Online Perfection: Unattainable Ideals Made Realistic in Virtual Reality

Online Perfection: Unattainable Ideals Made Realistic in Virtual Reality

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, in 2007, 55% of U.S. teenagers age 12-17 who are using the Internet have an account on a social networking website (Lenhart & Madden, 2007) and by 2009, 75% of young adults 18-25 years old had an account (Hum et al, 2011). With the amount of pressure for teenagers to be adhering to a certain model of perfection, it is an escape to be someone a little more popular or attractive or funny online. While this ideal person is not attainable in reality, in the virtual world one can make themselves whoever they wish to be, and present themselves however they wish to be perceived, in their eyes creating a better identity. Besley says it well. “Identity is a complex, interlinked concept that holds both personal and public dimensions; the internal, psychological aspects that are displayed (consciously or not) with the public, interactive social, side that we present to the world as actors in our own unique forms of social performance” (2011) Young people use Facebook to create their ideal identity through their pictures, words, and affiliations.

Photos are used on Facebook for a number of things, one of them being self-identification. When a photo or album is selected to be uploaded to Facebook it is apparent that the uploader likes the photo and wants their friends to view, like or comment upon it. The person who is posting the photo wants to elicit a certain response out of the viewer, typically a bettering of opinion towards them. “The profile photograph is now a central component of online self-presentation, and one that is critical for relational success” (Young & Quan-Haase, 2009)

One desired response from the audience is to think that the person in the photo, photographer is popular or well liked. This conclusion is reached by the number of people in the photo or the tone of the photo. A picture full of laughing happy people will give the impression that they are all best friends and that the photo’s owner is one of this loving, happy crowd, possibly the ‘in’ crowd. It is proven that when pictured with friends who are perceived as social and outgoing, the people in the picture gain some of their social characteristics (Utz, 2010). When uploading a picture no one will choose to post a picture of themselves alone in their room crying unless they are aiming for a certain alternate response.

The aforementioned crying picture is likely hoping for the perception of an artistic identity. The person posting such a picture does not have the intention of being perceived as actually having no friends, they are hoping for artistic recognition. Photography has switched from a memory tool to a way to capture friendships or experiences to share with others, typically on a social networking site (SNS) such as Facebook. Accordingly, van Dijik states, “taking photographs to preserve an individual’s or family’s pictorial heritage has ceased to be the primary function of photography, giving way to a broader spectrum of functionalities among which are those that foster individuals’ communication and identity formation”(2007). Photography is now an art form and people are able to express themselves, or who they wish to be seen as, through it. Being artistic in modern culture has purely positive connotations and is looked upon with great esteem. The amount of SNS’s that are available exclusively for the purpose of sharing photos lends to this. Being artsy through photography is hip, popular and a desired attribute.

A picture of people on a beautiful yacht in the middle of a sparkling blue sea under a bright blue sky conjures images of wealth and luxury. The average person isn’t able to own a yacht or travel to beautiful sunny places because they are working or in school or both. A picture like this present to the audience a carefree life spent well. Through putting a picture like this online, one is letting their Facebook friends know that they have a better life in terms of economic standing. In addition to wealth many pictures are of travels and experiences. The person posting such pictures is showing their audience that they have done exciting things in their life, not for the purpose of showing off although that can be an interpreted result.
Profile pictures can say a lot about a person but their main purpose is to give friends or strangers a small identification tool. Therefore, no one is going to allow an unattractive picture to represent them to the public. There is typically a lot of thought put into profile picture selection. The desired identity being above average looks. It goes beyond profile picture into the general pictures viewable on one’s profile. These are also monitored to ensure that if a friend looks through them, they will not be able to find a picture that portrays the profiler as less attractive than they are in real life. Photos have the ability to capture a heightened beauty as well as the uncanny ability to capture the subjects most unflattering moments. These pictures will ideally never be seen on a profile unless the Facebook user is going for humour.

