The Liquid Self

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

Social media doesn’t need to be what it has come to be. Social media is young, growth comes with pains, and we should keep questioning assumptions and push this new media to new limits. My first post on the Snapchat blog, fittingly, questioned the assumed permanence of social media content. Permanent content is just one option, a choice with far-ranging implications, and it isn’t necessary. Here, I’d like to think about one major consequence of permanence: the social media profile.

The familiar social media profile is that collection of information about you and/or created by you, usually with some other people you’re connected to. Profiles structure identity in more or less constraining ways: real name policies, lists of information about our preferences, detailed histories and current activities all comprise a highly structured set of boxes to squeeze oneself into. Further, as our documented histories grow, the profile grows both in literal size as well as in weight on our minds and behaviors.

The social media profile attempts to convince us that life, in all its ephemeral flow, should also be its simulation; the ephemeral flow of lived experience is to be hacked into a collection of separate, discrete, objects to be shoved into the profile containers. The logic of the profile is that life should be captured, preserved, and put behind glass. It asks us to be collectors of our lives, to create a museum of our self. Moments are chunked off, put in a grid, quantified, and ranked. Permanent social media are based on such profiles, with each being more or less constraining and grid-like. Rethinking permanence means rethinking this kind of social media profile, and it introduces the possibility of a profile not as a collection preserved behind glass but something more living, fluid, and always changing.

Recording identity into categories on social media isn’t all bad and my goal here is not to argue they should disappear, but rather ask if they can be rethought, made into only an option and perhaps not the default? Can social media be created that doesn’t ask us to work ourselves into as many identity-containers given that humans and identity itself are fundamentally fluid and ever changing?

To get at this, let’s think for a moment about that common, and distinctly modern, cultural truism found in children’s stories, self-help books, and everyday advice asking us to be true to ourselves. We are to discover and remain faithful to that real, authentic version of who we are. It can often be good advice, but if you cringed at reading the word “authentic” any bit as much as I did typing it, then you already know that advice can leave little room for anything other than having just one self, regardless of time and place, and as such runs the risk of discouraging change. There’s another school of thought, one that understands identity as never solidified and always in flux. Instead of a single, unchanging self, we might consider a ‘liquid self’, one more verb than noun.

This is abstract, I know, and we won’t settle this philosophical debate on a blog, but the Internet has played an Interesting role in this tension between identity consistency and change. The tale is a familiar one by now: the Web arrived pregnant with the possibility of rethinking who we are by transcending geographic location, physical ability, as well as things like race, gender, age, even species [though, this detachment was always only a fantasy]. The New Yorker cartoon infamously joked that, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. As the story goes, however, the Web went mainstream and commercial. It got normal and somewhere along the way spontaneous anonymity became replaced by consistent identity. Now that everyone knows you’re a dog, it’s difficult to be anything but.

Social media has come to put a tremendous emphasis on our own identity, constantly recorded, always accumulating, stored, and presented back to us in an always-available profile of ourselves. Yes, Identity can be a source of importance, meaning, history, and pleasure, but, today, identity is rapidly piling up, exponentially increasing our own contact with ourselves. The profile photo, the background, what you like, what you do, who your friends are all lead to a never ending and always growing self-surveillance that’s paired with a healthy dose of being watched by others, too. What can be in one breath “self-expression” can be in another “self-policing” when who you are (and thus who you are not) become increasingly part of everyday life.

Self-expression, when bundled into permanent category boxes (digital or otherwise), has the danger of becoming increasingly constraining and self-restricting. Given that pressure to be “real”, authentic, and “true to yourself” as mentioned above, this massive evidence of one’s own self can become limiting and impede identity change. My worry here is that today’s dominant social media is too often premised on the idea (and ideal) of having one, true, unchanging, stable self and as such fails to accommodate playfulness and revision. It has been built around the logic of highly structured boxes and categories, most with quantifiers that numerically rank every facet of our content, and this grid-patterned data-capture machine simply does not comfortably accommodate the reality that humans are fluid, changing, and messy in ways both tragic and wonderful.

While social media is in its adolescence, it has yet to comfortably incorporate adolescence itself. By that I do not mean young people specifically, but instead the type of change and growth that is healthy regardless of age. The default of requiring social media users to permanently record and display themselves damages the invaluable importance of identity play. Put differently: many of us desire social media that is less like the mall and more like a park. Being far less standardized, constrained, and policed, yes, the park is somewhere you might do something a little dumb. Knees get scraped. But mistakes shouldn’t be fully avoided, which is what dominate, permanent social media demand, resulting in constant over-anxiety about what’s being posted. A healthy corrective to existing social media would be to create platforms that provide more room to behave without that behavior always defining who one is and what one can do. The idea of non-patrolled spaces for expression can be frightening, but a lack of such spaces is far more worrisome.*

Dominate social media has thus far taken a stand, a radical one in my opinion, for a version of identity that is highly categorized and omnipresent, one that forces an ideal of a singular, stable identity that we will continuously have to confront. It is a philosophy that doesn’t capture the real messiness and fluidity of the self, fails to celebrate growth, and is particularly bad for those most socially-vulnerable. I wonder how we can build social media that doesn’t always intensify our own relationship to ourselves by way of identity boxes. I think temporary social media will provide new ways of understanding the social media profile, one that isn’t comprised of life hacked into frozen, quantifiable pieces but instead something more fluid, changing, and alive.

  • Note: The idea that a person should have a single, stable, true or authentic identity is most difficult for those who are more socially vulnerable. Having only one, unchanging identity may not seem all that problematic if who you are is not often stigmatized and penalized. However, there needs to be far more recognition that many people justifiably enjoy and need some social-closets where identity can be played with and not put on bright display because the potential consequences are greater. Race, class, sex, sexuality, ability, age, and all the other various intersections of power and vulnerability need to be part of the discussions around how social media is built, used, and improved.