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Identity Curation

Identity Curation
by B. Imei Hsu, BSN-RN, MAC-LMHC, Artist

Recently, I came across an article on Mashable about the ‘Facebook Facelift’: that is, facelifts prompted by concerned consumers after seeing their images as depicted on Social Media platforms. As quoted from the article, Dr. Adam Schaffner, a New York plastic surgeon stated, “When you look in the mirror you’re seeing the mirror image of yourself. But when you see yourself on social media, you’re seeing yourself the way the world sees you” [italics added]. Continuing to reflect on the intersection between technology, Social Media, and human behavior, I am not surprised at this increase. We are living in an age where curating identity has become a pasttime of teenagers, emerging adults, and business owners alike. According to the book, Identity Shift by Cerra and James, we have started using the Internet as a our mirror instead of a mature observer or authentic community to reflect to ourselves various aspects of who we are. The curation of identity on the Internet, with psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s philosophy on the mirror phase as a permanent structure rather than a phase in childhood development, creates a hyper-reality that is more real than the real. What happens when identity curation leaves consumers with a sense of disconnection from themselves? The following is a discussion about some of possible pitfalls of Social Media use in the effort to curate one’s identity to obsession.

1. #ICareBecauseYouDo. This was the hashtag that I used as a title to a presentation for mental health professionals and artists. The idea that people become followers and imitators in a formulaic bid for attention and fame is not new. When it becomes popular to share an idea — and increasingly unpopular not to — Social Media users may feel anxious about what they did and did not support/like/promote/share within a very limited timeframe. An example was the explosive campaign to capture Joseph Kony, a Ugandan war criminal responsible for recruiting over 66,000 child soldiers over two decades. Filmmaker Jason Russell made a thirty minute documentary about Kony and the child soldiers, and founded the organization Invisible Children. Financial support to the organization and celebrity supporters came rushing to the Internet scene. Comments left on the Youtube video site indicated that one would have to be heartless not to share the video to everyone and support the organization. While the cause was clearly important, the organization and its founder came under fire for the high administrative overhead it took from donations as well as the ensuing mental meltdown of Russell. The fundraising appeared to have fizzled from media hype almost as soon as the videos of Russell’s naked meltdown and a few other earlier antics were released to the public. Strangely, all those people who cared so very much suddenly cared so very little about those child soldiers.

I wondered if people withdrew support because they did not want to be associated with giving to a filmmaker who had some personal and professional conflicts of interest, or if they withdrew support because they no longer believed in the cause. From the intensity of the comments, people were convinced that this cause was important. Why the change of heart? Is it possible that many only cared about this cause because millions of others appeared to care? Is this a part of what it means to curate your identity; that is, publicly support something that one knows others support, and reject causes, persons, and beliefs because the majority of one’s community also rejects the same?

Hmm. Welcome back to High School?

2. I’ll Tell You The Story I Think You Want To Hear. One of the ideas I discussed on the pii2012 consumer panel in May 2012 was the observation that many people are coming to my office and struggling to tell their story. This is a new phenomenon. In the previous decade, I had many more clients jump right in with the meat of their stories.   The younger and more digitally native the client, the more difficult it appears for them to tell their own story without the editing eye used for Facebook Walls and Google+ updates.

The process of presenting just the right photos and just the most cute or funny or acceptable or profound stories and quotes is a part of the identity curation process. We don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about us, do we? Post those pictures on vacation, but make sure your employer doesn’t see when you’re enjoying a beer on the beach if you called in sick. Flirt with everyone in your digital community to keep them engaged, but don’t offend  or embarrass the girlfriend. Share just enough about what you eat and where you workout to make yourself appear approachable and human, but not so much to wear your needs and wants on your sleeve as to appear needy and whiney (because having a need or whining about a need are too human for us to handle, right?). In essence, we’re afraid to be transparent online. What we share one day could bite us the next. And because our public has become the world instead of our little corner of it, we have reasons for our fears.

How the loss of storytelling manifests in the counseling hour can feel like a dance of many starts and stops, a few steps forward, and a quizzical side step of issues, conflicts, and image-sensitive conversations, because platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+ weren’t designed to identify and categorize the subtle levels of intimate relationship we have in real life. If we had to go through our entire Social Media contact list to identify our closest friends to share a deeper message with (such as changing privacy settings), we might as well have sent a personal email to a small group, or host a BBQ instead.  As people spend more time “relating” on Social Media platforms, they may transfer these pseudo-relating skills back into real life relationships, skimming over the deeper moments of relationship from where we practice the art of love, compassion, courage, and patience in action. Having lost practice with transparency, the one place where confidentiality is assured does not translate into automatic transmission of an authentic story. By observation, it appears to me that digital natives are very caught with their stories, and the therapist becomes a type of archeologist assisting the client to unearth all the little gems and rocks of stories with the diligence of a very patient expert and a very large pickaxe.

While I’m not saying that Social Media is directly harming the ability of its users to relate to one another, I believe Social Media is changing it for its most avid users. Social Media causes its users to think about the positive and negative consequences of sharing the”truth” of themselves. When that “truth” is a curated self over years of time, those same users should also wonder what circles allow them to let their hair down and be truly seen for who they are, warts, wrinkles, and all (sans Facebook Facelift).  One’s Social Media-influenced consciousness – that is, Social Media as the Mirror — can’t be anything but a distortion when its user changes his or her life story with the touch of a button. What you see of a person on Social Media is what they want you to see; we’re left to guess about the rest. But what I see in the counseling hour must be everything you want to hide – and yet be caught. 

