The Constructed Narrative of Self: Identity Documented through Social Media
Identity is not an inherent, definite object, rather it is a fluid, malleable, ever-changing enigma; it is recreated and adjusted every second. It is, essentially, a matter of perception. Identity is the sum of who one takes oneself to be at any given time. Because a person cannot define him/herself outright, without any context, s/he must rely on appearances to describe and define who s/he is. A person cannot say “this is who I am”; they must instead say “this is who I appear to be.”
In this digital age, individuals are liable to have multiple identities. Social media platforms have created a world in which people exist online as well as in the physical sphere of reality. This is an age where an individual’s social media profile acts as a second self of sorts, an additional persona that can be interpreted from the sum of a person’s posts and shares. The key here is that these digital identities exist almost entirely to be seen; they exist to be presented and publicized, accessible to friends and strangers alike. The content a person chooses to present through social media is therefore a reflection of how that person desires to be perceived by others. An individual’s digital identity is an idealized version of him/herself, and these ideals are shaped largely by the culture and society to which the person belongs. The ideals and values a person broadcasts online conform to the ideals and norms of popular society.
Because digital identity is curated to comply with social standards, and because it exists mainly to be seen and perceived by others, it cannot be taken as irrefutable truth. A person’s online profile is not an accurate portrayal of that person; it is merely a series of posts consisting of text and images that align to the ideals and values of society in order to impress or elicit a reaction from viewers.
The false nature of digital identity is, by and large, intentionally forgotten. People prefer to believe what they see presented on social media platforms, to the point where significant backlash is likely to occur if or when it is revealed an individual has been dishonest with their viewers. People want to believe what they see on social media: if a person takes another’s profile to be real and true, their own constructed online persona is verified by extension.
Amalia Ulman explores the deceptive nature of the digital identity as it exists in social media in her performance art piece, Excellences and Perfections. For four months in 2014, Ulman presented a fabricated story about her life through a total of 186 instagram photos posted in real time without announcing that these posts and the story they narrated were part of a performance (Farmer). The piece consists of three parts, each of which intends to mimic a common stereotypical ‘type’ of female, from the innocent, pastel-hued ‘tumblr girl’ of part one, to the darker, more promiscuous ‘ghetto girl’ of part two, to the healthy, yoga-loving ‘girl-next-door’ of part three (Corbett). As the piece progressed, Ulman amassed more than 65,000 instagram followers who presumably believed her account to be genuine; when she eventually revealed that she had been constructing a false narrative for the sake of an art piece, many of her followers were confused and incredulous. In her article, “How Amalia Ulman Became an Instagram Celebrity”, Rachel Corbett quotes Ulman as saying “The reaction that surprised me the most was how certain people, even though they had been told it was fiction, kept on believing it was true. I found this dichotomy between what they wanted to believe and what was actually happening very interesting.” This blatant refusal to accept the false nature of Ulman’s piece is an illuminating example of how people desire to have their digital identities viewed and accepted as real; people want their idealized social media selves to be their true selves. This desire to exist as the person one presents him/herself to be online is increasingly becoming realized: as people begin to exist more substantially in the world of the internet, it is getting more difficult to separate fact from fiction. In his article, “From Plastic Surgery to Public Meltdowns Amalia Ulman is Turning Instagram into Performance Art,” Dean Kissick quotes Ulman as saying, “[…] my anti-capitalist approach to this was to destroy my online persona, to the point of creating this fake truth that I couldn’t even fight with. It was all about the power of the image.”
The power of the image, indeed. Excellences and Perfections is a perfect example of the misleading influence of one’s digital identity as it is exhibited online; a person’s photographic and textual posts are imbued with a reality that is becoming progressively difficult to refute. In actuality, people may not be who they seem to be on the internet. However, because people exist more thoroughly online now than ever before, it may be that this facade is irrelevant. If one knows and relates to their friends and followers mainly or exclusively through a social media platform, what does it matter who these people are in the physical world? The digital self may be a constructed veneer, but in a world where so many things exist solely online, the true reality of a person’s identity might as well be the sum of their digital posts, likes, and shares.
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From Plastic Surgery to Public Meltdowns Amalia Ulman is Turning Instagram into Performance Art