Constructing Identity in the Digital Age: Social Media and the New Self-Portrait

Constructing Identity in the Digital Age: Social Media and the New Self-Portrait

“Self-portraiture is something one should never get involved in, since it is wrong to lie even though one endeavours to tell the truth.” -Ingmar Bergman
For the human race, the representation and replication of our own image has always been something of an obsession. We sculpt it, paint it, draw it, enlarge it, even worship it. It is how we identify and distinguish ourselves from others, and we spend much of our lives maintaining some kind of front in order to appear socially acceptable. Because of the importance we, as humans, place on our own image, the self-portrait is one of the most interesting and discipline-spanning approaches to human representation. Painters, photographers, sociologists, psychologists and more have explored its ties to introspection and self-awareness. Its use in fine art, such as in the distinguished works of Frida Kahlo and Yasumasa Morimura, has inspired many conversations dense with philosophical speculation about reflexivity, perception, and alteration, among countless other equally weighty concepts. When compared to other modes of portraiture, the self-portrait is unique in that one person plays the role of both subject and author, and it is this duality, combined with its newfound use as an autobiographical “profile” image on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, that makes the mediation of the self-portrait such a crucial shift in its use and, in fact, its very nature. I wish to explore this evolving social structure and the ways in which the self-portrait has been appropriated as a tool in the process of identity formation. The theory of identity work, popularized by Erving Goffmann in the 1950s, has been recently re-examined by media scholars in the context of a more modern age, focusing on the structure of online interactions in order to better unpack the intentions and methods behind picture posting, editing, and other social media practices. As networking technology spreads and evolves, enabling faster sharing and more detailed control over one’s presented image, self-portraits have similarly been transformed from an artistic practice to a more extensive and complete “digital persona” which serves to take the place of the subject’s physical presence in an online social interaction. This holds especially true especially for younger generations, who have grown up being expected to form an online identity from media elements chosen and censored in order to convey a specific image to their peers. All these factors combined result in a product which is something like a photograph, but includes functional aspects of a journal, a mask, and an avatar, and is fully manipulable and constantly altered by the subject. This “new self-portrait” is an increasingly universal social device which is not directly replacing its predecessor, but serving a different purpose which, like social media technology, is continuously and relentlessly evolving.
Historically, the self-portrait has been used as a highly specialized introspective tool by artists who could afford the time and costly materials to create an image of themselves. In a time where the only means of representation required years of honed artistic skill and expensive, specialized supplies, for an artist to use these resources on oneself was uncommon and largely restricted to those who were either already privileged or very successful. One can see evidence of this throughout the collection of images in Staging the Self: Self-Portrait Photography 1840s-1980s, where the vast majority of the featured artists use costuming, props, and physical alterations of the print itself to convey some kind of higher artistic significance. One such artist, Bernice Abbott, in her untitled piece from 1930, presents a distorted image of her face, the features skewed unnaturally as she glances to one side in what otherwise would have been a typical snapshot of an attractive female figure (Lingwood 97). It is obvious that Abbott is not trying to “say something” about herself or appear physically desirable in this photo, rather, she seems to be making a bold statement about the objectification and presentation of the female form, particularly the face. This image, reminiscent of a make-up ad, is purposeful and loaded with meaning, using the self as a tool for illuminating an important issue of the time. This type of “fine art” self-portrait, along with the occasional commemorative photo, remained the most common use of the self-portrait up until the invention of publicly available, cost-effective photography, which enabled both hobbyist and casual photographers to capture images of themselves for a much lower cost and in a relatively short amount of time. At this time, one begins to see more snapshots and amateur self-portraiture emerging as a more common practice for non-artists. Even so, film processing took at least an hour, and these photos often remained in family albums or tacked to walls, never really leaving the private space of the home or office. Furthermore, these photos largely represented reality as it was, or deliberately eschewed realism altogether. Altering a print convincingly required substantial darkroom experience and special tools, both of which the average person would not have had access to in that time.
