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The Self in Selfie: Identity in the Age of Social Media

Maintaining a social media presence can be entertaining yet stressful. With comments and ‘likes’ quantifying influence and success on social media, aspiring to gain affirmation is built into the platforms. As sites like Facebook and LinkedIn become increasingly integrated in our social and professional lives, differences between our “real” and online identities can shape not only how others perceive us but our self-perceptions, creating pressure to be more like the often idealized digital versions of ourselves and our peers.

Social media identities are complicated by the diverse uses for these platforms, the editing done by users and hired professionals, and the enmeshing of social with mainstream media. A New York Times article from 2015 discusses the trend of celebrities announcing their exit from social media only to return sometime later. A popular young Instagram star found herself in the spotlight when she surprised her 800,000+ followers by denouncing social media and re-captioning her past photos to point out the false image and artificiality of the media presented in them. Her decision went viral, with parody videos popping up online and commenters accusing her of criticizing social media as a means of self-promotion. Given its increasing pervasiveness in our lives, even a rejection of social media can seem to make a statement.

Having an online presence may impact how the self is understood, even more for younger users who grow up with and are forging their identities while interacting with peers on sites like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Those sites all have the highest percentage of users under the age of 30.

NPR’s This American Life recently explored our relationship with social media in conversation with three high school students active on Instagram.[1] At the opposite side of the spectrum from bullying, the bulk of the comments centered on positive and frequent affirmations on appearance. Host Ira Glass delved into the “intricate language” in the comments and the “unspoken rules” contributing to a code of meaning and social mapping of closeness. Emphasizing the importance of rapid response and reciprocation as a show of support, Glass asks his guests if the dissecting and decoding of minutiae becomes like a job. The young women agreed, comparing themselves to a brand to be defined and promoted. "Relevant is a big term right now," noted one of the girls. Despite the admission of superficiality, both host and guests agree that the affirmation social media affords can feel good. "This is really not so different from anybody's life on social media,” comments Glass. “When I tweet something, and some friend favorites it, and another friend retweets it with a funny comment, that is totally them saying to me 'you're so pretty,' just in a more adult kind of way. And it feels nice!"

We’d love to hear your thoughts on social media and your experiences with online social identity in the comments section below!

[1] “Act One” of the three-part episode contains Ira Glass in conversation with three young Instagram users. The following two acts contain adult language that can be avoided by clicking the ‘bleeped version’ link on the NPR website.

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