David Lewin: I Post Therefore I Am: The Formation of Identity in an Age of Social Media

by David LewinLecturer in Philosophy of Education, Strathclyde University

This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College. The entire set of posts can be found here.

Like most people, I enjoy socialising. The days of living and socialising in regular and close physical proximity to friends and family have long since passed for many people, partly because communication and social technologies have transformed social life in our globalized and digital world. There are many benefits to this, of course, but also many visible and not so visible problems. As human beings our identity is often mediated through technical devices, a process which is not entirely without cost. Mediated forms of social interaction have produced something of a split between embodied and digital identities. What problems might this split bring about? It is hard to answer this question partly because social media is relatively new, so that the long-term impact of its usage can only really be guesstimated. Our societies are currently engaged in expansive, even reckless, social experiments concerning those effects, since they have been implemented with remarkably few precautions. Many of the popular forms of social media, such as Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are themselves not yet teenagers, and yet they have become reference points in social and sometimes political discourse. In this post I want to focus particularly on the formative influence of the use of social media: how does social media affect our development as human beings?

A 2017 report found that 95% of 15-year-olds in the UK use social media before or after school, and around 50% of 9 to 16-year-olds use smart-phones on a daily basis. The UK Children’s Commissioner produced a report called “Life in ‘likes’” to examine the impact of social media use on the lives of children, finding that social anxiety was a major concern. Other recent reports have explored worrying effects of social media on the formation of young people, from online addiction (1, 2), to depression, to cyber-bullying and sexting, to the newly coined social issue of ‘FOMO’: the ‘fear of missing out’ often aroused by reading posts on social media.

Several issues are bundled together in these reports, but it is the focus on social anxiety in the formation of identity that interests me. My online profiles may, in some senses, be continuous with my embodied existence, but something happens, I think, to our self-understanding and self-formation when mediated through diverse online selves. In a simple sense, we choose how we present ourselves in everyday life: our clothes, hair, make-up and general demeanour. Those choices are arguably more self-conscious and idealised in online contexts than their embodied equivalents: I probably spend more time looking for the right image for my relatively stable online presence than I spend looking in the actual mirror. Even where social media interactions, like Snapchat, are designed to be available for only short periods, the self-consciousness of our presentation to the world seems heightened by these kinds of media. But reflections on how we present ourselves are not one-way: they reflect back on how we see ourselves through the refracting gaze of others. In other words, social media profiles do not simply represent or reflect our existing embodied selves, but are part of how we form and re-form our identities, both online and embodied. My impression of your impression of me is not without some impact on how I both present myself, but also how I form myself, particularly in the socially formative years between 8 and 18. Although this double-movement between self and other describes general processes of self-formation and so is not particular to being online, in this blog post I want to focus on how digital identity affects, and is affected by, these sorts of processes of formation. If it is true that life is a continuous movement of formation – of learning, change and development (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) – then it is also true that digital mediations influence the ways in which our identities are formed and reformed, like a mirror that not only reflects our physical form, but produces in us a desire to re-fashion ourselves in an image somewhere between who we would like to be (in the eyes of others) and who we ‘are’ (in the eyes of others).

These processes of self-formation through forms of social recognition are not newly discovered but have been widely analysed in the philosophy and history of recognition theory, from Johann Fichte and Georg Hegel, to Axel Honneth and Paul Ricoeur. In the 1920’s and 30’s the American philosopher and psychologist George Herbert Mead described the processes in the following way: “The self is something which has a development; it is not initially there, at birth, but arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process.” This history of recognition theory is relevant to the insights around the formation of identity in relation to digital identities. At the root of this history lies the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who himself was particularly interested in the formative years of transition to adulthood.

The eighteenth-century Swiss-French philosopher Rousseau was concerned about these issues as they related to the development of children: not, of course, in the context of social media, but in the context of how to ensure a proper relation to self-regard. Rousseau examined the morally-ambivalent concept of what he called amour-propre, a form of self-regard or self-love based on the perceptions of others and of how one compares to those others. The ambivalence of amour-propre lies in the fact that it can take good, as well as bad forms: self-regard can be constitutive of healthy identity, or it can take excessive or inflamed forms, particularly in the stages of youth. It is in Rousseau’s book Emile, his comprehensive exploration of education, that the tensions of amour-propre are developed. In examining the dangers of inflamed amour-propre Rousseau argues that large cosmopolitan cities, like the Paris of the eighteenth century, are a bad influence when it comes to the formation of amour-propre. Too much exposure to urbane culture and social influence threatens to inflame the child’s desire to be regarded well by others. For this reason, he values rural simplicity since it “allows the passions of their age to develop more slowly.” While I would not endorse many of Rousseau’s educational ideas (for instance, that the purpose of educating girls is basically to form wives and mothers) his analysis of inflamed amour-propre is an important contribution in considering the impact of the (socially mediated) views of others on the formation of the self.

What, then, would Rousseau make of our digitally mediated identities in a world between online and embodied existence? The misleading associations of Rousseau with some idea of natural education might lead us to suppose that he would reject social media outright. This is simplistic, because his real concerns with the corruptions of society are related more to social than technical issues. In any case, we can’t really distinguish human nature from technical artefacts, because human beings have always had tools of some kind. By extension it would be a mistake to suppose that one’s identity exists prior to its presentation on social media, as though real identity could somehow be detached and could exist offline, apart from social media; today social media constitute us both physically and digitally, making us always available and persistently present in ways that place us within an unending public gaze. Rousseau would surely worry that this persistent social availability and interaction would be particularly inflammatory to the amour-propre of young people today.

I am not the first to draw a link between Rousseau’s theories of amour-propre and forms of online social identity (See 1, 2). Nevertheless, what really needs to be thought through is not just these general links, but how they throw light on a neglected but central aspect of how we are formed and constituted in the digital age. There is surely something to Rousseau’s anxieties that younger people should be shielded from some of the particular experiences related to social life. These ideas are certainly translatable into how we think about online identity: the scale and scope of the humiliation, the vanity, and the pride we experience are magnified tremendously in the context of social media, magnifications which seem to have harmful effects on human formation. The general policy responses thus far boil down to calls for digital literacy, and further research on the impact of screen time, or mobile phone usage and so on. These responses are inadequate because they seriously underestimate the impacts of social media on the formation of identity at the heart of who we are. We need not only strategies for digital literacy, but serious, engaged, and contemporary philosophical analysis of the impact of new technologies on the formation of people, particularly those who experience amour-propre most acutely. Bernard Stiegler is one contemporary philosopher who provides something like this kind of analysis, writing about the dangers of social media on the formation of youth. But this kind of work is all too rare because we see social media as only surrounding us, rather than recognising it as part of our general and fundamental formation.