The rise of digital technology brought an instantaneous quality to this practice which truly revolutionized the purpose and frequency of self-photography. Suddenly, one could take hundreds, even thousands of images of oneself and view them within seconds. Perhaps even more importantly, these photos could then be transferred to a computer and edited using photo software. Even the simplest of modern editing programs enable the user to transform the image by changing eye colors, backgrounds, lighting, and the more expensive software can alter nearly every element of a given image. In fact, a recent Windows commercial touting their new photo editing software claims that, by combining the desirable components of a series of failed family portraits, in seconds, one can create “a family photo you can share without ridicule.” The closing tagline for the commercial boasts, “Windows gives me the family nature never could”(Youtube.com 2011). This video, a nationally distributed clip which airs on several major channels with regularity, clearly illustrates how digital editing and sharing behavior has truly become integrated into the average consumer’s daily life, especially in the context of social media, as the commercial seems to state that it is the publishing of this image that determines the need for modifications.
We now live in a world where the self-portrait may not necessarily be an artistic piece or an artifact of daily life with specific sentimental value, but rather exists as a stand-in for one’s physical self, giving a face to one’s online information and actions. One must also consider the fact that as these types of alteration technologies become more powerful, as well as more widely available and easier to use, the self-portrait departs from its original purpose as an exercise in introspection and representation further and further, and starts to function as a demonstrative “virtual mask,” or sometimes as a sort of advertisement for some idealized version of ourselves we wish to be. Social culture has wholeheartedly adopted this practice, and new, digital-centric ways of expressing the ideal self-image continue to appear on the market and online. Cameras and camera phones now come with dual lenses and mirrors so one can compose the perfect shot from the front of the camera, surprisingly sophisticated photo editing software can be downloaded onto mobile phones, and these same pictures can be posted to the internet within seconds of capture with the click of a button.
When looking at the current rapid progression of media technology, it is clear that the self-portrait is changing drastically in the digital age, as the emergent notion of the “profile picture” becomes a self-curated, promotional representation of the poster’s chosen identity. However, the way we form identity itself has also changed in recent years, as the ways in which we interact, and therefore construct perceptions of ourselves, have been revolutionized due to the advent of high-speed, easily accessible social media networking and the new ways in which it interacts with self-image.
The management and censorship of the self is by no means a new trend; humans have been doing what scholars like Erving Goffmann, John Thompson, and others call “identity work” on themselves for as long as we have been conscious of our own actions and appearance. However, the recent expansion of digital technologies has opened up new arenas and ways of accomplishing such. Self-created, carefully chosen and edited images which act as a stand-in for their creator’s physical selves are a prime example of the “work” people perform on themselves to alter how they are perceived by others. This shift in technology, as well as mentality, has participated in the creation of this entirely new kind of portrait, which embodies the self-curated digital identity which is becoming more and more integrated into everyday social practice.
The idea of identity construction is one that has been studied throughout history, though perhaps most famously by sociologist Erving Goffmann. In his book, Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, he examines this phenomenon, analyzing methods of identity work people do when interacting with others and the frequency with which these methods are employed in our daily lives. He illustrates his claims using anecdotes, such as the story of “Preedy,” a fictional man who engages in several behaviors in order to portray a number of roles in a public setting. Goffmann refers to this conscious work as a social “performance” in which the “actor” attempts to convey a specific message to their audience of peers, and goes about using certain social signals which will hopefully “lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan”(Goffmann 4). This story makes it clear that the desire to sculpt and control one’s image was and still is extremely common. Whether conscious or unconscious, when observed, we will inevitably act in such a way that whoever we presume to be watching us sees the image of ourselves we want them to see, and this process is a common form of self-mediation.
As Walter Lippmann explains in his book, The World Outside and the Pictures in our Heads, any kind of mediation necessitates the “summarizing” of facts which causes the input we receive to quite often be flawed or incomplete (Lippmann 3-20). Because of this, we exist in a sort of “pseudo-environment” which is the state of our world as we perceive it, which, due to the impossibility of absolute knowledge, is based on imperfect information. More simply, because we cannot know everything, it is likely that the conclusions we draw from what we do know are incorrect, or at the very least limited in scope. Although it may seem a lofty concept reserved for only the most philosophical of discussions, this principle can actually be applied to the mediation of self-portraits and identity, especially as they are used online. The self-portrait profile picture, for example, is a two dimensional image which is meant to represent one’s identity to the online audience, and so attempts to capture as much information as possible about the subject. However, a single image cannot embody every detail of a person’s life and personality, especially when the photo is altered or depicts some sort of constructed reality, so the information that a viewer would glean from this image would incorrect. However mediated, it is the only input they are given, and so it is the basis from which they create an opinion of the poster. The resulting conclusions are then part of a reality which does not actually exist, and this contradiction is what Lippmann means by “pseudo-environment.”
