Shiny, happy people… or not?

This week’s topic for EC&I 832 is on the challenges of identity in a mediated world. My first thought, when faced with that sort of question, is more about the balance. There are challenges to any sort of world but are there benefits also? Actual benefits, not just benefits proposed by marketing teams and technology firms seeking to sell product, to change how we live because it would benefit their bottom line.

I’m cynical in so many ways about technology. Not an optimist, not really, although I fit within techno-progressivism. I think with balance, that technology could bring positive change to our world (we can 3D print organs! this is the science fiction we only dreamed of when I was young). But technology cannot drive the change itself or you get scary, scary things. Jarod Lanier writes about this sort of thing in You Are Not a Gadget, using the example of MIDI in his introduction to talk about the impact that technologists have had on our world, sometimes without thought. Having learned piano before anything, I had never really thought of MIDI as limiting. Mostly I hadn’t thought of MIDI since I stopped seeing it as a file type and stopped hearing the horridly synthetic versions that used to be on Windows 3.0. It was never a voice, never human, never the music I loved best. Although I started with piano and was trained to think of notes as discrete things, I also played trumpet and sang. I knew about music being fluid, about tone and scoops and vibrato. But I also had to use an electronic tuner. I had to be able to ensure that my version of a middle C matched someone else’s version, and now we use a standard. (You used to be able to pick up a telephone to set your pitch by the dialtone.)

I still feel like, in some ways, there is space for the internet and technology to give us ways to be shiny and happy. Not just the mask we present, but in deeper ways.

I read Split Screen and grieved for the family and the young woman who could not see beyond perception. There are tons of what are referred to as “mommy bloggers” (this is pretty obvious, they are moms who blog about being moms) who have written about the same issue of surface perfection when it comes to families. This isn’t new as an issue. We have never really known about what lies beneath with friends and family, let alone neighbours, coworkers, the people we see when out and about. I know a whole lot of people who had the supposedly perfect family on the surface but lived something different beneath. Our society is obsessed with perfection but also with tearing down those who we fear may not live up to that perfection. Monica Lewinski found that out the hard way. Now we no longer go after only those who we view as having the perfect life like Princess Diana or Hollywood stars, we go after the Justine Sacco‘s of the world.

flickr photo shared by mikecogh under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

We expect perfection, of ourselves, of others, and any hint that perfection is not there is torn down, even as we try so hard to hold up the veneer of perfection ourselves. We cringe at the idea of showing our flaws and failures to anyone else because flaws and failures are not accepted. Rather than a world that admires us for admitting flaws, for seeking to overcome and be better humans, we live in a world that seeks to cover it all up with pretty paper. Just buy this product, just do this thing, and you will be perfect, you will be successful. Nevermind the things you struggle with, nevermind your failures, you can just leave them in the past.

Well, the internet has proven to us that we cannot. Not any longer.

Our identities are being poked and prodded, questioned. Facebook decides what of us our friends see. Parents create their child online before the child has ever drawn an actual breath of air themselves (and if we worried about the trope of a family member pulling out the family album to show the new person we are dating, imagine going through what many parents put online now!).

If we live in a world that no longer forgets, then I agree with Alec and Katia that we need to find ways to deal with that meaningfully. If we cannot forget, then we need to learn to forgive. We need to teach failure, teach about being flawed. We ourselves need to discuss failure and flaws. We need to accept something other than “normal” or “average.” We need to see those who are not neuro-typical as just as much part of this world /a>as those of us who haven’t been diagnosed with a label or who aren’t visibly or diagnosably “imperfect.”

flickr photo shared by symphony of love under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

I try to be me online but let’s be honest, I didn’t tell Facebook about chipping a tooth when trying to pull a needle and thread through a project I was making. But now I’ve told you. I have screwed up at work and only because I work with fantastic people was everything fixed. I am flawed. I have bad days. There are things I don’t want to own up to, things I hope I am forgiven for, at least by myself.

And maybe, just maybe, technology can open for us that opportunity. Maybe technology can start to let us relearn about failure, relearn about flaws. I’m not suggesting that we all start proudly listing off the things we’ve done wrong or the flaws we see the same way we now try to flaunt our accomplishments, as though we just swapped one badge of honour for another. I am suggesting that we learn to expect nuance.

So how about you? Are you willing to be less than perfect in your identity online? Not as part of a fad but just in terms of being real? Do you think that the internet and technology could ever make that more possible rather than less?

3 thoughts on “Shiny, happy people… or not?”

  1. I like to think that I present my ‘real’ self online, but I know that it is a filtered version of my life. I do share both ups and downs but I definitely share more ups than downs. I don’t think it’s because I want to seem perfect, but I fear that if I post about too many of the downs that people will start to think I am complaining or being to negative. It’s hard to please everyone online haha.

  2. I know that some in sociology believe that we’re never really ourselves. We simply project a personality that lives up to what we think others perceive us as. I think technology might amplify this problem because there’s a larger audience in the digital world that we are ‘performing’ for.

    1. Or maybe it amplifies because our audiences are so often less specific? We usually perform ourselves in specific contexts, for known audiences, but so often online we get context collapse, as Michael Wesch wrote about. We are rarely our full self but when we don’t know the audience, it’s harder to know what aspects we should be. Although maybe that lets us be more authentic? We don’t filter for the audience as much, so we could be more authentic.

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