Exploring identity formation in the Land of Selfies

Screenshot of Instagram

A screenshot of my Instagram profile

Hi, everyone… (As you should expect at this point), it’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts here. I’ve spent the past few months getting acclimated to a semi-crazy schedule working two jobs (both of which I love) in Manhattan. Inspired by a recent conversation with a colleague, I have decided to give myself a writing prompt each week. If I come up with something (even remotely) publishable, I will post it here; if not, I will table the topic and consider revisiting it later…

Lately I’ve been thinking about why I love Instagram (beyond the vain indulgence of capturing that rare, stellar selfie). While recently chatting with a friend at work, I explained that I enjoy Instagram more than most social media because on Instagram people less frequently post awful statements that make me want to unfriend/unfollow them (I’m looking at you, Trump supporters). I don’t consider myself a super skilled photographer, but I love that Instagram allows me to share snapshots of my life with friends and followers, especially through its connection to platforms like Twitter and Facebook. On Instagram, I follow friends, family, foodies, fitness experts, fashion designers, public figures, politicians, artists, musicians, and news outlets. Beyond my love for an app that could be called the Land of Selfies, I am intrigued by how social media both shapes and reflects identity, as well as its impact on how we socialize.

Our social media selves are intentional; they are simultaneously reflections of how we see ourselves and who we want to be. I have frequently encountered arguments that this is a fundamental flaw of social media, but I think that it is actually one of its beauties. Whether our social media profiles accurately capture our personalities is based on our individual capacities for reflection, but ultimately, I think it’s a safe bet that most of us idealize ourselves online at least occasionally. We may present idealized or censored versions of ourselves (even unintentionally), but in doing so we are setting goals, and in an accountable way. We are declaring to friends and family: this is who I am.

The space between who we are in person and online—the space between who we are and who we want to be—offers room for personal growth, if we can force ourselves to see and interact with that space.

Social media allows us to explore our identities in a public sphere, but also from a certain comfort zone—with our computer screens serving as buffers. I want to take a moment to acknowledge how incredibly empowering that can be (before I complain about its downfalls). It affirms the (supremely simplified) speeches many of us encountered in elementary school: “You can be anything you want to be.” Now, as we transition to adulthood, we learn that phrase is untrue for a myriad of reasons…but, we can always improve upon ourselves, and our idealizations of ourselves often come alive in our online profiles. Now I am by no means advocating for lying about passions or personal details online; I’m just speaking from my own experience: establishing a public identity that often displays the ideal picture of me encourages me to be better—strive to fully match that public persona; strive to become my best self.

That being said, there are issues that can arise in this idealization process, which can be exacerbated by our friends and followers’—or even strangers’—interactions with our posts. Social media is often used to demonstrate and reinforce social norms that can be damaging and/or limiting—e.g. In an interview with NY Magazine’s Rebecca Traister, Fusion‘s Collier Meyerson noted: “But I’m not immune to the pressures of marriage or the stain of singlehood. And the place I most experience this pressure is on Facebook.”

This resonated with me. I am immensely irritated by social media posts that tell me—directly or indirectly—what makes me a person, or a woman; what my relationship status should be; what I must have or achieve to be considered successful. I make a very conscious effort to set my own goals and define success for myself, but seeing those judgmental or limiting ideas presented as societal standards online can be tricky to navigate. Social media can expose us to new ideas or individuals, but it also opens up our identities to public scrutiny. If social media has a fatal flaw, I think it’s that it allows us to attack each others’ identities from a distance—from behind the computer screen buffer—lessening the amount of shame we may otherwise feel for imposing our unsolicited judgement or personal standards on others.

Social media has the potential to be a vehicle for self-expression and sharing powerful ideas, but so often we use it to spread undue judgment and hateful comments. I am not calling for the policing of posts for constant positivity or a lack of strong opinions—let’s all remember I work in journalism, which means I often spend my days wading through tragic and/or controversial news—but this personal exploration of why I like Instagram better than other social media has renewed my sense of mindfulness about what I share about myself, especially online.

Like the clothes or makeup I choose to wear (I’ll spare you my anti-uniform rant, for now), my website, my résumé, my work as a journalist…my social media platforms represent both who I am and who I want to be. I see my accounts as opportunities to share myself with others. By being more mindful of what I share, I am practicing a mindfulness about what I believe, what I desire, and how I engage with people.

So, I am giving myself a challenge, and anyone is welcome to join me: I will strive to be mindful, as well as genuine, honest, and compassionate, in my public presentation of myself on the internet. I will use social media to share stories and ideas that strike me as powerful, profound, or positive. I will use my profiles to attempt to honestly reflect myself, but also to hold myself accountable to that reflection, in an effort to constantly improve upon the person I am.

(I will also continue to take selfies and love Instagram because it shows me photos—both of beauty and suffering—that are brief but fantastic bursts of life.)

Note: The second-to-last paragraph is adapted from a personal mission statement I recently wrote for myself, inspired by an awesome interview with Julianne Hough. If you have an hour to devote to a provocative and motivating discussion about developing a personal definition of success, then this interview is definitely worth watching.

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