In the digital world, where one on not only assumes they are being watched, but also promotes and enables it through broadcasted “statuses” and “posts,” the interacting phenomena of image mediation and identity work also occur, arguably to a much greater degree. The advent of social media has expedited and globalized interactions between people, as well as enabled new types of relationships, involving more diverse social groups and different methods of mediation. Jeremy Thompson describes and analyzes this process of crafting an image in a mediated environment, calling it the construction of “the self as a symbolic project” (Thompson 207-234). He asserts that the “self” is formed from symbolic materials, like stereotypes and cultural images, obtained from one’s social surroundings. In the past, these materials were restrained to those gained from face to face interactions, or what Thompson calls “local” knowledge. The development of mass media, however, has opened access to more “non-local” knowledge and enabled a wider range of materials from which to create an identity, leading to more complex, “spatially and temporally distinct” relations. Since this text was written in The mid-1990s, methods of mediation have become even more ingrained into daily life, increased in speed, and stretched their influence even further, to nearly every society on the globe. The resulting social atmosphere upon which mediated relationships are based, as well as the identities which develop within it, are heavily based on the information one receives from mediated images, and as a result, the self-portrait as a profile picture has become much more significant in the way we perceive others and ourselves.
Because of digital media’s high level of involvement, the modern formation of our sense of self, especially for the younger generation of media users, is more based on “non-local,” and therefore possibly falsified or flawed, knowledge than ever before. An episode of PBS’s online series, Frontline, entitled “Growing Up Digital,” looks at the way in which the first generation to come of age online interacted with social media technologies, and found that self-portrait profile pictures were a ubiquitous and almost sacred element of the young person’s social media experience. On of the segments features a teen girl from an average, middle-class American family who, before joining MySpace, never felt comfortable in social situations who started a page which gained a cult following, as more and more people began to notice and interact with her erotic, Goth styled self-portrait photos which she posted under the pseudonym “Autumn Edows” (Frontline 2008). Through these stylized photographs, she claimed that she finally found peace with her identity as well as a supportive community of peers with which she could express her “true self.” This story is typical of many growing up in a digital world which provides a convenient way for anyone to reinvent and rearrange elements of one’s character. For teens and young adults who find it difficult to form relationships with their peers in person, the internet has become something of a refuge, where they can hide behind an avatar, screen name or even a profile picture, which helps some feel more comfortable to be themselves than in public. Those inclined can even draw or render a self-portrait for use online, and many take advantage of the flexibility of the medium to represent themselves exactly as they would like to be seen, whether as a human-fantasy creature hybrid or a mysterious figure with superpowers.
The formation of the self that occurs between childhood and adulthood is a difficult and convoluted process even without any external forces, and the introduction of media influence complicates things even further. Young people often use social media and profile pictures as a way to “try on” different identities, posing and using props which will help them portray their chosen image. Jeremy Sarachan breaks down the ways in which people construct self-portraits for use as profile pictures, identifying specific techniques common to this procedure such as pose, objects, trick effects, and syntax (Sarachan 56-63). Sarachan analyzes each of these strategies through the use of specific examples, translating and unpacking them to illuminate what message the subject might be trying to convey. His research shows that social media users take very deliberate measures when choosing a profile picture, and include evidence from their lives and interests as “proof” of their profile’s authenticity and comprehensiveness.
