Photo: , 2017

We should not be at all surprised to find ourselves online, but we are disturbed to find ourselves where we did not post, especially elements of ourselves we did not share intentionally. These departures from our expectations reveal something critical to the appeal of social media: it seems to provide a kind of identity control previously available only to autobiographers. We feel betrayed, as the writer would, if something is published which we had wanted struck from the record. The genius of social media is meeting this need for editorial control, but the danger is that these services do not profit from the user’s sense of coherent identity, which they appear to produce. The publisher is not interested primarily in the health of the memoirist, but in obtaining a story that will sell.

The intersection of autobiography and social media, especially emphasized by the structure of the Facebook Timeline, should raise questions about how identity is disclosed both before and after the advent of Facebook. The data self Facebook creates, which Nathan Jurgenson wrote about five years ago, is a dramatic departure from the way many of us likely conceive of ourselves. He suggests that the modern subject is constituted largely by data even as the subject creates that data; the self we reference and reveal to others is built on things that can be found out without our consent or effort. A more recent article in New York Times Magazine highlights the power of the immense data available on each of us with a profile.

Narrative identity theory has been developed by psychologists and theorists such as Paul Ricoeur, Jerome Bruner, and Paul John Eakin. It suggests that our sense of self is fundamentally the sense of a character in a narrative. In other words, the character named ‘I’ in the stories we tell, is a character who we understand rather well and with whom we identify, but it is not ontologically different from other characters in fictional or non-fictional narratives. The story our I-character appears in is simply a life. It contains so many events that they cannot all possibly be included, and when telling others or in our memory we all become autobiographers as we retroactively select and grant meaning to experiences and choices.

Narrative identity theory can help to render the Person-Profile dialectic more comprehensible. Just because an embodied subject is creating the content which is shared on social media does not mean the two are in a chicken and egg relationship. Under narrative identity theory, even though the author writes the autobiography, the self is already a story, and so perhaps the person is already a profile. The phrase ‘life story’ is redundant; we understand ourselves as well as we understand the stories that portray our character. How might social media, which grant users such extensive control over these stories, affect this process?

The possession of a social media account does as we seek out events which are documentable. The restaurant or concert that will fit nicely into the narrative of a profile is preferable to something which would be out of place in the story. Narrative identity theory suggests we have always sought to control our story, but the advent of social media brings this action into a new phase.

The Facebook Timeline clearly reflects the common ground between the theories of narrative identity and the data self. Rob Horning wrote about the Timeline when it was first introduced, citing an article explaining that the interface aims to evoke “the feeling of telling someone your life story, and the feeling of memory–of remembering your own life” which, under narrative identity theory are very similar actions; the creation of a sense of self comes through stories told not only to others but also internally in memory.

Horning asserts that the formulation of life as a stream of narrative is an imposition by Facebook on its users, not a natural or neutral process. When we make a coherent story out of what we post, he claims we are playing into Facebook’s hands by providing them with more useful data. Horning suggests we would not put effort into presenting a coherent narrative if it were not for the Timeline, but this is doubtful. Narrative identity theory suggests we cannot do otherwise; without a story to tell, we would not know ourselves. It may not be neutral, but it is not a total imposition on the part of the UI, either. Narrative identity theory has been around for decades, and perhaps the Timeline format has been successful because it agrees with the way we already understand ourselves.

Even basic questions about a person tend to create a kind of narrative: employment, relationships, where he/she has lived, etc. This is social accountability – the way it is normal for us to disclose our identities to others – and it is one very concrete intersection of narrative identity and the Timeline. In face-to-face expressions of identity, social accountability can be seen clearly in the questions we ask when meeting someone. Just as users cannot utilize Facebook without a profile, the story latent in a stranger’s introduction is his or her price of entry to all kinds of relationships. You might be comfortable with a coworker about whom you know very little, but a potential friend who withholds her life story or a suitor who refuses to elucidate his past? These are requests from profiles with no picture. Consider also the young professional without LinkedIn, the photographer without Instagram, or the student without a Facebook page: for better or worse, their failure to account for themselves in the expected way will inhibit their potential. It seems that social media has become the new social accountability; if you do not have a profile, you are failing to present yourself in the way society expects. This is to say nothing of the services and websites which require linked accounts in a preexisting, larger social network.

Horning’s assertion that identity forming frameworks can be changed within a generation is key to understanding how we express and —partially as a consequence of that expression— understand ourselves. When we compare pre-Timeline Facebook and MySpace to today’s infinitely scrolling Timeline one thing becomes clear: social media no longer demands static identities represented by a filled-out profile page. Instead there is a single box that constantly asks you to fill it with whatever is happening to you now. Story has overtaken stability, not only by calling for more frequent visits and updates, but by providing a stage for us to direct our character. Is it our fate to account for ourselves with these bottomless text fields, guided only by minimalistic web page designs, trending hashtags, and caption norms? If so, why have so many of us chosen it?

One reason we increasingly look to social media to host our narrative identities is because, for many of us, we have lost strong affiliations with church, state, family, company, and gender roles. These social institutions act as a point of reference to call on when identifying oneself. But by choosing to qualify our associations, and not to simply say “I am a Christian and an accountant,” the responsibility falls increasingly on the hyper-individualized subject. Identifying with one’s company, Evangelism, Catholicism, or patriotism provides a firm foundation but comes loaded with connotations and subtext over which the subject has no control. For the sake of freedom from the impositions of those structures, we have taken on the pressures of justifying and making meaning in our actions, our stories, and ultimately our identities.

A common criticism of theory is that it does not reflect lived experience, and it is indeed a tall order to ask individuals with online profiles to believe they are constituted by that data. If data in the form of the Timeline is becoming a foundation for identity, its narrative structure at least has a precedent in narrative identity theory. The narrative we write into our online data is familiar, and it helps to render the data self more comprehensible. If we are becoming data selves, it is perhaps through this very need to account for ourselves in the form of a story.

The important change is that our urge to narrate is no longer merely personal, it is profitable. Whether or not our purposes for creating a narrative are novel, there are new consequences to the act as it is mediated by social media. Facebook has done what so many successful companies have, and found a way to monetize something people already do, but what does Facebook’s immense success say about the behavior they have tapped for this profit?  To pick an easy target for comparison and consideration, consider the double purpose served by the content of weight loss and beauty magazines: images of attractive people not only suggest the success of the products for sale, they also undermine confidence and thoughts that the reader could do without those products. Could social media do the same? Continuing and accelerating the internalization of identifiers, social media has given us the control we want and the social accountability we need. Like the magazines however, for growth to continue, we must always want more. How and when might Facebook increase the demand for its product: identity?

Daniel Affsprung is a recent graduate of SUNY New Paltz, where he studied English Literature with emphasis on critical theory and creative writing, and wrote an honors thesis on narrative identity theory in autobiography.