I had a really interesting brainstorm the other day with some friends, discussing social media and identity construction. (I completely thank my good friend & partner Anna Akbari for her brilliant insights on identity construction – the subject of her PhD thesis with regard to fashion).
I have written about Facebook before as a construction of the good, glossy selves that we want to project. But I think that identity in the digital age has become more complex than a facebook page. It encompasses who we follow on twitter (and who follows us back), what we listen to on spotify, and what questions we answer on quora. Knowing that the world is watching may mean that we will turn that share button off for Rihana, and on for say, Beirut.
Turning back to traditional notions of identity construction through sociological theory, one stumbles upon (OK, I did in Wikipedia) the works of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s who wrote The Social Construction of Reality in 1967. The two argue that all human knowledge derives and is maintained by social interactions. Our interactions essentially become a web of social knowledge, and layers are reinforced (the most commonly reinforced are the most basic common sense knowledge). Everyday, we negotiate our knowledge and our belief systems with friends, family and strangers and refashion our identity. Where these negotiations happened on the streets, on the phone, in our homes with family, they know happen thousands of times a day on the internet.
I think this means a few things:
1) our identities are more malleable than ever before.
We can be a million different people, all at once. How many New Yorkers have (at least) three business cards? Whereas projected identity was generally a rather flat image, the ease of spreading social messages and cues through the web has allowed us to become truly multi-dimensional. On twitter, we can engage in academic discourse and follow people who make us smarter. On facebook, we can project our fun, cultured selves checking into museums and eating at New York mag’s top picked restaurants. Or, like my friend Genevieve, you can be a fashion icon for a day by showing up in a street style blog. We can have multiple blogs. We can brag about our professional accomplishments on Linked In. We can be social media mavens on Klout. The possibilities are literally endless and no longer rely on physically changing our appearance or our daily activities. We can do everything exactly the same, and yet project a world of difference to our audience.
2) Our embodied and digital identities are hyper-informed
One of my favorite areas of interest for some time now is the role of fashion and the apparel industry in social change. From textile agreements blazing the ways for human rights standards in trade bills to social enterprise fashion models, the way we dress can say a lot about our ethics and values. Example. One of my friends, Liz, is a designer is makes awesome bangle bracelets crafted from dismantled cluster bombs in Laos (handcrafted by local artisans). While I, with over a decade of human rights work under my belt, may understand the benefits of local economic development, and that Laos happens to be the most bombed country in the world, most people do not. So I wear my bracelets, and when people ask me about them, I say, my friend Liz made them. Visit www.shoparticle22.com to learn about them, and there one can explore beautiful photos of the artisans, a short documentary film, and one bracelet makes a difference. Just like that, my embodied presence is transformed into a passive activist. Brands like Maiyet, A Peace Treaty, and Kora Designs have literally embedded narratives of social change into their products. To be clear, fashion has been associated with activism for a long time. However, the way that the story is told has changed. The statement need not be literal – it takes the form of a transmedia story – our physical presence being one part of that message.
3) We are all headed for a Ron Paul style UN dictatorship
Well, not really. But I do think that culture is merging in so many ways, that our identities are overlapping in new and really exciting ways. Music is a great example of this- I remember how revolutionary Paul Simon’s Graceland was in the 1980s compared to today where artists like Thievery Corporation that borrow instrumentals from all over the world abound. Futurist author Virginia Postrel writes a great discourse on the topic in her book The Future and its Enemies.
I was inspired to write this post as I prepare to write my 2012 narrative, following on the heels of the 2011 narrative. The access that we all have to information, the ability to showcase our talents and skills and the ease of access we have to literally anyone – all thanks to the web – has made it possible for me to literally construct the person who I want to be. I had little choice in the matter. Graduating from law school, I knew what I didn’t want to be (a lawyer) and not so much what I did want. So I have spent the past 2 years or so curating an identity – the right mix of social good, technology, social, and intellectual. I am wondering how long this process will last – I guess I can hope to spend everyday for the rest of my life actively becoming the person who I want to be.