The Net: Digital Narcissi

I.

“Listen: every morning I take a razor to the fabric of my life, I cut out a woman shape, I step into it, I go out. I perform, it works.”

– Pat Lowther, “The Face”

When I log onto Facebook, I type in my email address and my password. In essence, these markers are used to carve out a space on Facebook that I fill, a me-shaped hole for me to step into. It makes visible the process of identity-making we all perform; about the way cultural norms of identity are embedded within the structure of Facebook itself: the way Facebook exerts itself on us, and the way power exerts itself through Facebook.

Once logged on, I’m confronted with my feed: an updating assemblage of posts from my friends and pages I’ve liked. What I am looking at is a mirror. Whatever page I visit, my name will always be fixed there in the upper-right corner of the screen, reminding me I am looking at myself. These are the things that define me, the stuff that I am made out of. This is who I am. This is me.

II.

Of course, we must consider our own agency in creating these representations of ourselves that we consume daily. The contents of our timeline are  not a direct product of the pages we have liked or people we have befriended Rather, Facebook’s content algorithms are designed to show you content you will find interesting, and content you have already seen.; the pages you look at the most, the friends whose statuses and photos you like and comment on the most.  The more you interact with certain types of  content , the more you are shown that content.

At what point does Facebook go from quantifying your identity to defining it?

Facebook is, first and foremost, a business, and what they sell is people. Once you have been quantified, your identity defined in the broadest possible terms, and having that definition constantly reinforced by those content algorithms, you can be sold; companies use this information to know best how to market to you, what ads will appeal best to whatever broad demographic you’ve been placed in.

Everything fits a consumer niche when identities are rigorously conditioned, catalogued and kept in a state of fixity. The process of identification that exists in Facebook fits into a larger scheme of capitalist reification, commodifying identity as simple, quantifiable data that can be maintained and exploited.

Facebook predicates its business model on literally buying and selling us. We are not the consumers of Facebook; we are the product.

The previous instalment of this column describes the way Leelah Alcorn’s tumblr operated “as a curated assemblage of re-posted and original content: a set of woven ideas and identities that continue to live as cultural object and digital morsel…by its nature dynamic, the product of hyperlinking, inter-media, and fast-paced information economies.” But what are we to make of the fact that what is shared and reposted is so often tied to consumer products; of the fact that these “information economies” are consumer economies that have been forced onto us?

About half a year ago, I liked a few writers’ journals on Facebook, the kind that posts listicles like “Habits of Famous Writers” and etc. You know the type. Before long, these posts began crowding out everything else on my feed, and the articles themselves became broader and clichéd. Since, like most people, I distractedly scroll through Facebook, I was not even aware about how this was slowly shaping my perception of the world and my identity, until a friend asked me about my thoughts on the developments in Ukraine. I had absolutely no idea (back then I used Facebook to manage my news).

Facebook had mediated the world for me. I had been isolated and reduced to the broadest possible caricature of a writer – a stereotype (this is of course, the reason that ‘punk is dead’; it’s become nothing but the commodified signifiers of itself, so it can be domesticated and absorbed into the consumer system).

There’s this term ‘Flanderization’ (named after the character Ned Flanders from The Simpsons), that’s often used to describe the opposite of character development: when a character in a long running TV show slowly becomes a parody of itself, reduced to their most recognizable catchphrases and traits. They’re easier to sell that way.

III.

It’s been a few months, but you can probably still remember those automatically generated videos Facebook created at the end of last year (and every year since Timeline was introduced). The language it used was disconcertingly definitive: “Avash’s Year.” A few months before that were the “Say Thanks” videos, showing your friendship with someone. The moments that these videos show aren’t chosen, they’re determined, based on statistical analyses of the amount of likes any given photo, status, etc. recieved. Your virtual presence mediates your ‘real’ presence.

