words by @rubybarnsley
Ruby Barnsley explores how the Internet in changing our identities, and how we are changing our identities for the Internet
“Don’t you think its weird, how computers don’t have a smell?” My friend has her nose pressed against my laptop and is inhaling energetically. After I’ve finished laughing, I realize that in a weird way, she may be right. Her comment made me think about the fact that nowadays, we spend a lot of time on the Internet, in worlds that only use our sense of sight and sound. This makes it seem like we are invisible, online, but we’re not. Our digital IDs hold more power and complexity than we assume.
At just 25 years old, the public web has done so much for the world that if it were a person I’d be slightly envious- why haven’t I got my life together, when the Internet has already changed the way we shop, socialize and create careers? If there’s one thing the web has changed dramatically, however, it’s the media. Of course, mass media still influences public opinion, but the Internet’s introduction of social media has completely changed the game. With social media, individuals no longer simply consume media, but also create it. But how does being both the creator and star of our own show affect us?
Some people say that social media is bad because it encourages narcissism. I think social media is bad because it doesn’t encourage it enough. Kidding, but I do think we have always been egotistical, it’s just that now we can share that with the world. Of course, not everyone’s account is self-focused to the point of being Kimspirational, but I believe that social media has made us all more self-aware.
With Instagram’s square-shaped personality filter on hand, we can become anyone online. The things we don’t like about ourselves can fade to the background, and our more desirable traits- our lifestyle, money, face, whatever- becomes all that people see. On the Internet, personalities are liquid. We publish on social media not only with the knowledge that we will be judged, but with the desire to receive affirmation for who we are. If we really wanted to simply document our lives, we would write it down in, what I believe is called, a diary.
So, if everyone is essentially inventing a personality for the online world, how do we know what’s authentic, and what’s fake? Although this question of whether social media is fake or not is a popular one, I don’t think it’s important. Because I’m certainly not going to go looking for the spice of life on somewhere like Snapchat. Plus, without the ability to filter ourselves, to be 'fake', social media would not be the powerful tool of communication that it is today. Being able to publish a highly considered, interactive message to our followers allows us a freedom of speech that we’ve never had before. It’s also allowed us to learn about ourselves as individuals, and what we value as a society.
I’ve always been fascinated by the success of social media as a concept. What keeps us coming back, when we’re conscious of it’s phony-ness, its ability to make us envious of others? A few years ago, I did an experiment. On Instagram, I created three different personas: Ondine Wilde The Observer of Suburbia, Tiffany Merla The Wealthy Socialite and Zenia Barbaro The Extravagant Yet Impulsive Fashion Designer. I took the notion of ‘fakeness’ on social media to the extreme and created completely fictional profiles. I wanted to see how people engaged with these personas, and why.
In the end, each profile received remarkably different reactions from people. Ondine, who posted close-up shots of magpies, streetlights and train tracks with no captions, received, unsurprisingly, only two followers. Tiffany got a lot of attention for her pouty selfies and (fake, gasp) photos of her exotic holiday getaways, but very little comments or real interest in her account. Zenia, however, had not only a reasonable following, but people commenting on her profile. She had a visually appealing Instagram, but the real engagement came when I started posting emotionally charged things. Even though she wasn’t a real person, people related to her in what I imagine to be a similar way to how they would a book or movie character. To me, the response I received indicated what people really want from social media. A story. I guess we all have an innate hunger to follow each other and share our lives, to keep up to date, to stay relevant. And social media is today’s chosen method of story sustenance.
The Internet, itself, is an interesting story, and one that we are now a part of forever. I don’t know where it’s going from here, but I’m sure it will be both terrifying and exciting. But for now, thank god, real life is still real life. Beyond your phone or computer, flowers are singing and animals are mating. Clouds are flailing around in the sky. It sounds so nice- I may even go outside tomorrow.