PBS Idea Channel: Facebook and Identity
I’ve written different analyses and opinions of the work of PBS Idea Channel, both positive and negative, but I find that their work continues to improve. A more recent video caught my attention dealing with facebook and identity, and I’d like to push back on some of the video’s arguments.
Fist, I’d start with the definition of memory. The video notes that pre-digital methods of cataloging life experience was much more tedious when compared to Facebook. The amount of time and effort required to make a decent scrapbook cataloguing a trip tends to pale in comparison now to the instant access to data that facebook offers. Where I seek to clarify is the definition of memory itself, as the video conflates the material we use to record our experiences with the memories of the experiences themselves. We create and collect texts, such as photos, to document our experiences, but they are not the source of cognition itself.* The physical artifacts can be vitally important to documenting our past, but the materials in of themselves act as text and tool for our own cognitive purposes. The rest of the video is fine, exploring the basics of identity construction in a digital age. I would like to push it a little further however, discussing the implications of facebook in shaping a conglomerate identity.
The main point I would like to make is this: we don’t just have one identity, but a plethora of identities in this postmodern age. We act and identify ourselves differently in different contexts. In this way facebook can be inhibiting. As Megan Garber writing for The Atlantic notes:
Facebook’s power, and its curse, is this holistic treatment of personhood. All the careful tailoring we do to ourselves (and to our selves) — to be, say, professional in one context and whimsical in the other — dissolves in the simmering singularity of the Facebook timeline. The circumstantially mediated relationships typical of IRL interactions — you see your boss at work, your friend after work, your mother-in-law at Thanksgiving — are mediated instead by one overarching, and overpowering, circumstance: Facebook. Suddenly, Work You is the same as Family You is the same as Friend You (is the same as Gym You is the same as Cooking Class You is the same as Trip to Thailand You is the same as Road Trip You is the same as Words With Friends You is the same as Happy Hour You). The You itself — which is to say, you yourself — gets flattened, condensed, homogenized. Contextual personhood gives way to comprehensive personhood. You become, for better or for worse, universal.
As Garber concludes, this condensing of personhood is stressful, so I’d like to end by pointing out some creative options in how you use facebook to help alleviate the conglomeration. Privacy settings, customized posting, personal messaging, and secret groups are all options facebook users have at their disposal to say what they really think to the people they trust. I encourage all facebook users to engage with these options to get the most out of your facebook experience. If anything, one’s own construction of identities should remain in the hands of themselves.
*For more on memory and interaction with texts, I highly recommend the book review of Prosthetic Memory by my dear friend Alexius.