Technology

Social Media and Self-Identity: Examining the Effects of Online Self-Presentation on Individual Identity Construction

An authored article by Dr. Sairaj M. Patki, Assistant Professor (Psychology), Co-chair, Department of Psychological Sciences, School of Liberal Education, FLAME University, Pune

Social media has allowed people to connect with people and express themselves beyond the usual social networks. The intriguing question, however, is how closely our online selves represent our real selves. Is one’s DP or profile on social media a reflection of who they are, or is it a window into their persona, or is it a mask to hide the real ‘me’? Moreover, given the time spent creating, curating, and updating our online self-presentations, is it possible that the reel self could actually affect the real self? While social psychologists have been studying the development of self-identity in usual social setups for several decades, the advent of the internet and social media has led to a new milieu brimming with factors from both real and virtual social environments.

Self-Identity Development in the Real World

In the real world, the development of one’s identity is influenced by interactions and social transactions with primary caregivers, relatives, acquaintances, friends, and other significant figures around us. These social exchanges help us develop our understanding of who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and what our social standing is.

As suggested by Carl Jung, over time, we develop three components of self: the real self (a self-assessment of who we actually are), the ideal self (an image of who we would actually want to be but struggle to reach that desired state), and the despised self (the aspects of ourselves that we dislike). The nature of our interactions with people around us, the treatment we receive from them, and our interpretation of other people’s expectations combined with our own inner desires have helped shape these three aspects of ‘self’ since childhood.

Social media as a platform for self-presentation

The advent of social media suddenly opened up a new world where, on the one hand, the number of individuals in our social network could be several times that of our real-world network, and on the other hand, we obtained the liberty to portray ourselves in ways that cannot be fully verified by members of this new network. Surveys looking into the usage of social media show that while millennials and older generations use social media as a means for connecting with people and deriving entertainment from the content, Gen-Z (the digital natives) use social media for content creation. This creation could be a form of computer-mediated self-expression.

One may, thus, look at social media as an opportunity to either present our real selves, hide our despised selves, or even portray our ideal selves. A digital creator on Instagram or a vlogger on YouTube could use these platforms as a way of expressing themselves in a manner that may not be overtly appreciated by their immediate real social networks, but that may garner them thousands of followers online. A teenager struggling to make sense of their identity may stumble upon an online community of like-minded individuals sharing similar experiences. This new community may soon replace their dependence on the actual community members in the real environment. While some would disdain this as an escapist coping mechanism, others may view it as an effective utilization of technology to build social support and connections that are perceived to be useful.

Reel ‘me’ vs Real ‘me’

While social media may become a platform to voice and present ourselves to a much wider audience, it may soon become a powerful influence in shaping our identity as well. For instance, what we consider ideal itself could be determined by the members of our virtual social environment. Many social media influencers frequently tweak their posts, alter their styles, or create specific content to cater to the needs of their followers. This may lead to the ironic situation of followers influencing the way ‘influencers’ present themselves on social media in order to maintain acceptance among existing followers and win more followers.

This process may also occur in more subtle ways. The number of likes, comments, and patterns of follower statistics act like continuous and dynamic feedback to all members of the social media ecosystem, indirectly determining the perception of our behaviors on social media. The potency of feedback from the social media community can be expected to be higher when compared to actual social transactions and encounters because social media offers a certain amount of anonymity and distance from the receiver of one’s reactions.

Studies show that this anonymity and lack of direct accountability allow members of the social media community to give more frequent and unfiltered reactions. How may this translate into the reel vs. real-self interplay? If a person receives immense support and appreciation (realistic or inflated) in the online space but contradictory negative feedback from real social networks, they may face a dilemma about whether to prefer one over the other. On the other hand, a social media creator being trolled heavily may then find their despised self become dominant and overshadow their real self. This could lead to immense self-doubt, low self-esteem, and consequently, a poorer self-identity.

My ‘Network’ and my ‘Net Worth’
Since childhood, we start asking questions like, “Who am I?”; “What does it mean to be ‘me’?”; “How good am I when compared to others?”; “What do I want to become?”; etc. Sometimes the answers come from within, from our introspection and self-assessment. At other times, the answers come from people around us and events that unfold in our lives. What others say about us and what experiences we have in our lives are not objective, quantifiable factors. It is our perception of these that actually influences the formation of our identities. Thus, while one set of individuals would bash social media for ruining lives and the other set would hail it for giving a meaningful platform to all to express themselves, the main question is this: “Am I using social media, or am I just reacting to social media?” If we, as conscious users of social media, can draw the line between real and reel and make peace with our real selves, social media would only help add more layers to our self-identity and avenues for better introspection. Our real and online networks should become our assets, not forces defining our social ‘net worth’!
This article was shared with Prittle Prattle News as an authored article.
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