The Self in the Age of Social Media

In a previous post, we listed the themes the Ego-Media team will cover in the essays in our digital publication. The first of these, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Ego-Media Project’s research aims, focuses on ideas of the self. The lead author (the essays are being written collaboratively – more on this process in a future post) is Professor Max Saunders. This post offers a brief outline of some of the issues we’ll be exploring.

two young women taking a selfie

Has the internet has changed how people think about the self?

If so, how?

So far this century, the dominant concept of the self in literature and philosophy has been the narrative theory of identity – the idea that people conceive of their selves, as of their lives, in terms of a narrative structure, integrating episodes and characters into a story, with particular meanings and effects, and a trajectory that stretches over the life span. It’s an idea that’s gained traction in marketing – of both businesses and selves – as a result of which people are encouraged to think not only of their “brand” but also of their story (Professor Alexandra Georgakopoulou’s work on Life Writing of the Moment explores this in depth)

But, what are the implications for narrative theory of identity of

• the hyper-interactivity of social media, which favours rapidity, brevity, and topicality
• the ways people increasingly express themselves online self-expression through image: emojis gifs; witty memes comprising a visual and a few, well-chosen words
• how individual autobiographical narratives are giving way to stories produced collectively, through online interaction?

Are web-based practices of self-presentation – taking selfies, wearing fitness trackers, tweeting etc – just producing different forms of narrative; or are they producing something different from narrative?

Theoretical challenges

Theoretical challenges come from concepts such as that of the networked self (Zizi Papacharissi) and of Galen Strawson’s “unstoried life”, which divides humanity into two types: the Narratives and the Non-narratives and suggests that “For most of us,” he writes, “I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces”.

Identities – fluid, multidimensional, nuanced, and contradictory

Findings from Ego-Media projects including

The impact of new media on people with epilepsy and migraine
• The Use of Self-Tracking Technologies and Social Media in Self- Representations and Management of Health
Ego-media Theory and Ethnography: Surveying Research and Tracking User Practices which ran in partnership with the Mass Observation Archive to ask people about their internet and social media use

all reveal the extent to which people perceive and present themselves in ways that are more fluid, multidimensional, nuanced, and, sometimes, contradictory than a narrative theory of identity might suggest. Especially at a time when, despite being such a slippery concept “authenticity” is so highly valued.

Watch Professor Max Saunders discuss the Ego-Media Project

And also…

No essay on the self can swerve issues of privacy and surveillance, so we will be unpicking both actualities and anxieties around these. And, because the Ego-Media project emanates from the Centre for Life-Writing Research, the essay will explore all these questions (and more) in the context of both the history and theory of autobiographical forms and practices.

Written by:

Dr Lisa Gee is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate on the Ego-Media Project