Identity, Self-Transformation And The Influence Of Social Networking

Is the Internet changing the way we think? “Is Google making us stupid?” (1) Does the Internet improve multitasking or does it minimize our capacity for sustained attention? Does it increase isolation or does it enhance connectivity? You can’t move within the culture without confronting these and other questions concerned with how the Internet is changing the way we live and relate to others. (2) At this moment midstream, when there has been an accelerating and overwhelming rate of technological change, it is challenging, tempting, fruitful and frustrating to gauge the effects of the Internet on psychological experience and interpersonal relationship.

In an article titled, “The End of Forgetting” (3) that appeared in the NY Times Magazine section of July 26. 2010 John Rosen signals an alarm when he states, “Legal scholars, technologists and cyberthinkers are wrestling with the first great existential crisis of the digital age: the impossibility of erasing your posted past, starting over, moving on.”

Rosen paints a nightmarish landscape where the Internet has become big brother. The digitization of identity on the Internet is establishing an increasingly large, revealing, and potentially damaging permanent public record of one’s personal life. Through the rapid growth of social networking sites, particularly Facebook, and the often uninhibited posting of personal status updates and pictures of one’s intoxicating escapades, private life has become public. According to Rosen, this permanent record “is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.” The critical consequence to the individual is that this permanent public record “is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.”

From the modern world through the post-modern to whatever nominal moment we awaken to, the task of self-understanding and by extension personal transformation has become increasingly more difficult. There are two dimensions to the self that have been historically recognized and continue to be relevant to any discussion of identity: the self that experiences and the self that reflects on experience. These two dimensions carry within its fuzzy subjective contours the history of the self as our DNA holds our genetic history.

The experiencing self absorbs, feels, and reacts to raw unformulated experience. I walk into a room filled with people. I am not acknowledged. I feel tension in my stomach, stiffness in my neck. I hear the din of voices. My eyes vigilantly scan the crowd for a familiar face. I become aware of my passing thoughts and begin to wonder why I am feeling this way. The reflective self is loosely organized by the socio-cultural values, discourses, and prejudices that are unconsciously internalized through interactions with others across the lifespan and constitute the lens through which the reflective self views the world.

In Rosen’s article the conceptualization of identity has been flattened and reconfigured as personal data sets that are externally organized by the various social networking sites on the Internet. The postings and taggings archived on Facebook, one’s formatted profile plus one’s aggregated web surfing patterns constitute the reputation of Self that might aptly be designated the digital self. The idea of the self is dissolving into a data centric composite that is regarded as reputation. The equation of identity with reputation tones the article and creates two areas of confusion: First, it mistakes a crisis regarding privacy for an existential identity crisis. Second, it conflates psychological processing with models of computer processing.

This reconfigured self embodies digital properties of information processing: information can be stored or deleted, remembered or forgotten. The control of one’s identity becomes a profile management problem rather than a process based on thoughtful self-reflection leading to transformation. The capacity for reinvention is dependent on altering the storage of information. The task of personal re-invention is outsourced to the external world. Rosen refers to the “cyberscholar” Vicktor Mayer-Schonberger, who asserts that the capacity to learn from experience is based on the presence of “social forgetting.”

How does the individual preserve and control his or her sense of identity? (4) How does the individual learn from experience? (5) The answer to these questions is that one needs to remember, not forget; re-experience, not disavow, in order to process emotional pain and learn from experience. The notion that forgetting is essential to personal change and overcoming “one’s checkered past” stands in contrast to one of Freud’s central ideas that continues to have practical relevance. He asserted that what isn’t remembered is reenacted and becomes the unconscious source of symptoms and maladaptive behaviors. We push away, repress, suppress, and project onto others unacceptable personal qualities and feelings. As a consequence, we unwittingly create a subjective world that is mistaken for reality. Rather than focus on how to eliminate unsavory incidents archived on the Internet, we need to understand ourselves, be willing to face emotional pain and examine what we disdain and find unacceptable about ourselves, and attempt to disentangle experience from the web of projections that subjectivize the world.

Rosen’s narrative, his story of the “the first great existential crisis of the digital age,” privileges the digital self over more expansive versions of self. It succumbs to the belief that individuals are helpless to contend with the omnipotent Internet. The complex dialectics of self-in-the-world that with the Internet has become distributed across multiple online and offline worlds is lost.

The Internet offers unprecedented potential for personal transformation only equaled by its compelling opportunities to distract oneself in a cloud of unreflective experiencing. While our ways of knowing, seeing, shopping, researching, and Being have been indelibly marked by the Internet, it is also evident, but easily forgotten, that the self is rooted in history and carries its history into the present. The historical self does not change over night. It is not a piece of silicon: it glistens in darkness, wobbles through turbulence, succumbs to the moment, breaks apart, rebounds from failure, dances with paradox, and it dreams…

1. Carr, N. “Is The Internet making us Stupid,” Atlantic Monthly, July/Aug 2008

2. Levy, David “No Time To Think,” Google Talks, March 2008

3. Rosen, J. “The Web Means The End of Forgetting,” New York Times Magazine, Jul 26, 2010

4. Suler, J. “Identity Management in Cyberspace,” Psychology of Cyberspace, April 2000.

5. Bion W. Learning From Experience,

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Larry Brooks, PhD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist
License # PSY 8161

138 N. Brand #300
Glendale, CA 91203
(818) 243-0839


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