Written words are thought to hold less value than pictures as they are a form of telling instead of showing and through showing it is said that more information can be obtained. “A better way to present oneself to strangers as well as friends is therefore to “show” rather than “tell” or to display rather than describe oneself” (Zhao et al, 2008. Para. 34). However, through words people are able to express themselves through an easily modifiable medium. It is much easier to change a word here or there to alter the meaning slightly than to go through a picture carefully to make sure there are no aspects that are undesirable before deciding to post it. “When Facebook users communicate 'what's on [their] mind', or update their status, they are offering a representation of the self,” (Ellis, 2010) whether that self is funny, intelligent, or kind, it is apparent through their writing.

Through writing people are able to develop an identity for themselves that portrays them as comedic. Posting a humorous status which is available for one’s entire network of friends to see, is a good way to let them know that their friend, the poster, has a good sense of humour. Someone has a good sense of humour in reality but isn’t able to come up with humorous comebacks or jokes on the spot is therefore unable to express this in person but with the delay of thought that comes with the internet, they are able to display their abilities in a timelier manner. Alternately, there may be completely devoid of popular humour but through the computer anonymity they are able to look up something quirky and amusing to put as their status. Thus, their profile becomes more like the identity they wish they possessed because when friends browse through their profile they will come across witty statuses and wall posts and assume that this is the person’s authentic identity.

Another desired characteristic is the possession of intellectual ability. This is not as easily reproduced as humor as it requires actual smarts, but intelligence can be shown through a number of ways. The tone of one’s writing tells a lot about them. The simple act of a capital paired with proper punctuation and spelling provides a lot of information about the writer’s background and level of care. The use of the aforementioned practices indicates that the writer is of a higher level of education in which they learned proper writing as opposed to a status or note filled with slang and swearing which points to a person of lower education and class. The content of a post informs the reader of the writer’s intelligence as well. If the post is about clothing or friend drama the reader will interpret this to mean that the writer surrounds themselves with that type of culture whereas a status about a world event or important current issue, the reader will take this as meaning that the writer is more involved in the world.

Through comments one is able to develop a thoughtful and kind identity or a rude and patronizing one. The latter are not desired qualities and therefore Facebook users attempt to create the former identity. Commenting on pictures is meant to be a way for viewers to share their thoughts about a wall post, status, picture, or note. The way one reacts to a friend’s pictures tells a lot about one’s character, whether the comment is uplifting or if it is full of insight on what the good qualities captured in the photograph are, it shows that the commenter cares and appreciates either their friends efforts to appear attractive, or the artistic nature of the photo. Each kind thing that is commented about a picture reflects the characteristic of kindness which is very desirable. Alternately, an arrogant comment can reflect negatively upon the person saying such things as their words points towards their character. A comment that is full of wisdom or thoughtfulness will positively reflect upon the writer of the comment. When writing a note or status there is usually some thought put into it in the effort to have their friends read and appreciate it. If a negative response comes back, the poster may get discouraged and may even have negative feelings towards the commenter, their friend. Through text, a Facebook user is able to exhibit their ideal identity.

Through Facebook, users are able to join groups, like pages, and write information about themselves and their interests and beliefs. Facebook’s purpose is to connect friends and networks. This is made possible through sharing information about oneself. One of those ways is to post personal interests and tastes declared blatantly on one’s profile. Another method of connecting is through common interest brought about by joining groups. In addition to groups, there are fan pages that Facebook users can ‘like’ which places a link on their profile to announce to their network that they ‘like’ this page.
Under the heading ‘Edit Profile’ there are sections to share networking information such as workplace, high school, and university as well as basic information including birthday, gender, and hometown. There is also a section for philosophy where one can declare their religious beliefs, political views, and inspirational people. Following, there is the interest section which asks for music, movie, book, and television preferences, favourite sports, interests and activities. Throughout these categories it is very simple to create an identity outside the bonds of reality.

The Facebook user can create an identity based entirely on their ideals if they so choose. Perhaps there is a person who is knowledgeable about computers and spends nearly all their time on a computer but really does not know a lot of about sports or other activities. In an effort to look well rounded and social, they may put that they enjoy soccer and hiking, watching CSI, and reading mystery novels so as to appear common to their peers and be perceived in a better light. This goes the other way as well. Someone who spends all their time with friends likely doesn’t have the time to spend reading or learning about current events and technology but in an attempt to adhere to their ideal persona they may wish people to think that they are very aware of current events and thus put that they like to read newspapers and watch the Discovery Channel. Because Facebook is asking what its users like and the users friends are reading about it, it is easy to add a detail to enhance one`s profile and through that, their identity.

