‘Where do we come from? Who are we? Where do we go?’ The French artist, Gauguin, asked these questions when he painted one of his masterpieces in 1898. Similar questions have also been raised by the documentary The Social Dilemma, recently streamed on Netflix.
As many of us have noticed and discussed, the documentary highlights some crucial mechanisms of social media and its addictive effects on users. It shows the dangers of media on a societal level, as people’s beliefs are becoming more and more polarised.
The documentary also shows how powerful social media can be at an individual level. These platforms have a great impact on individuals’ ways of looking at reality and analysing the self. After watching the documentary, many of us have probably wondered how the media is shaping our personalities, friends’ choices and even political preferences. Other than showing the societal risks of social media, The Social Dilemma also reveals that individual identity is a very fragile concept. People do not have stable and fixed identities, but their ideas of the self are constantly changing.
What does social psychology tell us?
Social psychologists believe that individual identity is mostly a social construct. To find their identities, people compare themselves to others and adapt their way of being to adhere to the norm. This suggests that our personal self is largely affected by what we consider a socially acceptable way of being – the social norm.
Another way individuals use to create their identity is in accordance with the group of belonging. Put simply, to find themselves people often identify with a social group. This can be positive because it enhances self-esteem, but it can also be harmful as it leads to the formation of stereotypes and prejudices against ‘the others’.
How does the media affect the self?
Our identities are constantly influenced by content on social media. This process does not happen consciously; it is hard to see yourself or your self-perception changing from one day to the other. However, there is a silent process of constant comparison and reconstruction of the identity according to 'the group' which is taking place while using social media. ‘The group’ of belonging is not necessarily an actual group understood as several people physically gathering, but as a group whose members share a sense of similarity.
For example, different sexual identities could be considered groups of belonging. A person who identifies as bisexual usually defines this concept not only in personal terms, but to some extent based on external social standards. If it is true that the construction of our identity is largely socially influenced, then so are sexual identities. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but it means that our identities, and in this case sexual identities, can be manipulated. A person’s own sense of their sexual identity can be standardised and categorised because of external influences.
Sexuality does not have real and clear-cut categorizations, but it is rather expressed in degrees and exists in shades. For this reason, there are at least some people who might not have a static vision of their sexual orientation. On the Instagram feed, however, there is a tendency towards standardization and categorization. Content on social media tends to be very much stereotypical and to sell itself as universal.
This could be the case because of the way the social media process of sharing works. When one person decides to share some personal thoughts or beliefs about their sexuality, this content immediately reaches hundreds or thousands of people (depending on the popularity of the user). This creates a weird effect by which something very individual is suddenly perceived as a public statement. Other users might also reshare this content if the person who posted it or the idea itself are influential. Resharing content from other users could be considered a way of socially approving others’ ideas. The final product is oversimplified and more stereotypical than the original idea. It is due to this oversimplification that the final product also becomes more universally applicable, so that more people generally identify with it.
However, the way every person understands their sexual identity is very subjective and personal. This discrepancy between people’s subjective and individual identities and their perception of social media content as universal, creates interesting tensions.
The outcome of these tensions could be considered negative, in more dramatic terms ‘a corruption of identities’. In this sense, by stereotyping and generalising, the filtering of social media content harms self-freedom and self-expression. On the other hand, constructing one’s identity through social media content is also a very powerful tool. This content can empower one’s sense of identity and belonging. Ultimately, this process can help to shape a stable and clear (sexual) identity for many people. This might be the case as people on social media have access to much more information with very little effort or personal risk of exposure. In fact, it is only necessary to passively scroll through shared content, without actually having to expose oneself to direct contact or comparison with others. This is also the reason why many people feel more at ease opening up about their sexual identities and getting out of the closet on social media rather than in real life circumstances.
Dilemmas raised by Social Media
It is important to be aware of social media related mechanisms and of the fact that our identities are more malleable and easily manipulated than what we think. Netflix' documentary The Social Dilemma raises not one, but several dilemmas for individuals. Is there a truthful identity or are we intrinsically defined by our social environment? Should we keep our identities integral or should we integrate external influences to have a comprehensive view of ourselves? And should we let ourselves be shaped by social media content or should we avoid it to keep some sort of self-freedom? Lastly, should we prefer physical social groups over social media platforms, or are the same social dynamics eventually applying to both realms? Similar existential questions addressed by Guaguin with his painting, are underlined and raised again by social media and their impact on individual identities.