Breaking up with your past: No such thing as a clean break
When I graduated from elementary school, I was ready to leave behind the identity that 9 years, 24 invariable classmates, and a single classroom had amassed. Growing up isn’t easy, and when you have to do it in front of the same people year after year, a clean break is a blessing.
No one had to know about the time Brad Thompson got clotheslined during Red Rover, or the time Eleonor Lupinski threw up a hot dog onto the radiator. There is no documentation of the early, messy faze of poorly drawn on cleopatra makeup, the mangled brace face matched with zits, or the first real crush. The canvas of my identity, aside from a few smudges here and there, was essentially blank. Rather than having an identity comprised of my experience according people I didn’t particularly care for, my identity was waiting to be molded.
I started high school in August 2006. A few short months later, on November 8, 2006, I became an official member of the Facebook community. My first status, “busy hating school,” would soon follow.Joining Facebook allowed me to become “friends” with everyone I met, and to control the version of myself that they were getting to know. I went from being nobody to having hundreds of virtual friends at my disposal. When interacting with people, they would be talking to an entity formed on Facebook, the one who listened to Stiff Little Fingers and spent weekends voraciously bashing education. This Liz O’Malley could use quirky expressions like ‘kk’, and use 8s as the eyeballs for emoticons.
Franziska Nori’s article “World Wide Me” describes Virtual Identity as “an extension of the physical self that we create to establish relations and interact with others on the internet. The representation of one’s body, mind and thus self in the digital sphere consciously builds an identity that does not necessarily have to correspond to one’s real self.” This type of artificial representation is often referred to as catfishing.
Through a virtual social platform I was able to project an identity of my own design upon my peers. It wasn’t dishonest, I really did like those things, but I was able to manipulate the information and the order in which it was received to produce a desired effect. The person people would meet was not the living breathing me, but a combination of that individual and the imagined identity I assigned myself in virtual reality: my cyborg.
From Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto:
A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction… creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted… By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.
I am no longer just a living breathing human, but a presence that exchanged a complex identity for a compound identity. The mystery of what I desire to be is destroyed, and who I am becomes determined by the Cyborg. Unfortunately, in casting this portrait of myself onto the cyber stage, I memorialized the awkward wannabe-punk phase, every stupid haircut I’ve ever had, alongside every virtual F bomb. My identity can now be detailed in a neat linear spread, from 2006 to “Recent,” and no matter what steps are taken to shift this identity, it is constantly in flux yet paradoxically stagnant. The thoughts and opinions I expressed in the past may or may not still hold true, but so long as they are present on my page, they are likely believed to be an accurate representation of who I am.
Statuses and photos aside, the most ineradicable component of this cyber-reality takes on a multidimensional permanence: personal relationships.
Nori’s article touches on the nature of our virtual identity when coalesced with the relationships we participate in daily. “One of the main criticisms directed at the phenomenon of Facebook is the change that it has worked in the quantity and quality of human relationships, stripping the concept of friendship of its meaning.” From romantic relationships to platonic, virtual ties keep a very real part of your identity at the constant beck and call of you, and of everyone you know.
Photographs and love letters used to be things you could burn. In Maureen O’Connor’s article, “All My Exes Live in Texts: Why the Social Media Generation Never Really Breaks Up,” she draws upon a number of interesting, and terrifying, points about the new nature of our relationships.
“All my exes live online, and so do their exes, and so do their exes, too. I carry the population of a metaphorical Texas in a cell phone on my person at all times. Etiquette can’t keep up with us—not that we would honor it anyway—so ex relationships run on lust and impulse and nosiness and envy alternating with fantasy. It’s a dozen soap operas playing at the same time on a dozen different screens, and you are the star of them all. It’s both as thrilling and as sickening as it sounds.”
A quick scroll through my Newsfeed shows me that Fred, who came out of the closet and got sent to conversion camp, now has a mustache and a girlfriend. Arnold, who got kicked out of college for selling weed brownies to kids, is now living with his girlfriend in Nevada. Sofia has a baby. Diane is engaged. Leo got strangely hot. Clyde is fat. No matter how you try to escape your past, it’s always watching.
What’s worse is that for many people, the ability to opt out of social media has ceased to exist.
The cyborg-self meticulously flaunts every facet of your life. You can no longer delete an account and have your information float off into nothingness. The photos are there even if you aren’t.
As Facebook begins to host a growing number of adults with young children, a virtual identity oftentimes precedes the curation of an individual identity.
On June 27, 2011, the photo album “Patrick’s first days” was created. Since then, over a hundred pictures of Patrick Dagger Sestero have gone up on Facebook. At a mere 2 years of age, he enjoys the celebrity of 7/10 statuses posted by his parents. And this is not to mention how many ‘likes’ this kid gets. This becomes a case of: what came first, the baby or the ‘borg?
Despite the age limit policy for Facebook, a surprising amount of crazy parents create effigies for their ultrasounds. A child’s first steps, first trip to the zoo, first bowel movement, are all documented and publicly shared on a neat web page. Comedian Louis C.K. comments on the way this desire to document everything can actually distract us from appreciating our children’s special moments with our full attention:
Aunts and Uncles no longer have to wait until Christmas to see how you’ve grown. Instead, they have the option of seeing your life plotted out day by day, from the day you came home from the hospital to the day you shove your face in your fifth birthday cake.
So, how will being in the spotlight affect perceived notions of self in these growing individuals? How will the way others perceive them be affected? It is undeniable that there lives are permanently molded in a way previous generations have never experienced.
In this instance, an online identity compromises not only the authenticity of relationships with others, but more expressly the relationship to self. A virtual presence becomes a cyborg that writes an autobiography you have limited power to edit. Your life becomes the intellectual property of Facebook.
Now, as I prepare to graduate college, I’m ready to leave behind the identity that 7 years, 354 “friends,” and a single social media site has amassed–only this time it won’t be so easy. The clean break is extinct.