Like Me: Identity Exploitation & Idol Worship on Social Media

Social media has a way of suppressing my voice. This may seem like an oxymoron considering that every time I go online I can instantly tell how many shots of espresso Jess has in her coffee, or the fact that Jason slept into until 3pm today because he was out all night. My network of information grows with each new connection as articles and youtube links flood my newsfeed, all of which I can write my own inspired and biased opinions, exposing myself to the global village and the global village to myself. But I’ve found that social media, in all its glory, has shut me up. With so many voices and so many opportunities to scream out our opinions, when are we actually heard and does it even matter anymore? And if it doesn’t matter, then what exactly is the point?

As I look back to who I was before Facebook, the only way to describe myself is to say I was an intricate balance of pros and cons, faults and beauty. The timeline of my life was fluid; my identity was always evolving, able to break free from the constraints of my past. Today, I am a celebrity in my own life, competing with everyone else to be heard. I no longer am ignorantly free to dance in the shadows as a life lived undocumented. I am now forced to choose between being frozen in time, captured by the self induced paparazzi snaps of photos and status updates or- not existing at all. So I become the star of my own life, just as everyone else has.

Celebrity and idol worship is not a new concept to mankind. Since the beginning of human’s intrigue in the universe, we have been focusing our attention on idols as a way to conceptualize abstract ideas and formulate more concise understanding of otherwise complex theories. Through the ritual of worship, we are connected to our communities and engrained in the culture (Dobbins 1990). And almost every culture throughout history, whether it be religious or superstitious in nature, has had it’s own rituals and deities, celebrities or saints to pay homage to as a way to unwrap their own understanding of their society and their self within said society.

This recent century, with the advent of progressive media such as film and radio and with the decline of religious servitude in mass culture, we have seen media transfigure this construct of idol worship in the form of celebrity worship and fame. Audiences fall in love with fictional characters and manufactured personnas that are projected upon individuals. This fame from being the in the “public eye” transforms these otherwise ordinary people into symbols of success and unobtainable awe to the average public. And the more access we get to details of these celebrities’ lives, whether scandalous or insignificant, the more we feed this primal instinct in us to consume and worship.

This idea of consuming a stranger’s life, or rather ingesting the details of a person’s world that is separate from the us, brings to light questions of why we thrive on being voyeuristic. Psychologist Philip Cushman amounts this to the concept of the “empty self,” a cultural sense of identity that emerged in the twentieth century due to an increasing emphasis on the development of a secular personality. The empty self is plagued by a loss of a shared sense of community and meaning, isolation and low self-esteem which the person tries to remedy (Reeves 2012). This nonspecific, chronic emotional need becomes a catalyst for the impulse to consume and create artificial relationships to fill a void.

So with the emergence of social media culture, more specifically Facebook and previously MySpace, we are stumbling into yet another new era of idol worship: a time of self exploitation and intentional self identity construction. Alongside our celebration of celebrities, we, the audience, have turned to focus on ourselves, offering our lives to the public to be consumed. By creating virtual self monuments, via Facebook profiles, we are able to construct an idealized version of ourselves for the public to voyeuristically explore and ingest. Rosenberg, a psychologist and sociologist, stresses the importance of identity claiming it to be an essential aspect of our sense of self. “Self concept,” he explains, “is the totality of a person’s thought and feelings in reference to oneself as an object. Identity is the part of the self ‘by which we are known to others’” (Altheide 2000) The internet has changed our traditional acquisition of developing our identity.

According to sociologists Markus and Nurius, “a person’s conception of him- or herself at any given time can be divided into two categories: the “now selves” and the “possible selves” (Zhao 2008). The ‘now self’ being the concrete version of one’s current identity that is already established and the ‘possible selves’ being a identity currently unknown. The ‘hoped for possible self’, is neither our true self or our possible self, but rather our projected ideal self. Unconstrained by traditional influences such as environment and possible fears (such as shyness), social media allows us to embrace this “hoped for” possible self and recreate our personalities without any blemishes. In essence, we are becoming accustomed to obsess over the maintenance of an unattainable and idealized version of ourselves, enabling the ability to airbrush out otherwise defining characteristics that we may see as our faults…. or as Rosenberg would say, we begin to describe ourselves as products.

As we construct these online realms that house our promotional identities, many of us neglect to put introspection towards what impact this has on our sense of self. L.S Clark argues that “it is incorrect to think that the online and offline world are two separate worlds” (Zhao 2008). According to researchers, this trend of self-promoting and superficial behaviours are shown to support the rise of narcissistic behaviours among all users, because this is being viewed as acceptable (Mehdizadeh 2010). When someone receives positive feedback, in the form of ‘likes’, for seemingly trivial status’ (such as “I hate Mondays”) it reenforces this idea that people are watching them and approving. Platforms, such as Facebook, create an environment for this nonstop sense of approval by one’s peers to flourish with little resistance. If a “dislike” button on Facebook was introduced, I believe the dynamics would drastically change. Whether or not a dislike button would be aggressively used is not why we would see a transformation, but it would break through the somewhat utopian illusion and force users to reassess their statements in a more reflective and constructive manner. It would present us with the reality of possible doubt… and doubt has no place in our construction of an ideal self.

As a recent phenomenon, there is very little concrete knowledge of how this new culture of identity exploitation and promotion is really influencing us in terms of our sense of self but I think it is safe to advise users that there are prolific inquiries that us, as consumers and producers, need to think about. We are documenting our lives for public consumption, as if we are celebrities, alongside ingesting the idealized versions of others. Through all the positive aspects of advancement and connectivity that these tools have given us, the filtering out of the bad and worship of the ideal leads to me to feel more censored than free. My photos, videos, comments and statuses all act as a careful strategized version of myself and do other peoples. We are all celebrities in our lives, competing to heard and idolized. Meanwhile updating my Facebook status, the only question I undeniably ask myself is, “is anyone even actually listening?”

Sources:

  1. Altheide, D. L. “Identity and the Definition of the Situation in a Mass-mediated Context.” Symbolic Interaction 23.1 (2000): 1-27. Web.
  2. Dobbins, Frank S. Idol Worship of the Worlds. Philadelphia: Hubbard Bros, 1990. Print.
  3. Mehdizadeh, Soraya. “Self Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 13.4 (2010): 357-64. Web.
  4. Reeves, Robert A., Gary A. Baker, and Chris S. Truluck. “Celebrity Worship, Materialism, Compulsive Buying, and the Empty Self.” Psychology and Marketing 29.9 (2012): 674-79. Web.
  5. Zhao, Shanyang, Sherri Grasmuck, and Jason Martin. “Identity Construction on Facebook: Digital Empowerment in Anchored Relationships.” Computers in Human Behavior 24 (2008): 1816-836. Web.

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