The Self in Social Media

Chamath Palihapitiya, a former executive at Facebook, recently said at a Stanford business school event that Facebook is having detrimental effects on society and individuals: “This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

In a similar vein, Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, said the social media platform was aimed at “exploiting human vulnerability through social-validation feedback loops.”

Users are consumers of algorithms, and the way these algorithms are designed determine how their online selves are put together. For instance, the ‘people you may know’ algorithm on LinkedIn combines a variety of personal data – your profile and network activities, the data of users who searched for you, selected keywords you used in your posts – to infer connections, to create rankings and hierarchies, and to suggest participants. Read more about these mechanisms in my article here.

Social media selves are put together through the mechanisms of social media. To attract users and maintain user activity, a range of suggestions, calls for certain actions and self-reinforcing mechanisms are built into social networks. These suggestions are frames with intents, ultimately creating an “artificial” image of the self. Frames nudge users to perform certain actions: Others are “followed”, “poked”,”liked” or “tagged”, and algorithms put users into a place and hierarchy within a social network.

Online selves are not social constructions, but constructions of social media looking for validation in a space constructed by social media. They are alter egos interacting with other alter egos in a constructed social space. People groom their social media selves to look better with photo filters on Instagram (Chua and Chang, 2016) or accumulate Facebook “friends” they don’t know in order to make themselves appear more “liked” than they are in real life (Lönnqvist and Deters, 2016). 

As it becomes a real-life social necessity to have a social media self to maintain relationships in the real world, more and more time is spent on the upkeep of this social media self. Consequently, the ego and its social media alter ego get increasingly intertwined.

The challenges, demands and rules of social media are different from real-life society. The social media constructed self is, in its constructed social space, subject to the rules designed by the social media site. Its social exchanges are differently codified (“like”, “follow”), there are different annoyances (“trolls”) and there are different threats (“haters”). The social media self is more dependent, as a divergent opinion comes with the danger of social exclusion in social media space (denying “likes”, “unfollowing”, “cybermobbing”).

The constructed self relates to other constructed selves differently – the others on social media become narcissistic constructions, “selfobjects”. Social science researcher Sherry Turkle: “… in the psychoanalytic tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support. It cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use. So, the narcissistic self gets on with others by dealing only with their made-to-measure representations. These representations (some analytic traditions refer to them as “part objects,” others as “selfobjects”) are all that the fragile self can handle. We can easily imagine the utility of inanimate companions to such a self because a robot or a computational agent can be sculpted to meet one’s needs. In a life of texting and messaging, those on that contact list can be made to appear almost on demand. You can take what you need and move on. And, if not gratified, you can try someone else.”

In real life, an expression of sympathy needs more tact than hitting a “like” button, and an interest in interacting with somebody else needs more consideration than hitting a “poke” button. In real life, permanently following every move of somebody else would lead to charges of stalking. In real life, identifying others on pictures (“tagging”) only happens when they are suspects in criminal cases. Of course, the social media self and the real world self are one and the same person: This year, it made headlines that a man in France was sentenced to three months in prison. Proof of his mental makeup was his “liking” of a photo of an Islamist decapitating a woman on Facebook.

Generation Y is the first generation which grew up with social media. For them, social media has become an inextricable part of their experience of growing up, an experience babyboomers and generation X did not have: all aspects of life – exploration, socialization, dealing with demands, problems and conflicts – have been experienced with a social media self.

It is too early to say what the long-term conseqences will be, but we need to start to inform and educate children and young people about the particular mechanisms of social media and explain how they are constructing social media selves. Social media are fundamentally different from real-life society, and conflating the mechanisms of social media with the demands and challenges of actual society is dangerous.

Chamath Palihapitiya: “I think it’s time for society to discuss how we use the tools offered by social media, what we should expect of them and, most importantly, how we empower younger generations to use them responsibly.”

For a more in-depth analysis of the mechanisms and dynamics of social media, have a look at Analysing the Digital.