The thing about identity is that the stories we tell ourselves about our own are already forcibly consistent. We don’t need Facebook to make this so.
Last week there were several great posts on this subject. Nathan kicked things off with his claim that the social pressure to have a consistent identity is both subtly reinforced by how Facebook encourages – and constrains – the way we prosume identities, and that it potentially enables us to confront the fact that this consistency is an impossible and unreasonable standard to meet; identity is perhaps much more fluid than we’re comfortable thinking. Rob Horning was in agreement with at least part of this, suggesting that Facebook decontextualizes identity, making it seem less rooted in personal experience and more in data. Whitney went on to make a fascinating claim: that when our process of identity formation is recorded and made immediate in this way, it collapses the past into the present and removes temporal distance that basically alleviates the pain that’s all too often wrapped up in who we used to be.
This is the point I want to latch onto. Because this is significant. This is really about our stories. And this is really about not only remembering a more immediate past, but inhabiting that past. We are faced with who we used to be and we become that person – “to read the words that came from that person is to be that person again”. We occupy our old self’s cognitive and emotional space.
This hurts. There are a couple of reasons why.
First, as Whitney already pointed out, there’s often a tremendous amount of pain wrapped up in our past selves, especially when those selves are adolescent. Growing is a painful process; we stumble, we make horrible mistakes, we do things that we can’t really believe we were ever stupid enough to do. This isn’t just about the fluidity of identity, but also sheer embarrassment. We can understand this almost in a Goffmanian sense: we use frames to present ourselves, to construct stories about ourselves, to maintain personae, and then the past crashes through those frames and creates breakages in our engagement with both the world and ourselves. These breakages are true – and the truth is profoundly uncomfortable.
It’s worth emphasizing that we don’t need social media for this. Memory does it for us. Memory loves to do this for us. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been doing something entirely innocuous and then suddenly my brain decides that it’s a fabulous idea to bring up that time in middle school where I accidentally dressed like I was an extra from Grease. But social media makes it easier, clearer, less mercifully blurry. The feelings are so much more raw.
But the jarring effect is also about narrative.
We expect narratives to be internally consistent. Consistency is one of the ways in which we identify narratives. Stories are always fundamentally about 0ur desire to make sense of things; through them we impose order on the world. Creation myths select elements of what little we know about ourselves and our surroundings, create new elements to tie everything together, and present us with the comforting illusion that everything makes sense, that there is a broader plot that unites people and events into coherency. Our myths of origin don’t stop at the creation of the world; these are myths we construct around ourselves. We make ourselves protagonists and build a world in which to live and act.
Again, this obviously predates social media. We’ve always done this; we have always been storytelling creatures. What social media does is introduce a new – or at least an intensified – wrinkle into this process, by disrupting the coherence and consistency of our narratives.
We want very badly to believe that our lives have been logical progressions from points A to B to C and beyond. Sometimes this desire is subconcious, and the construction of the story is subconscious as well. But I’d argue that it’s always there. We don’t see our pasts as fragmented and chaotic as they often are. We don’t want to confront how many times we’ve stumbled, how much was left entirely up to chance, how completely out of control we happen to be.
Stories make us feel powerful. We’re not.
Social media – any technology that records the details of our past – pulls back that curtain. The more we try to maintain the illusion of a single consistent identity, the way Mark Zuckerberg would like us to, the more obvious it becomes that such a thing is impossible, was never possible, will never be possible.
It’s possible for narratives to be inconsistent and fragmentary, non-linear things and still be narratives that we can embrace. But the stories that do this are notable exceptions to understood rules, and they’re still difficult for most of us. They play havoc with our entire process of sense-making. They are disorienting.
This is exactly what happens when I screw up the courage – or become masochistic enough – to look back through my Livejournal posts from high school. I’ve locked them, so for the most part I don’t need to worry about them disrupting my more public self-presentation. But they almost make me dizzy. Who was this person? How distant are they, really? Who am I? The more comforting myths I’ve built around the transition from who I was to who I am are destroyed by the sheer weight and solidity of that person’s words. Once again I’m behind their eyes looking out at the world, I’m typing that post up about how much I don’t like my parents, I’m squealing about that band I was stupid for liking, I have the most ridiculous hair, and I’m doing all of those things right now.
I can hide from these entries; I can just not read them. But I still know that they’re there, disproving me.
So why don’t I delete them, if they make me so uncomfortable? I really don’t know. When I left Facebook, I didn’t delete my account outright, but the idea that it might someday be gone doesn’t trouble me very much. Perhaps, with sites like Livejournal, it’s because they’re so uncomfortable, so fraught with pain and embarrassment. They’re a visceral record of who I was and am; they may render my self-narrative incoherent but they’re also the truth of me, wrung out of me at a time when I was becoming me. My digital self feels just as real as my physical self. It hurts to be made to remember, but I don’t want to forget.
That, too, is a kind of sense.
Sarah maintains an extensive record of highly questionable decisions on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry