The digitally divided self

It’s a common observation that social media channels allow us to compartmentalise our lives. In a recent performance/lecture by Rebekka Kill at Improving Reality she looked at the political and social differences between Facebook and Twitter. Rebekka compared the platforms to punk and disco (twitter being punk and Facebook being disco), tracking and comparing their use and content she concluded that she no longer wanted to divide herself… She wanted to be ‘herself’ on all channels, she wanted to be both Punk and Disco.

This got me thinking about my use of social media. For about 4 years I’ve delivered a lecture, Schizophrenic Identities and the Networked Society, where I discuss the fragmentary nature of identity through the technologies we use. In it I look at the different naming schemas as ways to differentiate behaviour and identity.

For example, I don’t really use Facebook, but when I do, it’s all about my private life and old friends. I never really talk about work, ideas or interests, it’s truly social, but in a strange, awkward, historic way… it’s like looking at a life I once lived or a path I didn’t take. For people I went to school with, it must be impossible to workout what I’m like now. In this way, I’m socially closed off… distant… standing in the corner, not talking to anyone, during a school reunion .

Twitter is more about ideas and interests, it’s my true place… (although I do go through moments of panic because I realise I’m a bit sweary and negative) – it represents me more as a professional. I think it gives a truer representation of how/who I am.

And then there’s Flickr. Flickr is a heady mix of the personal and professional, it’s a hobby (or more an obsession), a set of ideas and visual thoughts, a prosthetic memory, a window into my eyes, an archive of my observations as a designer. But it’s all about the socially mediated visual – I favourite images for their aesthetic and creative qualities, not their emotional and personal (although there is a case to be made for an emotional aesthetic). It will always be about photography and visual culture.

Instagram (@mwardy), on the other hand, is all about the flow… about friends, observations and ‘liking’. It’s more social, but far more disposable. I don’t want to store or archive my instagram feed, it’s in constant temporal flux and I like it that way. On each channel I have a different code of ‘favoriting’ or ‘liking’ . These are linked to both usage and personal drive. Each one is nuanced and changes over time.

Recently, I’ve had a few friends who massively crosspost (instagram to flickr, twitter to facebook), at times it irritates me, because it collapses my worlds, it’s a flagrant disregard of my internalised rules. But I can live with it.

I guess the question I’d like to ask is: do we have to make the decision about the fragmentation of personality in the design of these systems – i.e. do we identity the ‘part’ of the person we want to cater for? Or are we living in a period of change where the walls between these worlds are slowly collapsing – my crossposting friends are just early adopters. Are we moving towards a social Borgesian aleph, where the complexity of our personalities are compressed into a singular, unified, publicly mediated self?

Or is this a complete and contiguous mirror of our real life social interactions. We adapt, change, pick and choose how we act depending on context and company. Social Media maybe expanding to the point where simple delineations of identity are no longer possible. All we’re left with is the compelling complexity of the modern human condition.

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