The digital age and social media: private or public?

Generally speaking, from the moment we wake up, to the moment we go to sleep, we are frequently engaging with various forms of web-enabled media. Our days start with our smart phones, which are sometimes our alarm clocks, then we tend to check emails (I know I do this whilst I am still in bed), after that and on the journey to work or school we begin checking feeds; whether these be news related or social media, and that’s just the beginning of the day.

Not only are we receiving information, we are also engaging with it ourselves via social media. It’s a two-way street. This is the biggest difference with social media and traditional media. We make social media our own by contributing to it with ‘likes’ and photos and videos and posts and chats and the list goes on…

So, where does privacy come into this digital age? Are we still private? Were we ever private?

Let’s start with the internet in general. Unless you constantly browse using private windows, nothing you do online is private. Google knows what you do, when you do it and even where you are located when you do it. It’s frightening, but that is the reality. If you are worried about privacy, browse in private windows and don’t sign up to anything online, including email newsletters. Don’t buy anything online. Don’t use a smart phone for directions. Don’t agree to any terms and conditions, and if you do, make sure you read them. You may be surprised by what you see.

In general, people browse the internet openly, and by doing so, nothing they do online is private. So generally speaking in the digital age privacy does not exist. We are constantly being monitored, and often the data acquired on us is sold.

Social media is a different story. On social media, in my opinion, privacy is in our control. We should only share what we wish to be available for public consumption. Everything we post on social media will have a footprint of some description which means that it can be found. Therefore, if we wish to remain private people in a very public social media space, how should we behave to maintain our privacy?

Welcome to the social media stage

The choice of the word ‘stage’ is completely deliberate because what we do on social media is a performance of sorts. Unlike a ‘normal’ conversation i.e. when two or more people speaking face-to-face or even over the phone, and you say what you think or feel, the social media stage is where we present either the best side of our selves, or, what we think people want to see. Either way, our interactions with social media are not natural. They are scripted, photo-shopped and sometimes contrived. It is a performance for our social media audience.

So, how is this performance validated? There are no standing ovations on social media, but there are likes, comments and sometimes, additional people who want to be your ‘friend’ or follow you after seeing something you have posted online. We constantly seek validation for our behaviour and presence on social media. This is highlighted by phrases such as “I share therefore I am” and “I tweet therefore I become”. Very smart twists on very old thoughts (courtesy of Tim Rayner).

Is our behaviour within social media influenced by the fact we know people are watching? Is it a virtual Panopticon? Tim Rayner argues “that the awareness of being watched and implicitly judged by the material we post online (including likes, shares, and comments) leads us to unconsciously aspire to please and/or impress a certain crowd, and to select content accordingly.” (Source) Generally speaking, I agree with this statement.

“The virtual Panopticon idea explains why it is that people tend to be larger than life on social media. People, like Orenstein, who are able to channel and utilize the anxiety produced by the virtual Panopticon seize on the positive aspects of their identity and amplifying them to the nth degree. I call this ‘creative self-affirmation’. The humorist becomes a prankster. The e-activist becomes a social revolutionary. The middle manager becomes a business guru. The pessimist becomes a professional iconoclast. These kinds of experiments with the self wouldn’t happen without the psychological demands of the virtual Panopticon. The expectant crowd draw us out of ourself. By commanding performances from us, the crowd draws out our singularities, those unique features of our person that represent our leading potentials.” (Source)

This leads us to a much bigger issue; if our behaviour on social media is governed by the fact that we think someone is watching, then our social media selves are not our authentic selves. The question is how is this impacting us on a psychological level?

Without a doubt, we play roles in our lives. Our self with our families and children is different to our self at work, and that self is different to the self with friends (to name but a few), but the interactions we have with our families, colleagues and friends are not 100% virtual. Our interactions on social media often are.

Likening this to social media platforms is like comparing yourself on Facebook, LinkedIn and Tumblr. You wont be exactly the same on each of these platforms as they serve very different purposes/cater to very different audiences. But ask yourself the question; are you totally different people on each of these platforms, or a variation of your authentic self?

On social media, you can be whoever you want to be because your virtual audience does not know you (in an actual sense). In addition, you can control what you put onto the social media stage. You can look how you want to look. You can say what you want to say (after rewriting it 53 times). Does this mean that on social media, our actual authentic selves are not good enough? Is that the message we are giving our selves, our peers and perhaps our children? “Don’t post that, you don’t look pretty enough” or “If you post that someone may think that’s what you actually think or like”.

Is the real issue that social media is keeping our actual selves private, and that we are constantly conforming on social media to become what we think people want us to be on that stage? Most importantly, are we ok with that?

I am not ok with that, but I think that is because the person I am on social media platforms is variations of my authentic self. I like to think that I do not conform to the audience I am ‘performing’ for. Social media is not a stage for me. It is a tool. A way that I can connect with people I want to connect with. It is not the focus of my life. I have an actual life and a virtual life. I would say I am 90% actual and 10% virtual. The longest relationship I have had is with myself, and that relationship has to be authentic and healthy for me to be happy. Actually happy. Not emoticon happy.


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