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Social Media and Sense of Identity

Exploring the psychological impact of an algorithm-led society

The first website which we can call a social media website, was created in 1997 (a platform called Six Degrees). Social media began to exist less than three decades ago and the impact it is having on our society has not been studied in great depths. What started as a great tool to share information and connect people, is also having a strong impact on our sense of identity. This debate has only started very recently with the book ‘Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’ by Jaron Lanier (2018); which soon prompted the creation of a documentary, currently on Netflix, called ‘The Social Dilemma’ (2020).

‘Ten Arguments…’ by Jaron Lanier is a great place to start thinking about the psychological impact of social media. I agree with most points, although in many ways the book (published in 2018) is already obsolete. As a consequence of Lanier’s work and of this debate, Facebook is already changing some features (e.g. removing the likes-count on Instagram). In my opinion, the best contribution by Lanier is to start thinking about our sense of identity and how we express it on social media.

Apart from the obvious point that we only share happy-fake updates that only show one side of our human nature, the impact of social media on our sense of identity is deeper and more dangerous.

Money and manipulation
What are we doing on social media? What are we actually doing on social media? One way or another, we try to get attention, we try to be heard, we try to make our opinion matter. But for whom are we working?

Lanier is very clear about this: we don’t know how and who pays for Facebook and Instagram. Facebook is a money-making machine. It sells profiles to third party advertising companies. The algorithms get to know your profile (as a user), which means they know what you like and are most likely to spend time looking at. Using the algorithms, Facebook is able to sell to advertising companies a bunch profiles which are more likely to buy the products they sell. So the targeted advertisements on social media become more and more precise. An algorithm is a program designed to self-ameliorate, making experiments to self-improve. If you don't pay for a product or a service, it means that you are the product.

The result is the micro-manipulation: Facebook and Instagram are making profit because we create ‘engagement’. Whether we share pictures of your cat or the protests in Poland, we are creating ‘engagement’, therefore making money for Facebook and the advertising companies.

The Truth VS the truths

A strong argument against the use of social media is the fact that the algorithms keep showing you contents that will maximise our ‘engagement’. This creates a world that is tailored to us. We’re more likely to see on our feed either our own opinion, or the polar opposite, nothing in between. Our social media feed is an echo chamber of our own opinion. The only contrast will be an opinion which is outrageously opposite to our (because this also creates ‘engagement’).

From an existential perspective our social media feed is a ‘version’ of reality, it’s a version of the truth, not The Truth itself. It’s a version tailored to us. It only shows content we’re more likely to ‘engage’ with (one way or another).

Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are designed for the user to spend as much time on it as possible, to suck us in and use our time.

Again, from an existential perspective though, there isn’t such a thing as The Truth and we only see the world from our own perspective anyway. I’m not talking about this trend of the fact-checkers, I’m talking about experiences. I can never know what someone else experiences. Experience can only be individualised. The difference here is that the things on your social media are decided by an algorithm, which has the only goal to hook us in; so the real issue is the manipulation not the ‘tunnel-vision’/’echo chamber’.

In the real world I can become aware of my biases and work to soften them, so that my vision can become clearer. However on social media the lenses are decided by third party money-making advertising companies and there is no way for us to know Facebook algorithms.

Narrowing sense of identity

The idea of ‘making a point out of something’ is always celebrated on social media. ‘Making a point’ is the idea that we need to have something definite to say, some strong opinion about something or someone (e.g. a strong and radical political stance).

The successful profiles are those which have a point. By ‘successful’ I mean a profile that engages a lot of people. A successful profile is a profile that keeps people hooked in. This profile is often not a personal profile, but those with a specific theme (e.g. recycling, or a specific Indian cooking profile, or cat pictures only). I want to make it clear that there isn’t anything necessarily negative with the theme they’re promoting; the issue is in the way the content is promoted.

The first consequence is that, in order to create more ‘engagement’ (i.e. followers, likes and so on), social media is responsible for making people’s opinion more extreme. The only way to be heard is to have a strong opinion.
One of the results of this process is that social media narrows our identity, rather than making it wider.

Social media and politics

I think it’s a bit naive to think that we can outsmart an algorithm just by following the counterpart. In a way that would also prove the point to the algorithm that you do care about that topic. The issue is that the algorithm is not politicised (is not left wing or right wing). The algorithm just wants our time!

This creates a generation of people that have a strong point on something, as if their whole identity was about a specific political stance or cause. Not that there is anything pathological in having a strong political identity! This is also not to say we shouldn’t have strong opinions, of course. There are strong values we all hold on to, but on social media it’s only the extreme ones that are getting visibility and publicity. Our opinions to be worth it need to be extreme so, as a result, social media can feed extremisms and allow the spread of radicalisation.

Social media and empathy

The issue is that social media limits our identity to a specific trait. It closes the door to dialogue, rather than opening it. We see opinions without context so it’s impossible to empathise with the person who writes it. The lack of context makes it impossible to communicate effectively and we are left with random discourses leading to extreme conclusions. Social media is killing our ability to empathise with other human beings.

The danger to creativity

If our sense of identity becomes narrower, and more pushed to the extreme, another danger, in my opinion, is for our creativity. Social media only encourages and prizes people with ‘a strong personality’, whatever that means. In the common sense ‘a strong personality’ means the ability to feel strongly about something. However, from a psychological perspective, I think a healthy functioning person is someone who is flexible and creative (see Carl Rogers, 1951). Unfortunately, the reality is that flexibility and creativity don’t sell well on social media.

Conclusion: talking about the tool

Social media is a tool, and as any tool can be used in different ways. What we’ve explored in this article is the tool itself, not the content that gets exchanged. Like everything else there is a good side to social media (sharing information, creating debates, giving people a voice…), but it also comes with a dark side (algorithms, advertising company, manipulation, radicalisation, loss of creativity).
The point is that we need to become more aware of what tool we’re using and what price we’re paying for the benefits we’re getting.

Bibliography and resources

Lanier, J. (2018). Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. London, Penguin Random House.

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable.

The Center for Human Technology 

The Social Dilemma’ (2020), directed by Jeff Orlowski