Identity overload

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“With social media, the compelling opportunities for self-expression outstrip the supply of things we have to confidently say about ourselves,” writes Rob Horning. “The demand for self-expression overwhelms what we might dredge up from ‘inside.’”

My trigger finger is itching to give that a +1.

The struggle with the limits of what’s “inside” — the struggle with the limits of personality — has long been the source of the best art. We tend to characterize art as “self-expression,” but that’s really more a description of bad art. The immature artist, as Eliot wrote, is constantly giving in to the urge to vent what’s inside, whereas the mature artist seeks to escape that urge.

The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. … The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Social media turns us all into bad poets.

Implicit in Eliot’s argument is, I think, the idea that the self is forever overreaching. Personality wants to expand to fill all available space. Resisting the self’s inclination to artificially inflate what’s inside, and thereby overwhelm what’s inside, has always been hard, but it becomes much harder when the available space for the self is made both explicit and infinite, as happens with social media and other documentary systems of self-expression.

The Dolls, prophetic as always:

Forget information overload. Ours is a time of identity overload. From personality there is no escape. Or, if there is an escape, it lies in deliberately treating the social network as a canvas or a blank page. Eliot again:

The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.

But is it possible to treat Facebook as “only a medium and not a personality”? And if you managed to do so, would you have any friends?

Image: Ted Silveira.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Identity overload

  1. Arnau

    “is it possible to treat Facebook as “only a medium and not a personality”? ”
    Yes.

    “And if you managed to do so, would you have any friends?”
    Absolutely not.

  2. Zeta

    Your Facebook friends would find you boring and eventually not bother with you. I know people who were ‘unfriended’ because they didn’t post enough. It never happened to me however. I completely ‘unfriended’ Facebook after a three month trial – I had enough with that irrational deluge, and that strange pressure to have to say something, anything. I’m quite happy within my own skin.

  3. Daniel Cole

    “And if you managed to do so, would you have any friends?”

    I see what ya did there.

  4. I can’t quite fathom what Eliot is getting at, but your discussion of the inside/outside of identity calls to mind The Lonely Crowd (1950) by David Riesman, which analyzes character in terms of tradition-directedness, inner-directedness, and outer-directedness in that historical order. Considering how many waves of social change appeared in the ’50s, developments 60 years on are intensifications of distortions already gripping us then. So I would reverse your conclusion: we don’t have a surfeit of identity struggling to find expression, we have generations of ciphers seeking to discover themselves.

    Put a different way, identity means that we are what we think (if we bother to think). But we largely lack the repose needed to process, synthesize, and internalize the fire hose of information — mostly brand impressions, propaganda, and consumer instructions — pointed at us 365/24/7. Accordingly, our identities are increasingly tied up, albeit fleetingly and with fickleness, in commodity consumption and celebrity worship (actors, sports figures, political demagogues, etc.), and we lack continuity of character so appealing in inner-directed types. Outer-directed types are reflections of other things, sort of like when an idea goes viral and swarms over the memosphere. Intensification of this mode of identity formation is one of the hidden legacies of the communications age.

  5. Jo

    Regarding Facebook or Twitter friends, my answer is: I don’t want to be followed: I want to be free!
    I am a teacher librarian struggling to put my finger on my aversion to social networking sites. They are, of course, useful to promoting the library, but there is intense pressure on me and my colleagues to post as individuals and to create a following: in essence, to promote ourselves, and to promote our school and school district. The problem is one can’t be critical; one has to speak the party line. As I resist, I want to cry: “You can’t have me!” Though it is hard to articulate, I feel that if I were to participate to any degree, I would be giving myself away. I am not alone. The truth is that most classroom teachers feel as I do. Recently, one of my colleagues, a senior English Literature teacher, suggested that maybe school should be where students put their devices down and take a break from them – entirely. This runs so contrary to what the bureaucrats would have us do, it is almost revolutionary. I have to say that my students do think and they seem to manage the distraction potential of mobile devices very well. Still, I wonder how they will manage as they enter the workplace. It seems now that everything must be marketed, including the self.

  6. Chris

    “With social media, the compelling opportunities for self-expression outstrip the supply of things we have to confidently say about ourselves,” writes Rob Horning. “The demand for self-expression overwhelms what we might dredge up from ‘inside.’”

    Great quote.

    Perhaps this explains the rise, on websites such as Buzzfeed, of articles and quizzes that describe “20 things to do before you’re 20″; “15 ways you know you’re from the 90′s,” etc. Individuals on facebook must grasp for, and then share on facebook, a new supply of things to say about themselves.