As we grow, so our opinions and understanding of the world around us change. But the long memory of social media means a misguided comment from the past can be dredged up within seconds. Have we sacrificed the ability to reinvent ourselves? Ross Davies reports in the latest edition of Overseas.
"I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”
So claimed Bob Dylan in an interview with Newsweek in 1997. True enough, the longevity of the singersongwriter’s career can be attributed to mutability, from the cherubic troubadour image of his early career to the gaunt, fkame-haired rock star filling out stadia only a few years later.
But reinvention is not the sole preserve of the artist – not least when it comes to our convictions and beliefs of the world around us. Political stripes, in particular, often change over time, as does our understanding of societal mores – for better or worse.
The hardest part of all for many of us is the recall of opinions we’ve aired out in the open, only to regret them further down the line. It could be a politician whose leadership you backed, or an off-the-cuff remark meant to be humorous but that was deeply offensive to someone.
Before the advent of social media, it was considerably easier to change one’s mind about something without being held to account. But digital technology has a longer memory than any of us could ever have imagined.
Whether it be Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, we are seduced by the dopamine hit of self-validation; putting out a statement that defines our integrity and belief system – in other words, our identity.
But the world of social media can be a noisy, angry place with little time for nuance and balance, resulting in polarisation and mass tribalisation. As Silicon Valley pioneer Jaron Lanier summarised, “social media platforms make more money when people are irritated, obsessed, divided and angry”.
The prevalence of pile-ons and recriminations on Twitter is an ugly business. Speaking at a live event with the New Yorker in 2017, Author Zadie Smith rationalised her avoidance of social media as a means of allowing her “the right to be wrong”.
According to David Marshall, a Professor in new media, communication and cultural studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, the trend also has to do with the increasingly blurred line between the private and the public, which he has labelled “privlic”.
“What we are experiencing is a blending of public, private, personal and the intimate into online culture,” he says. “It’s really destabilising. We still want to present ethical versions of ourselves, even though we cross lines at different moments. And when we do, it can really haunt us.”
Despite the doubling of permitted character length from 140 to 280, Twitter’s brevity can be a double-edged sword for users. While allowing us to dash off a pithy bon mot or slant in a matter of seconds, it can often come at the expense of context and tone.
“Dierent registers can be completely lost on social media,” says Marshall. “You might mean something in a humorous way, like a meme, but people might not realise you’re joking.”
However, when I suggest to Ulrike Schultze that all of this has had a damaging impact on self-development and personal reinvention, she isn’t so sure. For Schultze, Associate Professor in IT and operations management at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, social media can actually allow us to self-curate the narratives of our lives.
“What is required to reinvent oneself is narrative,” she explains. “It’s the ability to spin new yarns and narrativize. That’s one of the theories about identity that’s been commonly accepted for a long time. It also forces us to reconcile aren’t particularly proud of with who we believe we are, and who we want to be.”
In his book The People vs Tech the British writer Jamie Bartlett describes the “panopticon effect” of social media, in which, instead of one central watchman monitoring us, “we are all being watched by everyone”. This means everyone is fair game for criticism, whether they are famous or not.
Predictably, celebrities and politicians generate the biggest Twitterstorms when they are outed for perceived past misdemeanours online. Sometimes, the dredging is impressively thorough. Earlier this year, Comedian Kevin Hart was forced to apologise aer a series of homophobic tweets from 2010 resurfaced.
While the original media predates the age of social media, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also found himself embroiled in controversy after photos were unearthed of him wearing blackface when he was teacher. In the case of a politician such as Trudeau, is it right that he be held accountable for past actions in the name of public interest?
“Elections have huge consequences, so getting a sense of a candidate is really important,” says Schultze. “We live in a world of hyper-transparency. Nevertheless, some politicians are better than others of overcoming these types of scandal, by narrativizing it in a way that is convincing and allows people to forgive them.”
As revealed in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the road to redemption following online scandal can be a long one. In recent years, this has seen the rise in Silicon Valley of virtual footprint managers and reputational consultants, who – for a little short of a king’s ransom – can push negative news stories down into the backpages of Google.
However, where the elision of social media and identity can be especially problematic is when young people are involved. For many, adolescence can be a confusing time, in which identity is oen not fully formed – or stied by the constraints of peer pressure.
In the name of exploration, teenagers do and say things that will most likely produce a shudder of shame and embarrassment when remembered as adults. This has prompted some to call for the option of digital erasure, through which people can opt to wipe anything posted online before the age of 18.
“I don’t know how that could be accomplished, realistically, and whether the tech companies would get behind it,” says Schultze. “There might also be people who don’t want their past to be wiped out.
“Where the problem comes in for adolescents, is when they are being hired, because hiring rms – oen through their legal departments – look at their social media accounts and decide whether a candidate is a liability or not.”
For those of a certain age, it’s a wonder to recall the internet’s early days – before the arrival of advertisers – as a type of safe space, in which users, in the words of Media Historian Kate Eichhorn could “adopt an alternative gender, don wings or have sex with mythical creatures”.
Cyberspace represented an outpost of geekdom, allowing a previously repressed identity to ourish. In a chatroom or forum, one could transform from an acne-ridden, tongue-tied adolescent into the avatar of their own making.
The dark web aside, most of us accept that to get the full benefits of social media we have to pay the price of relinquishing our anonymity. That said, says Marshall, users are becoming savvier around what they put out about themselves in the public domain.
“We are beginning to pull back,” he says. “We are starting to edit and curate ourselves to the point that we are eliminating a lot of information. is is partly down to a fear of surveillance.
“We are also starting to ask more questions, like, at what point does technology actually become a version of our voice? At what point do we say that it is a public version of our identity, or the private version?”
As for the future, is withdrawal from social media platforms the only way we can ensure our missteps and faux pas aren’t calcified for digital eternity? Plenty of recent op-eds can be found advocating the deletion of our social media accounts, but for many this would represent a fear of missing out (commonly abbreviated as FOMO).
However, in Schultze’s eyes, the concept of selfsameness – the idea that we are the same person as we were yesterday – is not the case for everybody, and never has been. Instead, identity is something altogether more complex and multifaceted.
“As we become more familiar with these technologies, I see identity becoming more fluid,” she says. “So, similar to the same way we have redened marriage, so we will redefine identity, so as to essentially accommodate the kind of reality that we live in.
“The denition of identity based on self-sameness and which ignores these other dimensions will fade away in favour of other forms of identity where we really are talking about multiple selves existing in different spaces.”