I moved into a new house earlier this year, and only recently began to feel at home there.
So last week I hauled some boxes out of the garage and began to unpack them.
Most were books that I have read and collected since I was very young.
As I lifted them onto the shelves, one after another, I began to feel like I recognized myself.
It was an unusual feeling, these books one by each revealing a different aspect of my own identity.
I began to wonder how’d I’d recognized my self before that moment. It seemed not at all.
I quickly realized that, like a lot of people, I’ve spent years cultivating an identity online, mainly in social media environments like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.
And I realized that the identity I had manufactured didn’t necessarily reflect who I really was.
Instead, these old books, many of which I’ve read and re-read countless times, felt like they better defined the real me.
So I went and dug through all the music, movies, and television shows in my collection. Then I began to read some old journals and browse some old sketchbooks.
Slowly I understood that over the past few years I’d been tricking myself.
The information online wasn’t about me at all.
It was about how I wanted to be perceived by others.
After looking around at other people’s online profiles, I’d say that’s a common approach to social media.
These environments aren’t about human socialization at all; they’re about interpersonal marketing.
A recent study learned that women are more attracted to men who dance in a highly active, even flamboyant, manner.
One of the study’s authors theorized that this was an innate mating condition, like how a male peacock’s gaudy feathers attracts females.
A man’s ability to be creative in dance and move his body articulately and with a broad range of motions demonstrates to women that he’s healthy and imaginative. These are qualities that women seek (or so posits this study).
Mating, in this sense, is an intricate job of advertising and sales.
We “buy” our partners based upon qualities that interest and satisfy us.
Social media sites leverage that mentality; they enable us each to build our own version of the peacock’s feathers – our personal brands.
We’ve learned how to do this well, having been raised on a steady diet of advertising nearly from birth. Brand-building is in our blood. It’s a modern instinct.
We “like” select books, movies, music, ideologies, political movements, and social events as we deem them to fit into our manufactured self (regardless of whether we’ve actually consumed or interacted with any of them).
We post witticisms to the walls of friends that are carefully crafted to portray our new character.
We share stories that are written just-so as to present ourselves in a certain light.
We post pictures that present us as “in” with a certain cultural or social group, or as accustomed to certain environments.
The act of publishing any media object – text, video, photo, or website link – is a deliberate intellectual exercise in communicating an aspect of our manufactured identity.
Of course, once we attract “friends”, these new relationships are less friendships than they are social campaigns that demand constant management to maintain the illusion of our online self.
Managing our personal brand in social media circles is almost a full time job. And as with any job, it is stressful.
Brands, more than personal identities, are visions built on competition and invite resentment.
By their nature, our online identities are at odds with one another, and one misstep can quickly have dire consequences.
The detached quality of social media environments too-often encourages negative and even vicious feedback specifically designed to deliver damage.
Yet, while our social media personas are not really us, they in a sense represent more: they are who we’d like to be.
So social media attacks often leave us feeling more damaged and scarred than a good dust-up in the playground would, mano a mano.
In fact, studies have learned that just maintaining our online personal brands can lead to depression and anxiety.
Now that the boxes are unpacked, when I look at my bookcase it’s like looking in a mirror. All of the writers, characters, and stories – the textbooks, even – that have informed my growth and development are there, reminding me of who I am, how I have been formed.
Looking at my Facebook page, Twitter profile, or Flickr feed is sort of like seeing myself as a plastic action figure, anatomically exaggerated and plastic-wrapped.
Of course, I’m the last toy on a lonely shelf since it was never clear exactly to whom I was trying to sell myself in the social media marketplace.
There again, though, a glance at my bookcase brings me solace: Corduroy’s career started in a similar manner.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 17, 2010.