I Facebook, therefore I am

Communication is an essential part of being human. We exchange words and emotions. We pray, dance, write, debate, tweet, blog, and upload information on Facebook to share a mood, a feeling or a thought, revealing a great deal about who we are, where we come from, what and how we think.

Facebook is undoubtedly a phenomenon that is revolutionising the way we communicate and construct our identity. Quoting James Pennebaker, a social psychologist, “The smallest, most commonly used, most forgettable words serve as windows into our thoughts, emotions and behaviours.”

On Facebook, we are constantly writing ourselves into being, not simply through our status updates, but more widely via the photos we share. To a great extent, Facebook profiles are becoming an extension of who we are.

In 2012, I find myself conforming to the herd of Facebook users, needing to validate their existence through the social networking website. Who I am, or rather, who I want to be seen as, are meticulously and constantly moulded through my Facebook profile.

The Facebook world encourages users to experiment with different identity elements, recounting every step of their daily lives as if it’s an exhibition for others’ perusal. Users list their hobbies, favourite bands or films, the books they read, music they listen to, their political and religious views, current mood, thoughts or emotions, pictures of the food they eat, places they check into, where they travel to and the distances they run.

Nonetheless, we tend to be selective about how and what personal information we share online depending on how this is likely to be judged by others. Sociologist Ervin Goffman asserts that in everyday life, we strive to present ourselves positively, and Facebook simply enhances this everyday process.

In fact, “the way you can understand all of the social media is as the creation of a new kind of public space,” explains social media researcher danah boyd.

“This is not just life in a panopticon,” writes blogger Daniel Coffeen, “as we are not only always being watched. We are always being commanded to perform – and then are judged for that performance.”

Thanks to Facebook, we are producers and broadcasters ofcontent, seen and judged by an audience of an unknown extension.

For this reason, Facebook may be perceived as a catalogue of desired identities, implying that users are investing more time editing their photos, and sharing their lives online, rather than reflecting on who they are at a deeper level, because how others react to their updates via ‘likes’or comments continually reinforces this behaviour. This could lead us to question whether Facebook is provoking users to value superficial qualities.

Carl Jung referred to the metaphorical mask we wear in public as our ‘persona’ – our Facebook is an accurate projection of this aspect of our personality. Our profile pictures may act as a mask that makes us feel less self-conscious, making it easier for us to exhibit ourselves in such a way that leaves a more desirable impression on others.

Users are constructing themselves as this projected identity, but they may not always be aware of what they are building. It may be the case that users automatically assimilate desirable identities as an act of conformity, which might be on a sub-conscious level. This new identity may also be as a means of protecting users from exposing their true identities to an invisible audience. We must bear in mind that in the offline world, the physical body plays a crucial role in communicating important identity information through our choice of dress, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and posture that are absent during online interactions.

The identities we form on Facebook are based on what we write about ourselves, what our friends post on our profile and the photos we upload or are tagged in. These are all exterior qualities that may have a decent role in reflecting concrete tastes and interests, but there will always be a gap when it comes to knowing the truth about who a person is. If we had to compare our impression of a person to a city, on Facebook, we are building the rough sketches of the initial design of a person’s identity. But to actually have the complete blueprints of the person, we would have to meet them in real life. Essentially, Facebook tells us a lot about a person, but not who the person is due to lesser importance given to physical appearance and proximity. People are invited to see who you want them to see, not who you really are.

On the other hand, Facebook makes it easier for users to express elements of their identity which are difficult to articulate offline – this is because Facebook provides more time for contemplation before actually acting, as would happen in the real world.

The computer screen acts as a barrier that lowers the inhibitions of interacting with others face to face, making us feel less conditioned by what others might think. Facebook allows us to explore facets of our identity which we may be shy of expressing offline.

Nevertheless, even though we don’t communicate in the same way as we did in the 1950s, we still communicate. We are just undergoing a rapid transition and instead of being afraid of Facebook and social media, or trying to rebel against it, we need to learn about being intelligent and responsible about honesty and transparency.

Due to the recent development of this phenomenon, research in this field is still relatively new – however, understanding how Facebook is affecting identity formation is important as it will inevitably affect the shaping of our future societies.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times of Malta on May 27, 2012. Featured photo thanks to Mike Stimpson. Check out more of his work via Flickr.

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