Editorial: Who are we? Online Personas and Social Identities

“Our online personas are more of a type of social performance, a sort of peacock showing its colors, in front of an audience ⁠— i.e., your friends and followers.”

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Our online and real life identities may not be one and the same. Credit: Francesca McKernon

How well do you know yourself? Would you say that your online persona is close to your real life persona? And if yes, how close? 

These questions are relatively novel ones, since online social media is a young 22 years old. The first networking site, Six Degrees, came out in 1997, with Friendster following in 2002, Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and Instagram in 2010. 

According to The Guardian, before the internet, individuals expressed themselves through their material possessions, which psychologists describe as an ‘extended self.’ A perfect example of this is walking into someone’s bedroom; they most likely have posters, books, knick knacks, artwork, etc. which can all be put together to form that person’s personality and interests. It’s a real life Pinterest, if you will. Today, though, Russell Belk argues that physical possessions have dematerialized into invisible possessions, like photos, videos, music, and more. 

Identity is formed relatively young in adolescence according to psychologist Erik Erikson, and is flexible throughout life. Identity itself is defined by the American Psychological Association as “an individual’s sense of self defined by a set of physical, psychological, and interpersonal characteristics that is wholly not shared with any other person.” Identity also involves a sense of “continuity, or the feeling that one is the same person today that one was yesterday or last year.” 

So instead of material objects, our online identity is slowly revealed through photos featuring things we like, people we enjoy, and, of course, ourselves. Your online identity can be reflective of your real life identity, but only showcase certain parts of it. When you have the chance to edit and revise your presented self online, you are able to exaggerate your persona, according to Mark Milian. 

Our online personas are more of a type of social performance, a sort of peacock showing its colors, in front of an audience ⁠— i.e., your friends and followers. Dorian Wiszniewski and Richard Coyne in the book “Building Virtual Communities” explore this idea with the concept of “masking” identity. Naturally, when an individual enters a social interaction, they “portray a mask of their identity.” Interestingly, the mask someone choses reflects a part of their own personality. With Instagram, though, people can reinvent themselves into whatever aesthetic or person they want to be. We ultimately define ourselves through the things we post, like, and comment on. 

It is much easier to create the visual life you want, compared to the real life you have. What composes our real selves involves much more work, like physical movements, conversations, social interactions, etc. But to pose a quick pic with the caption “I’m the bad guy” with a purple devil emoji is easier. 

Perhaps, Instagram and Facebook represent the versions of ourselves we want to be, rather than what we actually are. It’s most likely why online users post the best photos of themselves living their “best life” instead of the sadness and hardships everyone encounters from time to time. Rarely, does someone make a sad post, unless they are willing to be emotionally vulnerable. Not surprisingly, most users don’t want to display sadness, because it’s a very personal part of their identities, which would be made public. 

This is not to say that everyone inaccurately portrays themselves on the internet. There are many people on social media sites that are very similar to what their accounts portray, and possibly value authenticity and consistency over the aesthetic and superficiality of media. 

Does social media put pressure on us to prove ourselves, and our identities, so that we are seemingly “the best” version of ourselves? The art of the selfie itself is a visual representation of our physical and real self in a virtual world. 

At the end of the day, social media is a digital world ruled by code and thousands of pixels to communicate some message to you and your friends. Unfortunately, this digital world can quite literally “filter” out the bad parts of our lives and the raw parts. This is not to say that we should share our darkest and most personal secrets to the world, but that we should recognize that digital media is a mere reflection of ourselves, not our actual selves. 

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