The self is a tricky thing to accomplish. Who we are is signified by a seemingly infinite number of factors: our physical appearance, the groups we belong to, the events we attend, the things that we say, how we say the things that we say, the friends that we keep, the work that we do, the way that we spend our leisure time, the amount of leisure time we allow ourselves etc. Each of these factors reflects the decisions that social actors have to make about who they are, and about the lines of action they will take in order to be defined in a particular way. In short, social actors are required to engage in significant amounts of “identity work”.
This work, however, must remain hidden. The “catch” in constructing a self that will be accepted by others, is that the self must come across as authentic. The self must appear to be spontaneous, uncalculated, and effortless. Said differently, identity work must remain invisible, it must be strictly relegated to the backstage (Goffman 1959).
To engage in invisible identity work is a complex process under even the best circumstances. I argue, however, that in a time when selves are constructed simultaneously and dialectically in online and offline spaces (see Facebook-Homepage for a Cyborg Planet) the accomplishment of an authentic self becomes significantly more difficult. Social media not only allows, but requires us to make deliberative decisions about self-presentation. We explicitly decide which pictures to post and/or tag on our Facebook pages, we craft concise and witty tweets before sharing them with our followers (and often simultaneously with our Friends on Facebook), we choose to interact with Friends on the public spaces of Facebook walls rather than sending private messages, and we display architecturally elicited categorical information about ourselves, such as our income, music preferences, sexual orientation, relationship status, education and jobs. Above all, we hit “post”, “publish”, or “share” before these decisions become publicized to our network, and so become part of what defines who we are.
I have thus far said three things: 1) the social construction of identity is a laborious process; 2) the labor of identity construction must remain unseen; and 3) the architecture of social media asks us to present ourselves in explicit ways. A tension is therefore created between the prevalence of interaction media which facilitate explicit self construction, and the appearance of a self, constructed through such media, that must appear to have organically emerged.
In light of this tension between the goal of authenticity and the labor-exposing nature of social media, how do we accomplish authentic selves in a cyborg era?
Recent scholarship now argues that we shape our offline selves to more accurately depict the selves that we present online, creating a sort of triangulation of the self. Although I certainly agree with this, I think it can be pushed further. I believe that we also preemptively alter our offline selves in order to authentically convey ourselves online in a particular way. This is a subtle but important difference. The former indicates a shift in the offline self as a response to online self-presentation. The latter indicates a-priori choices in offline action/interaction so that the online self can be constructed in an ideal and also authentic way. In sum, we not only present ideal selves online, and then try to live up to these selves in offline settings, we also preemptively act and interact in the offline world so that our actions and interactions can authentically become part of our online self-presentations.
More generally, this point speaks to the enmeshment of online and offline in the construction and enactment of the self. Who we are and what we do in unmediated spaces is influencing of, and influenced by, who we are and what do in cyberspace(s). In this, a cyborg era, we are more than tethered to the online world and our technological devices, (Turkle 2008 [.pdf]) we are holistically and dialectically intertwined with them.