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Defining Identity in the Digital Age

Writing by Maddie Noton. Illustration by Paola Valentina.

Having been the subject of philosophical thought and debate over centuries, the notion of identity remains, ironically, unidentifiable by finite definition. Throughout our lives, our self-image fluctuates back and forth, owing to chronological changes, external influences and our psychological programming. The statement “describe yourself” - in a non-physical context - elicits varying responses from an individual over the course of their life as our interests and beliefs shape and reshape with time. However, identity and self-image are becoming slowly more ambiguous alongside the rise of technological advances, which glorify falsely constructed versions of ourselves through an online medium. Although social media profiles reveal certain interests and characteristics about a person, they also obscure our objective reasoning and detract from reality, suggesting that numerical popularity (think likes on your insta post) defines a person’s worth. Media exposure is undoubtedly potent in its contribution to self-image, especially in an age where we routinely encounter more online faces than we do real ones.

What forms an identity? We often exhibit our personality traits through an amalgamation of interests, reflections of aspects we admire and potential familiarities which induce a sense of comfort. However, what subconsciously draws us to associate with these interests and hobbies is said to stem from early psychological development. Incapable of independently forming opinions and judgements from birth, we are naturally inclined to echo those of our superiors: perhaps teachers, parents, role models etc. Interestingly, although our range of ‘role models’ broaden with age, we still aim to replicate those we deem icons: no longer a parent, but perhaps a globally recognised figure or celebrity. Memories and experiences often contribute to our current likes and dislikes as well as fears. For example, a fear of spiders is likely to have surfaced due to seeing a parent or carer negatively react when in contact with them. In particular, arachnophobia is further perpetuated by cultural influence. Owing to its celebration of horror and the grotesque, Halloween maintains the notion of spiders as something to fear, irrespective of their physical, harmless behaviour.

Culture and tradition are large contributing factors in ascertaining the way in which we define ourselves. Growing up in a religious household may encourage the continuation of cultural festivities and determine belief systems. Similarly, being born into a musical or artistic family often predetermines later interests and hobbies, which may even evolve into careers and full-time occupations. Perhaps the reason for this is an established sense of familiarity, which we seek to replicate within our own lives. Familial comforts and routines provide us with a sense of psychological direction and stability, owing to our primal instincts to establish safety in foreign environments. This could include moving away from home or certainly, for many of us, the move to university. It hints towards a logical reasoning for our subconscious actions and points to the importance of our past: we collate our former experiences and manifest them within our modern self-perceptions.

Aside from characteristics and qualities, the definition of identity also seems dominated by physical representations, an argument supported via our increasing attention on appearance and image. Although our physical appearance has always been a large factor in our identities, the movement to an online existence forces greater attention to detail on our digital profile. Alongside an overwhelming reliance on technology to stay up to date with current events and affairs, our instinctual need to remain heard has shaped our digital presentations, casting light on a culture that values individuals through physical representation. Face-to-face interactions and social meet ups in the modern day rarely occur without the presence of a phone or item of technology. Indeed, we cannot be separated from our digital identities for a prolonged period of time. Dating apps like Tinder have eliminated the necessity to meet people in the real world, as we are presented with the necessary information all through a screen. Suddenly, finding a romantic match no longer requires a process of copious amounts of meet and greets - we now sieve through potential partners with a simple swipe of the thumb. 

However, this technology poses as many disadvantages as it does benefits. Despite a growing sense of established control over our identities and the choice between which photos and images we wish to share, owing to its anonymity, users are granted publication of mostly unmonitored opinions and judgments – not all encouraging or supportive. This leads to physical appearance and presentation being defined and categorised into standards of beauty according to public opinion, often with ostracising and demeaning effects. Already fragile self-perceptions turn inwards and eat away at our confidence, leading to a desire to change and conform to outsider opinion.

As we slowly transgress into a society which attempts to categorise us, I bring to light Oscar Wilde’s perhaps bleak discernment on our existence in respect to its both contemporary and modern significance on our understanding of identity “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (Oscar Wilde, De Profundis). He deconstructs the very roots of our identity down to simply reflections and fragments of others. In an ever-growing world of digital media instructing us on what to think, wear, eat (etc), our self-presentations are being emptied of individualistic qualities, and conforming to more collective identities, those approved by social standards.

In this way, therefore, our online presence becomes not a digital reflection of ourselves, but, instead, manifestations of the way in which we seek the approval of others. We are careful about what we post because the repercussions threaten our online reputations and detract from a socially acceptable profile, regardless of whether or not they reflect our true selves.

 In as much as it removes unique characteristics, collective identity also seeks to strengthen our feeling of belonging. Through association and familiarity, we may bond and connect to others with similar interests and qualities. This likewise stretches as far to ethnicity and cultural similarities. For example, finding a person who shares an interest in something as simple as a film or book may ignite an attachment and permits us to deepen our relationship to that individual. Internet activity has likewise fuelled this via the creation of terms such as ‘trending’ ‘trend-setters’ and ‘influencers’, jargon that simultaneously affirms our association with a collective, yet also unites us as a group. Thus, alongside a removal of individualistic traits, we may take comfort from a growing sense of united identity.

As a final point of interest, I would like to refocus attention to our own understanding of what makes an identity. In an age where digital media seems to occupy an increasing proportion of our lives, we often struggle to disassociate ourselves from our online representations, believing these profiles to be the pinnacle of our reputation. However, our identities seem not to be a fixed concept. As previously mentioned, the aspects which both physically and psychologically stabilise us as well as externally influence such as culture are continually shifting and developing, unable to distinctly and finitely categorise us. In attempts to find comfort, we often seek to withdraw into our past and self-reflect on aspects of ourselves which have made us who we are today. Thus, constructed on both a physical and psychological representation, identity remains a subject of unidentifiable ambiguity. 

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