Updated: Oct 1
Social Not Social Media
Owning Yourself in a Socially Mediated Age
Photo by: Julie Stark
I read such a well written, profound article by Hara Marano and wanted to share it and my thoughts.
The very act of documenting one’s life digitally constrains development of an authentic identity.
"It happened so young,” a client said about her granddaughter Janie, 19, a college sophomore. “The last memories I have of thinking about myself first, rather than how I came off to other people, were in the fourth or fifth grade. I have no way of knowing how much I lost. In what ways did I not develop the cool parts of my persona? Having grown up with social media, my generation will never have the security of knowing whether they developed as they otherwise would have.”
Psychologist Sherry Turkle, chronicler of the human-technology relationship, warned us. We expect digital technology to deliver us, and it can’t. The huge irony of social media, Turkle mentioned in her 2012 book, Alone Together, is that it often alienates us from others. We’re only now getting the full measure of how it can also put us at odds with ourselves.
In a culture where certainty about what is real and what is not has been shattered on many fronts, social media is making its own contribution to distortion. For Helena and the generation whose social awakening coincided with the rise of social media, self-discovery and carving an individual identity—major tasks of adolescence and early adulthood—have become extraordinarily challenging.
Learning by social comparison is a time-tested instrument of human growth, and it’s normally pervasive in adolescence. But given the sea of social performance that social media has become, it is now more a weapon of mass destruction.
Viewers’ brains assume that a person’s postings are reflections of their real life—even when they know at some level that they’re seeing a carefully cultivated presentation of self. A generation already psychologically fragile, thanks to contemporary styles of over-parenting, is left reeling in self-doubt. Further, it has been robbed of what every cohort before it was allowed to do—just be themselves. They are struggling to figure out what the heck that is.
Disrupted by Documentation
“Invent the ship and you invent the shipwreck,” declared cultural theorist Paul Virilio. Given the acceleration of reality it encodes and abets, each iteration of technology contains a unique form of disaster. It’s not just unavoidable social comparison that wounds those on social media. It’s the permanence of the postings. It keeps them stuck, unable to grow into their full selves, and defending what would otherwise be an outdated identity. In short, the very conditions of social media erode authenticity.
As if the processes of self-discovery and identity development aren’t complicated enough under ordinary circumstances, says New York psychologist Leora Trub, “the ubiquitous, public, and indelible nature of social media” impedes people from finding and prioritizing “private and low-stakes spaces for exploring identity.” Before social media, young people could experiment with identity to discover what fit, and what they said and did left little trace. They didn’t have to make a commitment to any particular personal experiment. There was no pressure to be accountable for every expression of identity—no pressure to stay “on brand.”
Growing up today, however, Trub observes, “everything is documented. What isn’t documented isn’t meaningful or real.” But the documentation is not only public and permanent, it’s ever-searchable and inviting of evaluation by others. Even while someone may be sleeping, a vast network of others can be judging the authenticity of their public display. The precise term is vanity metrics. “It isn’t just How many likes did I get? but How many other people are going to see how many likes I got?” says Trub, an associate professor of psychology at Pace University who studies media behavior.
“Unlike teenagers in the 80s and 90s depicted in cheesy TV shows and movies,” says Helena, “the vast majority of my generation couldn’t afford to have horrendous phases, atrocious looks, because every phase we had was permanently documented. We had this production of ourselves, visible to all, that we had to protect. Because most people want to be accepted, we lacked the experimental phase for testing personalities. We just moved forward more homogeneously without having our own unique experiences.”
When you’re developing a sense of self in that context, you’re not spending much time thinking about what’s important to you—you’re thinking about what other people value. It’s a setup for feelings of insecurity or failure or rejection—whatever a person’s psychic fault line. Being on social media never radically changed her mood, reports Helena. “It deflates you bit by bit. It’s not that I got jealous of anyone, but I began to loathe myself even for caring about it all.”
“It’s an illusion that you can create social media that will really be about authenticity,” Trub notes. Managing a public self is disorienting. But the metrics of recognition and apparent validation keep people trapped at it.
Cultivating a Substantive Self
It is possible to navigate identity development in 2023 and beyond, but it requires time away from social media. It takes at least some solitude. To know how to be yourself, you need time to be with yourself, says Trub, who has created a curriculum for kids and parents that goes way beyond internet safety to tackle the challenges to personal development.
Alone time allows you to think about what matters to you. It provides a zone that is free of judgment. It breeds self-awareness and personal growth.
Trub also insists that developing and maintaining real, embodied relationships that operate in real time is essential for identity development. They’re nurturing. They provide true social support and validation and allow room for experimentation free of the judgment juggernaut. The direct experience builds a sense of accomplishment for a self to stand on. And relationships enable understanding of one’s own emotional patterns and reactivity.
Helena now restricts her own exposure to social me and wanted to share parts that resonated, in addition to my own thoughts. , and asked a roommate to create the passcode, so she has no way of getting sucked in after catching up with friends. “I’m just not spending mindless moments looking at other people. I don’t have to fight a battle with myself that was created by others for me—before my generation and I were developmentally ready.”