3. If I Can Crowdsource Enough of the Same Answers, I Must Be Right. From the paragraph above,the art of skillful counseling has remained unchanged: you come in with issues to discuss and analyze, and I come in and offer you an objective mirror. What’s different? What I’ve noticed Social Media do for some users is to create a safer harbor of like-minded opinions. If you don’t want to spend more money on a newer safety item for your kid, perhaps you will ask other people what safety items they purchased for their kids, remove the dissenters and the overly anxious comments, and select the opinions you like the best. Voila!  Now you have created the “truth” about what makes your child safe. Or have you just created a false sense of security about what is in yours and your child’s best interest?

Now, imagine taking that same action into the therapeutic environment. You hear something your therapist, mentor, coach, or helping professional as reflected back to you, and you don’t agree. Instead of dealing with the truth of that moment, i.e. you disagree with something, you might have difficulty holding onto yourself – that is, standing in your own feelings without disconnecting with the person in front of you – you decide to crowdsource an answer from your hundreds of followers on Social Media. Whichever answer gets the most hits, even if the way you word your question is skewed, is “the” correct answer. Stated this way, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.
photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.

One of the pitfalls of the effect of identity curation through Social Media is that we likely have knowingly collected and digitally surrounded ourselves with a biased sample of like-minded individuals. Most of them are prepared to side with you, which in itself isn’t a horrible thing. What is more disconcerting is sabotaging or delaying your own possible attempts to learn discernment, as well as what I call trusting your gut. There are many decisions we make in life that cannot be simply evidence based. Choosing to stay with a job, deciding to have another child, selecting a mate or leaving one, selecting another country in which to live, are decisions that require us to go deep with our history, our hopes and dreams, and our mistakes. These aren’t questions we can crowdsource. Your therapist may be wrong with his or her use of the mirror, but even THAT can be used as a therapeutic moment to help you see yourself in the process of decision making, relating, handing cognitive dissonance, and conflict resolution.

In short, Social Media is a poor relational mirror. Using it as such renders poor results; meaning, it wasn’t designed to help you see who you are and what you want out of life. It reflects a distorted image of how you perceive the world perceives you. I argue that therapy and authentic friendships* are two much better suited mirrors for self-discovery and accurate reflection.The identity we curate on Social Media and what others add is only a part of an image. One of the challenges of a curating our more embarrassing or disturbing events and activities is how permanent it is on the Internet. For example, BrandYourself.com, a new startup that helps users control their image across the Internet, reminds users of how difficult it is to remove information we’ve released to the digital world. Unless we’re willing to scrub the Internet for our identifying elements, the best we can do is bury our digital past with enough positive pieces for search engines to discover.

If you are concerned with intrusive behaviors of other well-meaning but uninformed consumers who share your network, you have the choice of limiting their access to your digital world by changing privacy controls, hiring a company to manage your image online, and/or developing another aspect of yourself that manages your image without being consumed by it. In other words, you don’t need to freak out if a friend posts a less-than-flattering photo of you at a weekend event, but you might need to talk to someone who shared a video of you strung out and hung over at a concert venue. The first example is uncomfortable but not damaging. The second could have ramifications on everything from your future employment to your health insurance benefits.

What I would hate any reader of this post to walk away with is a sense of learned helplessness about Social Media and identity curation. Just because there are challenges to consider and complications to navigate does not mean we should throw up our hands and say it isn’t our problem to solve, or that all Social Media platforms are evil. I trust that you are intelligent enough to start the conversation with trusted individuals, ask your questions, and weigh in on what you want out of your online experiences. You have the ability to learn from your mistakes, forge new pathway and actions, try new things, and forgo actions that aren’t in your best interest.

If you find yourself with a lot of “friends” on Facebook but few or no friends in real life, perhaps it is time to reexamine the art of friendship. Within good friendships, we see more closely who we are and what we’re capable of. Friendships are the foundations for truthful mirrors and authentic identity curation. Whether friendships are F2F or maintained digitally, the deeper levels of sharing and intimacy make friendships the ultimate analog solution. And if the we at Seattle Direct Counseling can be of help with this, directly connect with us today!

* incidentally, an authentic friendship in the form of a marriage partner is also a good mirror.

    By Imei Hsu

    Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 29+ years in healthcare (20+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She is launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018), and is currently training for her third Ironman in August 2020; she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for two separate 100 Mile trail races in 2020. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, and cooking real food.

    3 replies on “Identity Curation”

    Finally I have read something intelligent about the contagious sickness I find around me. Thank you, thank you!

    Glad you found this post helpful.

    I’ll be presenting at pii2013 this September 17 -19, 2013 in Seattle on the subject of wearable technology and its effect on people. I have more to add about identity curation, but you can follow my journey as a Google Glass Explorer to get my take on how wearable tech influences social behaviors.

    I’m grateful that I stumbled across your article. Having grown up with computers (using since I was 2), and having started using the internet at about age 10 (34 now), I see myself feeling somewhat afraid to be too public online, and how it could impact how people view me. However, I think the fear is less on how people might view me but how they might view other people in my life. I find myself just as worried, if not more worried, about curating the identity of the people in my life than my own. I hesitate to share photos of me with my friends, not knowing if the photo that I share will align with their brand image, if that makes sense. So not only not saying the “bad” things about them, but also not saying the “good” things about them, because maybe they don’t see them as “good.” I think this is hard enough to manage in groups of 3 people, let alone public spaces like the internet. And at the same time, I’m grateful for the internet in helping me see deeper into human nature and we relate to each other. Thank you so much for writing this post and inspiring me to think more deeply about this.

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