This is contradictory, however, because the limitation of scope in a two dimensional photograph, as well as the possibility for user interventions in the finished product, means that the “profile picture” depicts more of an assemblage of the user’s favorite physical features, in-jokes, and hobbies than their “true,” unmediated self. This claim is further strengthened by the conclusions discussed in Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell’s case study of teen social media users, which is featured in their book, Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities: Young People and New Media Technologies (Mitchell and Weber 25-47). They found that, in the process of using sites like MySpace and Facebook, young people tended to appropriate cultural materials and media technology in order to fashion a digital extension of themselves in the form of a “profile page” which would inform the viewer about their interests and personality. The profile picture, just as the other elements on the page, undergoes a selection and editing process before the user publishes it for others to see. In this way, the act of posting a profile picture is very nearly the digital equivalent of identity “performance” and can be just as artificial, if not more so, due to the incredible advances in editing technologies, and other methods of control and personalization. In fact, even if the profile picture was not originally taken by the subject, the final product is still a product of his or her intervention, simply due to the fact that they, at the very least, chose it from any other image.
All these observations represent a social shift towards a sort of “digital image culture” wherein the way you appear in person is less and less relevant, and more focus is placed upon how well you manage to create an image of yourself which will attract views and illicit responses from others. This expectation of responses and acceptance from other social media users is another important departure from previous self-portrait practices; it is now natural for friends and colleagues to interact with a posted photo, by “liking” or commenting on it, thereby showing their approval and opinions, which can in turn be commented on by others or even the original poster. These activities are yet another example of the ways in which the self-portrait, as it is used online, has developed into a new from of representation which is not a merely static representation of how a person was at one time, but an evolving collage of components which can be manipulated, re-arranged, and changed as the user sees fit.
The profile image, which, at its core, is really no more than a collection of colored pixels arranged in an electronically defined form, is what the self-portrait has evolved into today. A constantly shifting mass of information and cultural references, it tells our friends, family, and any stranger who might stumble across our profile page “who we are” and what elements of ourselves we most desire to display. Since much of developed society’s interpersonal actions now occur behind a screen, the self-portrait profile picture and its use in social media has become more akin to an avatar than a portrait, and far more widely used in order to “give a face” to what would otherwise be an overwhelming jumble of facts and opinions. It is used to evaluate and recognize others in the digital world, and the process of its creation is entirely in the hands of the user, making it possible to produce a final image which is intended and expected to be a beacon of self-expression over the swarming sea of media that is the Internet. The goal of all this appropriation and modification is the identification of the poster as both unique, with specific interests and attributes, as well as socially acceptable and compliant with popular media trends. This process is especially important for youth growing up with social media technology, as it is has become a rite of passage for almost all modern teens, helping them to examine and develop their identities in a online setting as they constantly shift between personas and gather external material. These digitally inclined youths attempt construct an identity which will hopefully be approved by their peers, as well as communicate their intended message by using the language of the current cultural landscape. With each new generation of media users, the ties between identity formation and social media grow stronger and more complex. In addition, advances in the speed and capability of media technology assist the user in altering and capturing the image and provide them with the tools to quickly and effectively maintain their online identity. Because of the increasing integration of the social media into everyday interactions, whether online or in person, in the future, the world will most likely witness an even greater dependence on the self-portrait profile picture as a method of identification, as well as increased complexity in its use, editing, and sharing. It would be difficult to speculate any further than that, as it seems that each new development in recent years would have been considered impossible even a generation before. Whatever the circumstances, the self-portrait will likely evolve into something else, as it has done throughout history, adapting and changing to, as well as reflecting the social atmosphere it exists within.

Works Cited
"Family Photo" - To the Cloud - Windows 7. YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. Microsoft, 27 Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2011. .
FRONTLINE: Growing Up Online. Dir. Rachel Dretzin and John Maggio. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 22 Jan. 2008. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. .
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959. Print.
Lingwood, James. Staging the Self: Self-portrait Photography 1840s-1980s. London: National Portrait Gallery: Plymouth Arts Centre, 1986. Print.

Lippmann, Walter. “The World Outside and the Pictures in our Heads.” Public Opinion. Free Press, 1922. 3-20. Print.
Thompson, John B. "Self and Experience in a Mediated World." The Media and Modernity: a Social Theory of the Media. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995. 207-34. Print.

Sarachan, Jeremy. "Profile Picture, Right Here, Right Now." Facebook and Philosophy: What's on Your Mind? By D. E. Wittkower. Chicago: Open Court, 2010. 51-64. Print.

Weber, Sandra, and Claudia Mitchell. "Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities: Young People and New Media Technologies." Print. Rpt. in Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. Ed. David Buckingham. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008. 25-47. Print.