Facebook’s ‘like’-system reveals something about the way we think about identity: not as something that can be constructed, but something that must be validated. Selfies fall into this paradigm perfectly: they are a mode of self-presentation inherently designed for presentation and approval. An identity can never ‘be’, one must always aspire to ‘be’, seeking an approval that will only ever be, at most, partial, and at worst, non-existent. Irony abounds for this particular reason: a declaration that you know that you’re not what you claim you are, what you’re trying to be; a distancing from yourself, from what you want to be. Anyone without this ironic self-remove is seen as naïve. Why else the obsession with signifiers: it’s because they’re culturally approved markers of identity. Again, going back to punk, punk is now its signifiers, mohawks, patches, ripped denim, etc., rather than its spirit, anti-authoritarianism, radical anarchism, etc. because this can be safely adopted and assimilated into consumer capitalism and sold at Urban Outfitters.

Think of all the ‘whodunit’ episodes in kids shows and sitcoms, where the character plays detective, gets on a Deerstalker cap and a pipe in vain hopes of being taken seriously as one. The joke, of course, is that they’re not.

IV.

I grew up on the internet, in various forums and communities, with different handles. The idea of the ‘handle’, or the internet alter-ego is as endemic to the early internet as the digitized self is to ours (one needs only to look at any cheesy late 90s cyber-thriller to see this. Perhaps the most famous example, The Matrix. How many of you remember that Neo’s ‘real’ name is Thomas Anderson?).

These alter-egos were spaces of digital re-invention, a mode of identity utterly disconnected from anything but that digital space apart from the continuity of  those handles across other places in the internet.

Now it is difficult to find any such site where such a handle can persist: our real names have crept in through the wave of social media interconnection and leave their signatures wherever we go, so that the internet now seems to be a labyrinthine hall of mirrors, full of content designed just for you.

V.

This may seem banal enough till the implications of it become terrifyingly clear, as the real-name policy demonstrated.The overwhelming majority of the people targeted were LGBTQ. Even when I first joined Facebook, for the first few years it did not recognize my last name, “Islam” as a legitimate name. A culture in which an identity needs to be approved makes the erasure of certain identities, particularly identities that follow different schemas of identifying and naming (such as First Nations), that much easier.

Identity politics has to legitimate itself within this rhetoric of identification (that is, identities needing to be fixed, quantifiable, and validated, the model that Facebook exemplifies), particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality. A popular joke to make about the radical left is to caricaturize the proliferation of descriptors, the gradual lengthening of LGBT into LGBTQ into LGBTQIA etc. And while the articulation of more inclusive identities is important, I want to examine this compulsion to name and delineate, to identify in increasingly specific terms, ‘what’ we are. I have not faced anywhere near the amount of anxiety, trauma, and abuse that many have when seeking to find their identity, but I see this anxiety as something external forced onto us: as falling within the same paradigm of identities needing to be validated and performed, especially considering that they are defined in a psuedo-medical rhetoric originally used to diagnose ‘marginal’ sexualities as mental disorders (a problem that still persists today). Even the idea of gender fluidity, the idea of the ‘spectrum’, still implies some notion of fixity, of mapping, with the homo-hetero/male-female binary at either pole. A spectrum (a term drawn from the sciences, a term that denotes a field of measurement) documents identity as regulated, quantifiable data.

VI.

“But every morning it has to be done again”

–  Pat Lowther, “The Face”

People who use Facebook are narcissistic. But what gets forgotten is that Narcissus was cursed by the gods with a compulsion to look at himself. It was not a choice. The myth’s origin comes from the belief the ancient Greeks had that it was bad luck to see oneself in a mirror.

When the camera was invented, there was widespread superstition that it would steal your soul if you had your photo taken. While this seems silly now, there is something dehumanizing in gazing at oneself. In the moment you see yourself in the mirror, the entirety of your subjectivity, your felt experience, gets compounded and delineated into the contours of the body in front of you. It is a process of reification.

I would like to invite everyone to stare at the mirror. To look past our reflection to see the cracks and smudges on the surface of the mirror that distort, change, and alter our reflection. To see how the mirror has been shaped, and how it shapes us; what the mirror says we are, what the mirror says we are not, what the mirror says we must be and can never be. To be aware of the mirror not as a medium, but a thing in itself, and to discuss how to build new mirrors; ones where we may create our own reflections.

  • M.

    I cannot believe there is not a comment on this article!
    For a topic that requires more attention and scrutiny, you beautifully and succinctly address issues of identity and the power of the net.
    Well done!