Think about the social media platforms that you use on a regular basis. What kind of image, if any, do you try to portray online? Do you create separate personas for different platforms? How representative would you say your online profiles are of you as a whole?
The way that we present ourselves online is much more regulated than it used to be. In the days of Justin Hall’s blogging prime, there weren’t any corporate templates that we could use to express ourselves. In those days, if you wanted your voice heard on the web, you had to build your blog from the ground up with any garish and crude HTML commands you could come up with. It wasn’t pretty, but it was your own, and it was freeform. Today, we can skip the tedious design process and use sites like Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Squarespace, and thousands of others. However, the way that these sites are designed, and the ways in which we perceive these sites should be used, dictate a lot of our self-expression and online identity.
Facebook is the place where you are expected to be “yourself”. Facebook policy mandates that you must use your real-life name (and puts limits on changes to your name), and Mark Zuckerberg claims that users can only have one “true identity”; multiple identities suggests a lack of authenticity in a user, and Facebook aims to limit that kind of behavior on the way that it’s structured. Thus, Facebook users have learned over time to curate material that looks good specifically for the Facebook timeline, Facebook photo albums, Facebook group affiliations, and so on and so forth. Ultimately, this gives the impression that people are pressured to curate an ideal representation of their real life online, and they must do so through the limited mediums of statuses and pictures. My personal choice is not to reveal much through text, but to portray my life experiences through photos. People tend to be much more interested in photos than reading blocks of text, and they tend to be even more interested in looking at photos of their friends, so why not curate my life to satisfy the desires of other Facebook users I’m friends with?
As you explore more options on the Internet, you can find more freeform options. Tumblr is a happy medium between restrictive Facebook and freeform HTML/C++ coding (although leaning towards Facebook’s structure), providing a basic framework for users to curate images, links, and articles that they are interested in, but allowing more advanced users to play with the design, look, and feel of their personal blogs to better represent their online image. Sites like Squarespace and WordPress also serve this purpose, but without the vibrant news feed that Tumblr has to let users feed on each other for new and interesting content. It is here where I freeze up. People spend an unusual amount of time crafting the exact portrayal of their content and their online personality; shouldn’t I do the same? Suddenly, thoughts and fears about exactly how I want the Internet world to see me flood my head, and instead of creating, I passively consume instead. It’s the same with Pinterest, Ravelry, Instagram, Flickr, and honestly any other social media site that I use to some degree of regularity: the issue of image portrayal freezes me in place, and I hesitate to act. This is not meant to be a sob story on how I’m incapable of blogging online, but rather a small, personal statement on how our society views the value of online image.
As a result, I hesitate to say that anything that currently represents me on the Internet even represents some sizable portion of who I am. But the formatting and restrictive nature of some of the most popular social media sites can be both liberating and paralyzing to users in how they choose to express themselves online. At best, we can represent accurately curated “identi-frags” of who we are through familiar templates. But who is to say that those templates are the one and only way of representing ourselves? It’s important not to lose sight of the myriad of ways in which life can happen to us and how we can control the direction of our lives, and that many times our experiences can not be confined to a text box or uploading a photo.