Identity in the Internet Age

How the pixels on our screens define us

Published January 2nd, 2021

Authenticity is one of the core aspects of fulfillment. At the center of authenticity is the idea that your actions, relationships, and values align with your identity — who you really are. But, "Be yourself" has become trite canon placed on cheesy home decor and plastered on mugs. What does it really mean?

I became curious about this subject when reading about Buddhist philosophy, where it is advised to not hold any identity trait too closely to you, as this causes suffering (1). The suffering comes from needing to then protect and defend those traits, to continually ensure that your sense of self isn't harmed. The philosophy advises to just be the bundle of thoughts that we are, relinquishing any sort of "label" by which to call all of the memories and experiences that we hold.

The structure and incentives of the internet go against this. All major social media apps identify accounts by a handle, a name, an image, a header image (sometimes), and a short 150-or-so character bio. This is what people see when they find you; you are nothing but a picture and a few words, from which people can decide whether or not they'd like to see more of you.

They hold a lot of weight in how others perceive you. Are you social media shy with no pictures of yourself? Do you have causes listed in your bio? Are you self-promoting your work? Are you in a relationship? These can all be answered from a 150 x 800 pixel area on your screen. Many also have to optimize this area for maximum clickability. You might be using your account to build an audience or sell a product. Your identity is your brand, you are the product.

I think this tends to distract us from actually understanding who we are. People are not as simple as these account snapshots; most people do not want to put forth their true identity on the internet in the first place. Instead of being encouraged to spend time meeting new people, trying new hobbies, or creating new things, activities that do develop deeper senses of identity and connection, we are encouraged to watch our numbers go up by curating our profile. People also tend to identify themselves with social media "subcultures", whether that be a certain fashion aesthetic or the kinds of subreddits they follow, which while may be true to who they are, makes it easy to settle with a packaged "aesthetic" that once again feeds the idea of identity as a "profile" and not as a complex set of experiences.

Since social media has a large influence on how we craft identity, and since it is the primary platform for consumerism, we are now ruled by things. We identify ourselves outside of work with our consumerist hobbies, like buying special coffee, thrifting clothes, or traveling to exotic locations. None of these activities are inherently bad, but it is hard to form a firm sense of our role in the world just as a consumer. Humans feel best when we can feel our contributions to others, and that requires some sort of production, something that connects our existence with that of others.

I think encouraging more creation, especially creation and service offline, is going to be especially important moving forward. People are craving the real. They are craving experiences and things they can feel, and products are being built to support that (see Airbnb experiences and Etsy). I'm optimistic that with the correct digital infrastructure we can collectively build back our unique senses of selves.



1. Buddhist philosophy actually goes a level deeper, saying that there is no real sense of "self". This article is a good intro of this topic.