Social media has given us the gift/curse of being able to express our fractal selves in a variety of ways. In society we're (x); at home we're (y), but on social media we can be whoever we want to be. The person in our profiles can be a refined caricature of ourselves or a new creation that reflects our deepest desires. Our social media personas, in many respects, have become as real as our flesh and bones. Jean Baudrillard wrote about this long before the rise of social media in his book Simulacra and Simulation. He theorized, in my opinion correctly, that society had moved to a place where the symbols of reality not only displaced reality but became more real than reality. Baudrillard didn't live long enough to see how much time some of us would spend on our digital footprint compared to cultivating an "authentic self".
I'm old enough to remember the Glamour Shots craze. Glamour Shots and a slew of smaller knockoff companies made a lot of money transforming ordinary people into the version of themselves they always wanted to be: even if those transformations were temporary. Glossy 3x5's and 4x6's served as "facsimiles" of who they could be on their best day. It took a makeup artist, a hair stylist, and airbrush photography to do what a smartphone photo editing app is capable of doing in a few seconds. This technological reality combined with a cyber-world that only loosely resembles reality has changed us in a short period of time.
Creating a new identity is easy. The "social" aspect of social media takes place in a world where authenticity and inauthenticity aren't easily distinguishable. The great Canadian philosopher and social theorist Justin Bieber once wrote, "Facebook is where you lie to your friends. Twitter is where your honest with complete strangers." I don't know if he really said this, but it jibes with some of the experiences I've had dealing with people who have markedly different social media accounts. The popularity of Facebook has caused some to seek their escape on lesser used social media platforms or the comments sections of various websites. A majority of the trolling I've experienced originated from a nom de guerre disconnected from a concrete person. Trolling is prank calling on meth for this digital era. The meekest among us are capable of unleashing vicious attacks from the safety of an identity free from the real world consequences of their actions. In comic books the good guys have alter egos, but on social media the alter egos belong almost exclusively to the villains.
Full disclosure: I haven't transcended the society we live in, and I'm not attempting to define this cultural shift- I'm absolutely certain I don't fully understand what I'm noticing. If you look at my digital footprint you'll get the symbolic representation that I share with the world: a perfectly manicured and air brushed version of myself that lacks the imperfections that are a constitutive part of who I am. Social media has made the task of cultivating an authentic self more difficult than it was just 10 years ago. Before social media self creation was a process that involved defining, through self expression, who you are over and against societal classification systems based on any combination of cultural, racial, sexual, religious, or socioeconomic factors. We've always had the choice of not cultivating a self, but now we can easily upload a reproducible identity that has the same intrinsic value, or (an even scarier proposition) more instrumental value than we have in the material world. I'm curious how this period will be understood by historians, sociologist, philosophers, and psychologists 100 years from now.