The Great Distortion: Identity and Social Media

An ever-present shift has been slowly occurring on an often neglected life necessity: The forming of an identity.


The techno-era of the 21st century has, purposefully or not, collectively shifted the idea of an identity. A short thought experiment was all it took for me to begin to examine my relationship with time, technology, and social media. It goes something like this:


Seeking Out Socrates

~2000 years ago, if you were stuck in life, you may have sought out Socrates to ask: “What am I to do with this life?”


He might have told you, “Meditate and truly understand yourself.”

And if you felt this was hogwash advice, then it would have been no harm no foul. You would continue out your days, perhaps lost, unhindered by exterior forces.


In the 21st century, the stakes are higher. To not understand oneself is to be pulled along by the puppeteers orchestrating your life. If you do not understand yourself now, rest assured that there are large corporations spending a lot of money to deeply understand you.


Biotechnology, paired with our willingness to provide volumes of personal data, has made this possible. And while perhaps not created with nefarious intent, there is a reason why Amazon can perfectly recommend books for you or why the perfect pair of jeans appears on your Instagram feed.


Although hard to admit, we are not as unique as we believe ourselves to be.



Over the last few decades, technology has permeated our day-to-day life -- for both good and bad. What we are observing is a shift in authority, from humans to algorithms:

  • We trust our GPS to direct us properly

  • We trust the crosswalk images to tell us when it’s safe to walk

  • We trust the financial software to distribute funds on pay day

  • We trust the weather app to provide an accurate forecast

  • We trust Google to provide us with a correct answer to our query

The list goes on.


There is no reason to believe this will not continue to advance and pervade into more personal areas of life -- surely an algorithm with all of your data (and that of others) could tell you who your soulmate is, no? And the scariest part? It will probably be accurate.


At the heart of this lies a truth for myself: when I am lying on my deathbed, I hope to have lived a life that was orchestrated more by me than by that of others.


(I wrote more on this topic here.)

Who Am I, Then?


I was recently struck by a quote that perfectly defines the era of social media:

“I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” - Charles Cooley, 1902


Read that again -- and think, how many people are defining themselves in this way?

The purpose of this article is not to make a case for meditation, though that is a great way to begin to understand oneself. Before delving deep into the mind, though, it’s important to first understand what your core values are. After all, this is what gives us purpose. At surface level, this seems easy -- simply think of the values that matter most in your life. Some examples may include:

  • Family

  • Work

  • Relationships & Friendships

  • Volunteering

Now comes the fun, introspective (often painful) part: reconciling your values with how you are actually spending your time. For instance, you may say that family is a core value, but if you spend all your time playing video games, there is a strong chance you are lying to yourself. Aligning your values with how you are spending time requires change. But if your core values reflect the persona of your desired future self, you must audit your time and begin allocating it towards the things that give you meaning. If you are finding that you spend a lot of time on something that is not reflected in your core values, then it may be time to reconsider your intentions.


And once you have aligned how you are spending your time with your values, you can begin to improve upon those structures.



The Collective Twist


The strangest part of the postmodern era is the collective distortion that has taken place on what it means to be human. We have always relied on art for expression, but never has the tidal wave been so strong. Here’s an example: In romantic movies (or movies in general), producers give purpose to everything. Something as simple as silence -- literally the act of not speaking -- typically aims to invoke one of two emotions:

1. Tension: the couple in the movie is unhappy with one another

Or

2. Love: the couple is so enamored with one another that words could not express what they are feeling


Whereas in the real world, maybe someone is tired. Or content. Or simply has nothing to say. The problem is that many are walking around believing in the idealism of the movie industry. This collective twist can be applied to many facets of life -- identity, for me, being the scariest. People are being told what it means to be successful through the lens of materialism and filters, and then attempting to align their thoughts and actions with this perceived utopia. It appears to me that one of the side effects of late stage capitalism is projective individualism, in which we see people use consumerism to project the kind of person they want to be.


Although controversial, I'm not convinced that consumer capitalism is not at work; this being the theoretical economic and social political condition in which consumers are manipulated in a deliberate and coordinated way on a large scale through mass-marketing techniques.



My Current Stance


As of this writing (6/27/21), I’ve been off all social media for almost two years, with the exception of LinkedIn. Anecdotally, it feels great -- in my experience, social media can be (not always) a cesspool of negativity. I’ll admit, being off Instagram has been a blow to the ego. Do my travels even matter if I’m not forcing my epic pictures down others throats?


Ultimately, I’m still attempting to hone in on my identity and have learned a lot about myself. I could see myself redownloading the apps in the future, but for now will continue to form my identity unhindered by these forces.


 

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