school.” These feelings, coupled with her desire to share film pictures, led to the creation of a new Instagram which became a diary of sorts. Through it, she has worked towards understanding and forgiving herself while learning to love the world.
“It’s funny because [my old account] isn’t me at all,” Roya wrote. “[My new account] is actually who I am... and the closest to a real Roya.” Through her three accounts, Roya is able to express different parts of her identity and connect with various groups, all while giving them different levels of access to the real her.
This idea of multiple accounts representing fragments of one’s identity extends into the idea of online anonymity. It can be seen on nearly every social media platform: a Reddit post discussing personal matters with “throwaway” in the username, for example. Anonymity allows people to share their unfiltered thoughts without the risk of people in their real life judging or keeping tabs on them. This does seem freeing, but internet anonymity has been a topic of debate due to people’s tendency to abuse it. When people anonymously comment offensive things or endanger other people online, they feel comfortable doing so because their real life identity and real online identity are unaffected in the eyes of others. Thus, the largest argument against internet anonymity is that it gives way to bad behavior, and this problem brings up important questions: At what point should one’s right to browse the internet anonymously be infringed upon? How much of a right does the general public have to be made aware of other people’s online wrongdoings, even if done anonymously? Internet users such as Christopher Poole — founder of 4chan, an anonymous site — argue that “there is always a need to be able to enter into a conversation and have your contribution judged for its merit and not who you are.” Being able to separate your online and offline identity is an appealing option because it not only allows people to move freely online, but also ensures personal safety in the case someone wanted to cause another individual harm. Online anonymity is one of the few ways to express the parts of you that you don’t want people to see or associate with you while still having an outlet.
An attractive aspect of the Internet is the potential to reinvent oneself. However, the ability to do so has become harder due to the everlasting and interconnected nature of the information we release online. Posts made years ago can come back to haunt people 10 years later, and the ability to separate yourself into parts by creating different social media accounts becomes more and more difficult as the data shared on different platforms begins to bleed together. For example, New York Times writer Jenna Wortham described her discomfort when a man on a dating app brought up the fact that he recognized her from a different site which was used to display her most visited bars and restaurants. The convergence of these separate online identities felt like worlds clashing to Worthman, who explained that she had “left out specifics about [herself], first to observe that dating site undetected, then to reinvent [herself] as an eligible bachelorette… he knew so much about [her], and [she] knew nothing about him.” This power imbalance is seen not only in online dating, where more information about a potential partner is just a Google search away, but also in the hiring process where employers often check the online activities of potential hirees. Jenna Wortham felt entitled to a certain amount of privacy and reinvention online, and was put off by the man’s discovery even though he did not purposefully seek out her account on the other site. This brings up the issue of how people often do not have full control over what others find about them online. Identities are constantly evolving, but it is not easy for people to erase who they were in the past, especially on the Internet where personal and old information can be found by anyone. The increasing interconnectedness of the internet makes the desire for reinvention on specific platforms seem like a futile effort.
Unlike past generations, children born in the 1990s and 2000s have had many parts of their formative years documented online. Many people can find random details or pictures from their past just by Googling their name. This puts them in a unique position where “starting over” online is not as simple as deleting a few social media accounts. Additionally, you can really only construct new identities as long as the people interacting with you buy that narrative. The Internet has a massive memory, and it can be daunting to think of how much data we have released about ourselves without even realizing it. It makes me wonder if future generations will need to grow more and more conscious of what they do and release online, even as children. In many ways, though, the internet mirrors real life: we strive to look and act a certain way when we are out in the world, and we do the same online. Although these two identities may not completely align all the time, they are nonetheless a part of how we are viewed by others and a projection of who we are.