Identity and Instagram

Part I is here.

We live in an age of expression. Think of Instagram or Facebook: the former is supposedly worth $100 billion; the latter worth more. These are platforms existing, primarily, for individuals to express themselves. Yes, companies have found ways to monetize the platforms, thus giving them value, but the monetization is simply a sign of the platform’s power. We are desperate to express ourselves.

This is a human need, of course, to voice our thoughts. We’ve listened to songs and read poetry for thousands of years, and social media simply opens the playing field to all. You don’t need to afford parchment, not to mention the huge expense of education, to gain an audience. Even a lute, I’ve heard, can be tough to come by (you have to know people).

I realize our inner expression, the navel gazing, we may pin to Petrarch, who climbed up Mount Ventoux simply for the joy of it, but came down focused on his own soul: “Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.” He had been reading Augustine’s Confessions, quite famously, and concluded that this inward gazing was more important than the joys of the view.

But where was I before Petrarch got in the way? The age of expression, where our thoughts and reactions are paramount. Yet, if society most longs for that which it most lacks, we don’t lack avenues for expression, or even what to say. Again, we lack knowledge of who we are. We must express our identity; otherwise it does not exist.

Expression, however, is not enough. We cannot yell into a void. We must be heard, acknowledged by those near us that we are who we say. This is no different from ancient networks of identity, which have always been reliant on others and our place in a community, although the degradation of our modern networks (see Part I) means that we need self-forming communities to tell us who we are. As we lack these, we search for anyone to listen and acknowledge what we say about ourselves. If we’re refused such acknowledgement, we claim those who don’t hear or don’t support and praise our identities do us violence. But, those faraway from our lived experience have never given us identity: humans gain their identities from close relationships.

We have replaced tight-knit human communities with online interactions, and in doing so we have moved from the relational to the transactional. Yet, a transaction — whether someone liking or post or even acknowledging our right to claim a certain identity, cannot tell us who we really are. 

Yet we each, post by post, are shouting who we are and desperate for someone to agree.

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