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.


Cornell’s new major reflects technology innovation in global & public health

By Jessica Corbett and TinaMarie Craven

Robert Parker was part of the team that proposed Cornell's new major. (Photo by Jessica Corbett)

Robert Parker was part of the team that proposed Cornell’s new major. (Photo by Jessica Corbett) Click the photo above to view a slideshow.

Cornell University launched a Global and Public Health major this semester in response to student demand and demonstrated interest in its minor program, Robert Parker, director of undergraduate studies for Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences, said.

Parker noted a trend among higher education institutions developing similar programs, and said examination of peer programs was a key part of developing Cornell’s Global and Public Health major, which was proposed by the Division of Natural Sciences. Public health typically refers to domestic population health, while global health is applied beyond the U.S., Parker said.

“Our program is designed to encompass both of those scenarios,” Parker said, “Our intent is to weave both domestic and international issues, whenever possible, throughout the entire curriculum.”

Growing interest in this field isn’t contained to university students. TechChange, a D.C.-based startup launched in 2010, provides online technology training for agents of social change. Members of the global and public health field are part of their target audience for course offerings.

Beginning Nov. 17, TechChange will offer its most popular course, “mHealth – Mobile Phones for Public Health,” which coincides with the 2014 mHealth Summit and Global Health Forum in D.C.

Nick Martin, CEO and founder of TechChange, said increased cell phone and Internet availability has changed how health issues can be approached globally.

“We look at things like patient adherence — getting people to take their pills by getting SMS reminders, to remote monitoring — being able to attach the phone to things like censors, to do diagnostic tests, those kinds of things,” Martin said. “Also, for frontline healthcare workers, in most of the world, a number of countries, people don’t have regular to access to hospitals and doctors with health care facilities.”

Cornell’s program focuses on building a deep understanding of both natural and behavioral sciences, combined with a mandatory ‘real-world’ experiential learning course, Parker said. Course requirements range from biochemistry and psychology, to courses on statistics and epidemiology, or the study of the spread of disease.

Click the slide above to view a slideshow for this story.

Click the slide above to view a slideshow for this story.

Parker said one of the reasons mobile technology offers so much opportunity in this field is that transcends limitations of physical infrastructure.

“One of the challenges, often, particularly in resource-poor communities is trying to figure out what’s happening.  And yet as access to mobile devices explodes around the world, it’s becoming a two-way street,” Parker said. “Innovations in technology that transcend traditional infrastructure are opening up lots of new opportunities—both to acquire information about the nature of communities and to effect change in those communities.”

The internet and media are making the public more aware of current health issues Rebecca Stoltzfus, director of the global health minor, said.

“Students find these problems disturbing and compelling, and they want to see how their education can make a difference in people’s lives and can close a gap on some of the big global health inequities that exist in the world,” Stoltzfus said.

Danielle Corona, a biology major and global health minor, conducted her fieldwork in Peru, where she worked to encourage Peruvian women to immunize their children. Vaccine bracelets acted as a physical reminder for mothers, which Corona said was helpful because the bracelet made it easier to bridge literacy and linguistic gaps.

Corona said the program allows students to expand their understandings of health by studying health issues from a broader mindset.

“With Ebola, we have something that’s starting in a small developing country, but it has the potential to spread to other countries and we need to understand how we can deal with issues that are serious,” Corona said. “Globalization is a real thing. We have to know how to deal with health threats around the world, whether it is a small village in Thailand or a main city in America.”

Click here to view a slideshow for this story.

Cornell University students design free smartphone apps for college life

Cornell University senior Emma Court demonstrates how to use ResCUer, an iPhone app that provides Cornell students with easier access to transportation and emergency services, which Court helped develop and market. (Photo by Jessica Corbett)

Cornell University senior Emma Court demonstrates how to use ResCUer, an iPhone app that provides Cornell students with easier access to transportation and emergency services, which Court helped develop and market. (Photo by Jessica Corbett)

CUAgenda and ResCUer, two free, recently released student-designed iPhone apps created specifically by and for Cornell University students, show a growing interest in app development among college students.

Although neither CUAgenda nor ResCUer were designed in the classroom, at least five schools in New York State offer new courses or programs in which students can learn mobile app development. 

On August 17, Cornell sophomore Dennis Fedorko launched CUAgenda, an app that brings course scheduling to the fingertips.

“I just wanted to make something that had to do with technology, and something that everyone at Cornell could use,” he said, “so I started fiddling with the idea of making a scheduling app, because I knew all of the previous ones weren’t that good.”

Fedorko decided to make a free mobile alternative to online scheduling programs like Schedulizer and Chequerd, and taught himself how to code for iOS over the summer.

The student reaction to CUAgenda, which is only for Cornell students, has been primarily positive.

CUAgenda user Gaby Haam said she has been very happy with her experience.

“A feature which is particularly well designed is the schedule builder,” she said, “which has an interface similar to that of Chequerd, where classes are added and can be dragged to the appropriate time slots.”

“I thought it’d be worth not having to log into student center constantly to remind myself where I needed to be next,” CUAgenda user Michael Truhlar said.

Truhlar’s experience with CUAgenda has been one of ups and downs because of a few kinks, which Fedorko said he hopes to address through app updates.

Both concept art and the cherry blossom tree by Cornell’s clock tower inspired CUAgenda’s main screen design, Fedorko said. From the main page, users can access services such as Schedule Builder, Pre Enroll, Courses and Daily Schedule, which erases itself at the end of each day.

Fedorko said the iPhone version of CUAgenda has been downloaded about 2,000 times, and although there is no Android version yet, it is definitely something he wants to pursue. 

Before CUAgenda, a team of five Cornell students launched a safety app called ResCUer, which allows users quicker access to transportation and emergency services.

It all started on a napkin in Trillium food court at Cornell University in October of 2012, according to Matthew Laks, who is now a senior at Cornell. Laks and a few friends had gathered to eat lunch and discuss their plans for entering an entrepreneur competition at Cornell.

“We saw binge drinking being a huge problem, hookup culture leading to a lot of really unsafe conditions, so we were thinking about how we could help combat that,” Emma Court, a senior at Cornell who primarily worked with app outreach, said.

“We realized that there were a lot of important safety resources that the students really weren’t using and we wondered if it was because they didn’t have a ready access to them, so that’s how the idea for ResCUer came about,” she said.

The ResCUer team included Laks, Court, app developer Josh Krongelb—who, like Fedorko, taught himself to code—and Cornell graduates Matthew Joe and Anisha Chopra.

Today, the iPhone version of ResCUer has been downloaded about 1,500 times, Krongelb said. An Android version is also available. 

Even orientation leaders encourage students to download the app, Laks said, so they see “a huge surge” of downloads during freshman orientation weeks.

The free app allows users to select GET HELP—via Police, Ambulance, Gannett, RA On Call or Blue Light—or GO HOME, which directs to buttons labeled Taxi, Call a Friend or Blue Light.

Local police have told them that students are calling in with ResCUer, Laks said.

“People are using it, and it saves that critical time of Googling for a phone number,” he said.

The ResCUer team doesn’t just promote their app—they also use it.

Last Winter, Court said she was walking around West Campus and came across a young woman who was barefoot and without a coat. She was “on the floor, crying and she didn’t know her name,” Court said. She used ResCUer to call EMS, then stayed with the woman until helped arrived.

Both Fedorko and the ResCUer team said they could potentially see a place for their apps at other colleges and universities, but they don’t have any plans to expand just yet.