Over the last couple of weeks, a YouTube video (above) of New York artist Richard Renaldi has continued to populate my Facebook News Feed. Renaldi’s project Touching Strangers is such that he positions strangers together in an intimate poses and photographs them. Despite lack of prior contact, these photographs depict what look to be quite sincere expressions of emotion. Moreover, the subjects interviewed in the video say that they feel some sort of connection towards those with whom they posed. This is certainly moving, admittedly interesting, but as a trained social psychologist, not very surprising. It does, however, offer interesting implications for people’s oft-spouted rants against in-authenticity and identity work on social media.

Let me begin by discussing the sociology of the work. I will them move on the implications for authenticity in light of new technologies.

The punch of the work is particularly punch-y due its location in New York City. NYC is among the most bustling, cement-clad, anonymous places in the world. Sociologist Georg Simmel famously wrote about the city that stimulations here are so great, the only way to sustain sanity is by maintaining utter isolation of the self, even when—perhaps especially when—in tight bodily proximity to innumerable others. In this city of strangers, Renaldi creates friends. They look studiously into each other’s eyes, rest comfortably on one another’s shoulders, embrace, laugh, exchange names.


That these strangers, placed awkwardly into each other’s arms and locked uncomfortably in each other’s gazes, come to lose the awkwardness, and reportedly, find comfort and genuine connection over the course of the photo shoot, is indeed quite moving. Social psychologically, though, it’s quite predictable. One of the key ways in which people come to know themselves is by seeing what they do, by watching their own behaviors. George Herbert Mead calls this “taking the self as an object,” and Charles H. Cooley calls this the “looking glass self.” Psychologists have an entire dissonance theory which essentially says that if you see yourself doing something unexpected, you do some cognitive work so that your surprising action makes sense. In the case of Renaldi’s project, this cognitive labor may come in the form of what Arlie Hochschild calls “emotion work,” or the ways in which people call out desired emotions in themselves, such that they not only seem to feel a particular way, but indeed, do come to feel that way.

In short, what we see here are people engaging in unusual behaviors. They see themselves doing so, and it creates dissonance. They engage in emotion work to bridge the gap, and wind up genuinely feeling attached to their fellow subject(s).

This cool little trick—seeing yourself do something to make yourself become something—has interesting implications for social media. Bernie Hogan points out that our digital profiles act as exhibitions of performative acts. Our pictures, status updates, tags, tweets, blog posts etc. are the interactional crumbs which, collectively, reveal a partial story about who we are. What if we focus instead, on making those crumbs tell the story of who we want to be? Theoretically, we should be able to project future ideal selves and eventually fulfill these projections.renaldi2

The subjects in Renaldi’s photographs bridged their cognitive dissonance and experienced true connection in a short amount of time. No doubt,  Renaldi’s camera, and the artifacts it created, had something to do with this, as the ephemeral performative act was frozen, captured, and immortalized. Social media affords the recreation of this process—act, capture, reflexively respond—on a continuous and long term basis. As such, social media potentially affords a fruitful path to future-self accomplishment.

Unfortunately, it’s not all quite so easy. In addition to knowing who we are by seeing what we do, we also know who we are by seeing how others respond to us. As such, our ideal selves can only manifest to the extent to which our networks allow it. And our networks, it seems, are kind of sticklers when it comes to authenticity. In many of my interviews with social media users, the theme of authenticity—desiring it for oneself and decrying a lack of it in others—is a central theme. In particular, people are annoyed when others’ identity work is visible, when they “try too hard.” This is such a common theme, in fact, that I wrote an entire article about it.

But what if we shifted our focus? I don’t know how. And to be honest, I also get annoyed when others’ identity work shows. But…what if we did? What if we somehow recognized the potential of allowing identity play? What if we re-imagined the social media platform not as a reflection of who we are, but of who we will be? Authenticity here is not found in the truthfulness or visibility of our deeply flawed characters, but rather, in the integrity of our intentions. The authentic social actor need not be a rugged outdoorsperson to post pictures of an off-trail hike, s/he must simply truly aspire to be the kind of person who completes such a hike.

The mistake of early internet theorists was their assumption that The Web provided an alternate space in which social actors were free to be who they wanted, rather than who they were, without accounting for the socially and structurally embedded nature of digitally mediated interaction. What I’m suggesting, as a Utopian thought experiment, is a shift in structural realities, such that fluidity of self and identity play are not threats to authenticity, but opportunities for growth. A structural reality in which the self is a recognized project over which we tactfully grant each actor the trust of good intentions and the space to develop.


Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

Pics via Renaldi.com