Virtual communities are helping us to define and enhance our inner hidden characteristics, in short social network are impacting and defining existence.
Everybody has a perceived idea of how they actually appear (to everyone else) and everyone has a perceivable idea of how they would like to appear, the latter is evolutionary the former is the benchmark. Where can we go from here?
In the real world people are bound by restrictions; monetary (I cannot afford to buy that dress), physical (I am too short wear that dress), social (I am a man I cannot wear a dress) the list goes on, and this is just one example. However our online realities offer a world of modification and self-exploration. Not only that but by creating multiple online identities one can figure out which personality works best for them. I don’t mean to sound sociopathic, but for people who feel a bit lost and with a sense of identity crisis this could be a tool to better or worsen the situation the situation…read on.
Uploading a photo onto an online forum such as a social networking website is a big deal. This is not only the first thing people normally see, but it is static and 2 dimensional, it is the gateway to your profile, the decision on encounter or rejection is instant and you being powerless to the viewers whim have no way to correct it if it goes wrong. It (your photo) has to be able to satisfy personal criteria, for example “I want people to think I’m sexy/scary/funny/quirky/sad/lonely/deep/caring” etc. the list goes on… In real life you can make a fool of yourself on first impression, but at least you can try and rectify the situation, for example “I seem to have spilt your drink, allow me to buy you another” etc.
However the plot thickens…It is my theory that with extended use and life in the realm of the online social communities seeing yourself in this context has an impact on the worldly physical “you”.
When your image is presented amongst a social networking realm such as facebook it allows and arguably forces the person to asses themselves not just by means of regular visual self inspection (example looking at reflection in a mirror) but also a comparative inspection of surrounding people, an exercise which would otherwise be difficult in an everyday situation (example being at the concert of a favourite band)…The closest comparative example is looking at a high school photo where you can compare yourself to others. However it’s still different (to online forums) because in this example you have pre-established bond (or lack of one) with the peers in question. In online forums it is not uncommon you will encounter common ground with new people strictly based on your online profile, photo and whatever “applications” you choose to install on your virtual profile. These things make up your virtual identity. You might find yourself asking questions about your own identity whilst viewing other peoples profiles, questions such as “am I AS scary/sexy/funny/interesting looking as this person” OR “do I want to look more/less/as sexy/funny/scary/interesting as this person”.
In regards to popularity there exist clear indicators as to what works and usually it is measured by profile views or number of friends (perhaps other means; number of messages in your inbox etc.). For example on Myspace Tila Tequila has XXXXXX number of friends, an impressionable female might think “wow, you know if I want to be as popular as Tequila I too should look similar, have similar interests, take and show similar photos on my profile…” This is the same kind of phenomenon as young impressionable people emulating their idols who they aspire to be, stealing traits, speech, ‘memes’ for lack of better word. However acting a certain way (mimicry) is not the same as filling out forms and online identities with falsified information accumulated from other personalities, seeing something on paper, or more accurately on screen will surely permeate to ones everyday personality if not completely take it over.
This is dangerous to the individual for a number of reasons.
Firstly emulation of idols or peers is not uncommon in establishing ones personality especially at younger ages, however at some point a character is concisely formed at which point one can shed emulations of previous memes and traits acquired from aforementioned idols or peers, one can stand back and stand proud on their own personality (however assembled from others). However there is something more permanent about an “online profile”…unless you delete or update it, it remains there static for as long as it stays online, if you still use the said profile how does that reflect on your mindset? Is it akin to living with the same posters you had on your walls as a teenager when you are coming of middle age? Perhaps you don’t change, and it all remains accurate, an affirmation of self. The point I’m trying to make is what might have been a passing phase in a life without social networking may last longer or for the rest of your life because as I said before I think your online profile permeates and reinforces your real worldly “you”. It gives you some grounding. In a modern world where people are offered so much choice the question “Really, who am I?” is not uncommon, neither is a complete identity crisis, however the online forum may offer some sort of stability and reinforcement to ones perceived or in fact, actual identity.
That reinforcement of self is made stronger where one can align oneself with others who are of similar dispositions. The phenomenon “Online Groups” which transcend geographical location, age boundaries (example a 80 year old pedophile is unlikely to otherwise have a lengthy chat with a 12 year old boy in real life about how much they like the same band), social-cultural grouping (example upper class / lower class), the list goes on… Belonging to an online group based on nothing more than interest or in some cases visual style etc. allow a stronger reinforcement of your worldly identity. By belonging and affiliating with like-minded individuals online it gives affirmation to personal conviction. Example Hans lives in a small town, there is no one else here who likes to dress in gothic style and listen to metal music (like Hans does), however Hans has friends online, they share the same interests, that doesn’t make him feel so isolated/alone/strange/weird/different to the people of his village.
Going back to creation of online characters the second drawback is it could lead to severe personality crisis especially in situations like “second life” where a person can fully design their virtual body in 3D and act their life online by interacting with others, and doing all the things that we can do in real life (shopping, eating, sex, games, etc.) however they do it in their designed bodies…Perhaps visions of how they would rather look like (example “I don’t have tattoos or a beard in real life, my job will not permit it, but my online character does”) in short it offers a freedom not bound by the real world which can lead to a more appealing lifestyle?! What if Hans from the above example becomes total social outcast from his village of only 500 people would this be considered positive evolution to Han’s well being or would it be considered a personality crisis?
I’d like to argue this is a good thing, through online play, trial and error creating these weird and wonderful online representations of ourselves they can help us to further evolve and understand our true personalities, or true desires, wants and needs, however esoteric they may be. Away from mass media brainwashing Paris Hilton and Big Brother type scenarios (“This is society! This is how you should act!”). It allows us to create D.I.Y. cultures and new forms of expression. We can set up groups and seek out people by use of “search functions” on Google or in social networking sites. With so many people in the world there must be people out there who share interests no matter how esoteric they may seem! A good example is dating website match.com which offers matches based on extensive profiling and questionnaires…however I’m sure even on match.com they do not have tick boxes for Emetophile’s who like to listen to Gary Glitter records whilst eating blueberry cheesecake, I mean no disrespect to either group, however just for illustration purposes I remember a friend telling me about a group he found on Myspace that was for “Emo cross-dressers-who pose by white transit vans” so it does get very esoteric indeed. The world of choice just got a whole new dimension!
The downside is websites like Myspace, Facebook and others are functioning as mass marketing tools for the big companies finding out latest trends and statistics at the click of a button, they didn’t even have to ask for people to fill out a questionnaire (how primal!) complex searches based on income, sex, age etc can be performed easily. In fact any combination of complex criteria can be cross references and analyzed. No wonder Rupert Murdoch wanted a piece of the FaceSpace pie!
However a step further more than marketing…what if these sites were to function as “pre-marketing tools”, creating future markets without the need to invest plentiful resources (money, time, people) without definite monetary return? Think about how much time and money goes into creating a girl/boy band, marketing it, recruiting song writers etc. there’s no guaranteed return and no guarantee it will sell (it’s only an assumption based on previous data collection)…however for example record companies seeing established trends on social forums can produce a product (band/singer/act etc.) on par with existing internet D.I.Y. superstars with a whole world of better resource behind the project (managers, contacts, MONEY!, etc.). In this instance Tila Tequila is a good example, she was famous online and in turn was offered a show on MTV it was a no-brainer, the fan-base was there already. However I digress…
I think I’ve gone through a lot of different topics already…So I’d like to summarize
- It is the visual feedback i.e. photo, video and mental DNA display on networking sites (display of tastes, likes, dislikes etc…) that allows us to weed what we like and dislike about ourselves by means of edit in the goal of creating an ideal personality. Sometimes through the use of 3D avatars such as ones found in ‘Second Life’ it might make us completely re-think not only our personality but also re-style our physical appearance (eg. Body modification)
- Social networking websites allow us to distance ourselves from the plausible realms of reality and allows us to extend our personalities, physical and mental to places where we can edit our visual appearances and mental output. What may be nonsensical presentation of thought in real life can be wholly legible in online forums, creating new methods of speech and interaction (Poke much?) this is as much a form of social-cultural revolution as it is creation.
- As we are able to achieve this distance of self whilst staring plainly into our own being (online) we can almost reference the sensation of looking at a character in a movie or a cartoon, this creates a sort of feedback loop where one can alter their look/personality…upload it, see how it performs, tweak it to perfection (re-upload, re-design), then ultimately assume the altered outcome in the physical worldly “you”
- Pre-established (non-informed) definitions and perceptions of social formats (punk, goth, blonde, party girl etc.) can be better analyzed, the upside – a better and more meaningful understanding of what the groups represent (rather than basing ill informed judgment usual based on unfair mainstream media portrayal, or a previous bad worldly encounter with a certain group)
- The downside to social networking is it allows the big companies to get a better understanding of what we want and need and which groups of people are deemed economically viable to market to, ultimately to support. This means we can be targeted and sold to more efficiently, in an age where already most of the population is buying the lies of mainstream media hook, line and sinker this is a distressing thought. My personal advice would be to lie wherever possible when it comes to blatant statistic grabbers (eg. D.O.B. country of residence, address) these things can always be communicated personally later if needs be. However maybe I’m being cynical, maybe with this kind of information governments will adapt to better serve our needs not to exploit them?!
- Establishing online communities strengthens and re-enforces true personal identity and allows pursuit of real passion that which transcends real worldly restraints, the downside is realizing you cannot afford or perhaps live to far away from where you need to be in order to fully immerse yourself in the given activity in the real world.