The selfie is a cultural phenomenon and perhaps the most recognizable artifact of the digital transformation of our culture. A modern version of the self-portrait, the selfie enables the subject to instantly broadcast photographs of oneself and one’s surroundings to friends, families, and acquaintances. The immediate distribution of images has created a method Operandi for the control of the individual’s contextual information. The process allows for a sense of control and manipulation of one’s identity in ways that are both novel and impactful.
Selfies have changed the ways we think about ourselves. They have affected social interactions; impact our sense of who we are, and create a visual depository of image and experience that will profoundly affect our relationship with ourselves, as well as our relationships with others. Selfies are never accidental. They are deliberate depictions of experience both staged and impromptu, which allow for the purposeful performance and production of identity.
The individual taking the photo controls the image, which, after perhaps some quick editing, is transmitted to his digital universe, demanding that others take notice and view the immediacy of the image and the experience. This endless demand for content creates a need to add continually to social media, thus ensuring one remains relevant and engaged with the virtual world. The image, uploaded, posted, and visually idealized through editing is tagged, thus allowing for the social categorization of one’s image based on definitions assigned by the individual.
In the digital world of social media, we want to be noticed, actively creating a virtual identity of self, which is in need of continual monitoring – the selfie. Social media facilitates the manipulation and management of oneself and one’s identity. If one fails to check-in at a location or provide content to their social media accounts, their status is reduced to less than desirable social reality. In other words, if it isn’t real in the virtual world if it is not posted on social media, it didn’t happen. It allows one to view and define ourselves in a pre-conceived manner, manipulated by Facebook and Google algorithms, rather than the traditional, historically grounded concepts of identity and self.
Social media provides meaning to our experience of humanity in a way that fits coherently within the hyperreality of the modern era. It transforms and transfixes memories into a place where one can self-curate and situate identities within culturally sanctioned perspectives of identity and self.
Hyperreality, defined as the inability of consciousness to distinguish between reality and simulations of reality was coined by Jean Baudrillard in his work titled, Simulacra and Simulation. Both Baudrillard and his contemporary Umberto Eco liken this hyperreality to Disneyland, a place where reality and its simulations are blurred.
Disneyland not only produces illusion, but— in confessing it— stimulates the desire for it: A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands. When, in the space of twenty-four hours, you go (as I did deliberately) from the fake New Orleans of Disneyland to the real one, and from the wild river of Adventureland to a trip on the Mississippi, where the captain of the paddle-wheel steamer says it is possible to see alligators on the banks of the river, and then you don’t see any, you risk feeling homesick for Disneyland, where the wild animals don’t have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can. Eco (2014-06-24). Travels in Hyperreality (Kindle Locations 691-696).
This world of blurred boundaries, a place where the simulated real is more real than reality, provides a place where imitation becomes ultimately superior to the actual. Eco’s characterization is telling,
Disneyland, like the selfie, provides the modern individual with a reconstructed truth, something better than the original. It creates a new idea of what is desirable, a version that is unattainable by human means, and only attainable by a technological intervention. The perception has shifted from what is to what can be, leaving the individual searching for an unattainable sense of perfection, possible only through a cyber-synthesis of the real and the virtual.
Sherry Turkle (1997) suggests that the structure of computer operating systems is one of the causes of this change in perception. The creation of the Windows created a powerful metaphor or thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system…a decentered self that exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time” (p. 14). The individual, bombarded by a plethora of digital images and inputs, inevitably begins to blur the boundary between the real and virtual worlds. Unable to process the overwhelming input of the digital universe, the individual strives to define himself in a way that will allow for a definition of oneself within the virtual world. This shift in perception of self helps perpetuate change in the ways in which we define ourselves. Indeed, the virtual world allows for the blurring of boundaries on many levels, such as the use of filters on a selfie.
Disneyland is also a place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like its robots. Access to each attraction is regulated by a maze of metal railings, which discourages any individual initiative. If the visitor pays this price, he can have not only “the real thing” but also the abundance of the reconstructed truth. Eco, Umberto (2014-06-24). Travels in Hyperreality (Kindle Locations 752-753).
No longer are individuals tethered solely to their physical bodies. It is possible to interact and have relationships virtually through a technological interface. This interaction allows for a much more fluid concept of self, as individuals can experiment and experience various perspectives of themselves. Sand (2007) refers to these as interactive identities. The creation of the interactive identity and the construction of the interactive self, is a novel experience, one that has emerged within the previous twenty years. The rapid speed and quick integration of this technology is transformative in ways that impact not only ourselves but also our relationships with others and the world around us.
Boundaries need renegotiation as the limits of the physical body, and the mind are discarded. Identity becomes a set of roles that performed in a variety of combinations that meet a diverse set of needs. The fragmented selves our patients present as they strive to construct a cohesive, but not necessarily unitary sense of identity, reflects the movement away from a unitary view of identity toward a decentered notion of the self. This fluidity of self allows for a more diverse performance with less of a need to exclude that, which does not fit. (Sand, 2007, p.87)
This interactive identity allows for the exploration and re-envisioning of oneself and identity in novel ways that both encourage and limit the expression of identity. It presents both the option of anonymity and exploration of exhibitionistic tendencies simultaneously, as the individual can create a multiplicity of identities based on the context of their digital interactions. The de-centered self is free to explore the many facets of identity without the constraint of the corporeal body.
This concept is the basis for the MTV media sensation: Catfish. The television show involves the creation of a false identity online. This individual utilizes fake photographs, biographical and geographical information, as well as fake social media profiles to create a fictitious identity. Using this fictitious digital identity, the individual interacts with other unsuspecting individuals, developing virtual relationships. These relationships can last anywhere from a few months to a few years and often result in romantic feelings and attachment. Eventually, the two individuals meet with, often with disastrous results
Whether or not two people are totally lying to each other, and it turns out to be a huge disaster, that’s only the first part of the story. We then want to know why they are doing it, who they are, what they are feeling, what led them to this place, and why that resonates with thousands of other young people who have the same feelings, who don’t have someone to talk to or don’t know how to express themselves.
-Nev Shulman (Producer: Catfish)
What is resonating with the thousands of other individuals? Is it possible that this interactive identity and self, has left the individual “at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers” (Turkle 2011, p.11)? At the core of this is the need for human connection, affirmation, and recognition. We willingly trade our intimacy and privacy for Facebook likes, but at what cost? We are becoming culturally brainwashed into sharing our most intimate moments. In a virtual world, where identity is malleable and self-curated, where the boundaries between real and virtual obscured, we have willingly given away ourselves- our selfies. In this unending stream of digital consciousness, we have become consumers and not experiencers of life’s moments.
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