Under the philosophy heading there is a section for religious beliefs. There are many ways to make one’s beliefs known on Facebook and in real life but this is a straightforward place to tell people. While making the simple statement of ‘Religion: Catholic’, for example, does not necessarily make you Catholic but it is a good indication. While it is not always the popular thing, which is the basis behind most identity modification, it may be important to a certain group of people that one is trying to associate with and therefore important to the Facebooker. The identity of being part of a certain religion can be a status symbol as well and potentially included in an ideal personality.

The possibility of not finding a group to associate with is nearly impossible due to the wide variety and vast amount of groups. They range from religious groups all the way to sports fans and hedgehog lovers. Being involved in many groups makes a person look immersed in life; social and educational, as the groups range over a multitude of topics covering all hobbies and social events as well as current events. In order to be part of a group, an admin, or creator, of the group has to accept your request to join; it is more exclusive than liking a page although a similar idea. Being part of a specific group on Facebook can be a status symbol. Perhaps there is a group exclusively for a crowd at school that others look up to. Being in such a group reflects highly upon oneself and is therefore a betterment of their identity.

Similar to groups, there are innumerable pages available to be liked. The purpose of pages is so that people are able to browse through and find things that they are interested in and to receive updates about them. There are pages that relate to sports, quirky characteristics, sayings or quotes, animals, the list goes on. Through liking a page of a certain topic, one projects their interests. In the attempt to better their identity, one may choose to like a very popular page so as to appear interested in popular topics.

Being up to date is a desirable description. It is not easily attainable with technology changing so rapidly, constantly. It is possible to keep up to date with media if there is enough effort put in and if there is not, it is easy to fake online. ITunes has a list of top songs and top albums of the week. If a Facebook user wanted to have the last songs in their preferred song section all they must do is consult iTunes.com and then post that they like those songs. There is no requirement even to have heard them or to actually have any interest in them whatsoever; it is simply that those songs are popular as of that particular week and by liking them one projects an image of being informed and current.

This is not to argue that everyone exaggerates or alters their Facebook profiles, it is simply to explore the fact that is a possibility and it does happen. It is hard to track however because when looking at a profile how is a stranger, or even a friend, to know that it contains false information? I know that some of my friends on Facebook have enhanced pictures to make themselves appear more attractive and have posted statuses that are unlike anything they have ever said in face to face conversations. Therefore, young people are using SNS such as Facebook to create an identity for themselves which they believe is ideal.

References
Besley, T. (2011). Digitized youth: Constructing identities in the creative knowledge economy. Annals of Spiru Haret University, Journalism Studies, 129-122. Retrieved from http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pfie/
Ellis, K. (2010). Be who you want to be: The philosophy of Facebook and the construction of identity. Screen Education, (58), 36-41. Retrieved from http://www.gla.ac.uk/services/screen/
Hum, N. J., Chamberlin, P. E., Hambright, B. L., Portwood, A. C., Schat, A. C., & Bevan, J. L. (2011). A picture is worth a thousand words: A content analysis of facebook profile photographs. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(5), 1828-1833. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2011.04.003
Lenhart, A., & Madden, M. (2007, January 07). Social networking websites and teens. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Social-Networking-Websites-and-T...
Utz, S. (2010) Show me your friends and I will tell you what type of person you are: How one's profile, number of friends, and type of friends influence impression formation on social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 15(2), 314-335.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2010.01522.x
Van Dijck, J. (2008) Digital photography: communication, identity, memory, 7(1), 57-76. doi: 10.1177/1470357207084865

Young, A., and Quan-Haase, (2009) A. Information revelation and Internet privacy concerns on social network sites: A case study of Facebook Proceedings of the 4th international conference on communities and technologies, ACM, New York, pp. 265–274.
Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., & Martin, J. (2008). Identity construction on facebook: Digital empowerment in anchored relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(5), 1816-1836. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.02.012