Like many millennials, I enjoy sharing aspects of my life on social media. If I find a spot with good lighting, I snap a quick picture for Instagram. If I come across an intriguing quote, I type it in a tweet. Through various social platforms, like Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, we are allowed the chance to represent ourselves to the outside world. Yet these representations are mere snapshots of our lives.
I can search almost anyone and find their social media accounts, but that doesn't really tell me who they are. This is because we carefully craft our online identities so that they only represent a version of ourselves. This representation is not necessarily inaccurate; it is simply not entirely whole. Social media encourages oversharing, and we oblige, but so rarely do we share anything of meaning.
The New York Times explicated the social media phenomenon by describing a 2010 novel, "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart. Within this story, smart phones have evolved so far that they have in fact redefined society. Individuals are now societally ranked based on the quality and quantity of what they share about themselves. At first glance, this is a seemingly far-fetched notion, but in truth not so far from our current reality:
Shteyngart's extrapolations from first-generation social media are beginning to prove surprisingly prescient. The biggest companies are now slaving away to bring his vision ever closer to reality. It's not a philosophical or ideological statement on their part; it's just that their business model is predicated on sharing, and finding new ways to extricate more and more from us.
Social media, once a fun way to reconnect with old friends and stay connected to family, has now become a game of "who can share the most?" This tendency to overshare is a hard one to combat, especially now that social media is so present in everyday life. Facebook even asks you upon signing in, "What's on your mind?" Such a greeting, although superficial, posits the user in a position of digital power. We have been transformed by our social media profiles into media-makers. We are given a role in shaping what our friends and followers see on their feeds. This power to create can be difficult to manage. We are consistently encouraged to overshare; yet oversharing can lead to the dilution of individuality and identity online.
Although social media may seem a far cry from traditional propaganda, the two may be reconciled through Edward Bernays. He describes propaganda as an omnipresent influence on the general public that is dangerous, but necessary to maintain order and direct society. He provides a succinct, yet appropriate, definition from the opening line of his book Propaganda: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element of democratic society." Propaganda is something that happens to us. We are consistently manipulated by its ominous presence, a process that removes us, as the audience, of any potential power or influence.
Propaganda as introduced by Bernays is a force that modifies our thoughts and habits, a process that can be conscious, but more often manifests subconsciously. Social media has transitioned into a form of propaganda. It is impossible to log into a profile without being confronted with some sort of persuasion, be it an advertisement or a friend's political.
But, although we constantly absorb propaganda through social media, we are concurrently encouraged to propagate ourselves. In fact, it is expected of us online. Through social media, we are given the chance to take back the power that has been removed by traditional (societal, governmental, etc.) propaganda. Instead, we are given the tools to create our own personal brand of propaganda.
Such a notion makes social media all the more overwhelming. But what you share online doesn't have to overshadow your individuality. Instead, be wary of the parts you choose to share. As is explicated by the NYT article previously mentioned, Beyoncé is a known public figure; she is a singer and a modern feminist icon. Her presence on social media is vast-reaching, yet ultimately limited. She does not give interviews. She does not post many candid selfies. She doesn't even tag a location in her pictures. She represents her public life on stage and through the pictures she posts. Her private life, although privy to much speculation, is largely kept secret. Beyoncé is also evidence of the potential power of women in digital spaces. Social media platforms are constricted by form, but broad in content. Modern day feminism has transitioned to these online spaces, as evidenced by activist campaigns like #YesAllWomen and the mass sharing of "Beyonce Feminist" memes.
The NYT further examines how female identity is shifting in the digital age through the theory of cyberfeminism. Users, particularly those who are female-identifying, have the opportunity to reshape their identities in a meaningful way:
Donna Haraway, emerita professor of the history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an inspiration for cyberfeminism, wrote that new technologies could liberate women from patriarchy and other oppressive systems. In the distant future, she believed, people could assume virtual bodies, allowing for "permanently partial identities" that could exist beyond gender, beyond reproach and without limits.
It is through this notion of cyberfeminism that individuals, like the millennials who are most prominent on social media, can utilize these platforms to not only spark social dialogue, but also reshape their own identities.
So, the next time you post, first ask yourself: does the information I put into the digital world serve primarily to suppress or liberate me? Participating on social media can be a freeing experience, and it can just as easily be stifling to your identity and personhood. Ultimately, it is important to keep in mind what you share and how that contributes to your online identity and the overall digital community.
In other words: