Some time ago, I met a bright and lively graduate student, who registered with Facebook during the academic year 2003-04, when she was a student at Harvard. Her Facebook ID number was 246. Impressive. A bit like being the 246th person to land on a new planet. Such Facebook ID numbers disappeared from sight in 2009, when Facebook adopted friendly usernames to make it much easier to find people. The change was necessary because, in a few years, the Facebook planet has become rather crowded, as the aforementioned student has been rapidly joined by hundreds of millions of users worldwide. Half a billion was reached in July 2010; the billion mark was passed in October 2012.
The previous story is a good reminder of how more and more people spend an increasing amount of time broadcasting themselves, digitally interacting with each other (recall the three basic operations: read/write/execute), within an infosphere that is neither entirely virtual nor only physical. It is also a good reminder of how influential Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are becoming in shaping our personal identities. They are the most powerful technologies of the self to which we have ever been exposed. Clearly, we should handle them carefully, as they are significantly modifying the contexts and the practices through which we shape ourselves. Let me explain.
In the philosophy of mind, there is a well-honed distinction between who we are—let us call this our personal identities—and who we think we are—call this our self-conceptions. Needless to say, there is a crucial difference between being Napoleon and believing oneself to be Napoleon. The two selves—our personal identities and our self-conceptions— flourish only if they support each other in a mutually healthy relationship. Not only should our self-conceptions be close to, and informed by, who we really are, our actual personal identities are also sufficiently malleable to be significantly influenced by who we think we are, or would like to be. If you think you are confident, you are likely to become so, for example.
Things get more complicated because our self-conceptions, in turn, are sufficiently flexible to be shaped by who we are told to be, and how we wish to be perceived. This is a third sense in which we speak of ‘the self .’ It is the social self, so elegantly described by Marcel Proust in the following passage:
But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act that we describe as ‘seeing someone we know’ is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.
The social self is the main channel through which ICTs, and especially interactive social media, exercise a deep impact on our personal identities. Change the social conditions in which you live, modify the network of relations and the flows of information you enjoy, reshape the nature and scope of the constraints and affordances that regulate your presentation of yourself to the world and indirectly to yourself, and then your social self may be radically updated, feeding back into your self-conception, which ends up shaping your personal identity. Using the previous example: if people think and say that you are confident and you wish to be seen by them as confident, then you are more likely to conceive yourself as being confident, and so you may actually become confident.
There are some classic puzzles about personal identity. They are linked to continuity through time or possible scenarios: are you the same person you were last year? Would you be the same person if you had grown up in a different place? How much of yourself would be left, if you had your brain implanted in a different body? To someone used to ruminating about such questions the whole phenomenon of the construction of personal identities online may seem frivolous and distracting, a sort of ‘philosophy for dummies,’ unworthy of serious reflection. But in the real world, such a construction is a concrete and pressing issue to a fast-growing number of people who have lived all their adult life already immersed in Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and so forth. To them, it seems most natural to wonder about their personal identities online, treat them as a serious work-in-progress, and to toil daily to shape and update them. It is the hyper-self-conscious generation, which facebooks, tweets, skypes, and instant-messages its subjective views and personal tastes, its private details and even intimate experiences, in a continuous flow.
Maintaining an updated and accurate presence online is not an easy task. Nor is it taken lightly. According to a study by the Pew Research Center published in 2012 in the U.S., teenage girls send an average of 80 texts a day, followed by boys, with ‘only’ an average of 30. And if you thought that emails were ‘so last week’ because today it is all about SMS text messages, then it is time for one more upgrade. In 2012, instant messages on chat apps, such as WhatsApp, overtook SMSs for the first time, and by a wide margin: an average of 19 billion instant messages were sent daily, compared with 17.6 billion SMSs. At the time of writing, nearly 50 billion instant messages were expected to be sent per day, compared with just over 21 billion traditional SMSs.
Never before in the history of humanity have so many people monitored, recorded, and reported so many details about themselves to such a large audience. The impact of so many gazillions of micronarratives of all sorts and on all subjects is already visible. For example, they have already changed how we date and fall in love. Geosocial networking applications that allow users to locate other users within close proximity and on the basis of profiles and preferences—such as Grindr (to find, befriend, and date gay, bisexual, and bi-curious men) and Tinder (a matchmaking app that facilitates anonymous communication for dating and networking)—are popular. And according to a study conducted by the electronics retailer PIXmania in 2013, tweets are the preferred way to start a relationship in the UK. It takes on average 224 tweets to start a relationship, compared to 163 text messages, 70 Facebook messages, 37 emails, or 30 phone calls. And once in a relationship, more than a third of interviewed couples admit to exchanging saucy texts and explicit pictures with each other, so-called sexting. It all starts and ends at a distance, as ICTs are also the preferred means to end a relationship: 36 per cent do it by phone, 27 per cent by text message, and 13 per cent through social media. Meeting in real life to say goodbye is so old-fashioned.
Most significantly, the micro-narratives we are producing and consuming are also changing our social selves and hence how we see ourselves. They represent an immense, externalized stream of consciousness, which the philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) would have found intriguing:
consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits [ . . . ] it is nothing joined; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let's call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.
Today, consciousness is still a stream. But it does appear in bits, not James’s bits, of course, but rather the digital ones of social media. Nothing is too small, irrelevant, or indeed private to be left untold. Any data point can contribute to the description of one’s own personal identity. And every bit of information may leave a momentary trace somewhere, including the embarrassing pictures posted by a schoolmate years ago, which will disappear, of course, like everything else on this planet, but just more slowly than our former selves will.
Some Jeremiahs lament that the hyper-self-conscious Facebook generation, which is constantly asking and answering ‘where are you?’ on the Google map of life, has lost touch with reality. They complain that such a new generation lives in virtual bubbles where the shallowest babbles are the only currency; that it cannot engage with the genuine and the authentic; that it is mesmerized by the artificial and the synthetic; that it cannot bear anything that is slow-paced or lasts longer than a TED talk; that it is made up of narcissistic, egocentric selfies (self-taken photographs usually posted online); that it is a generation incapable of responsibility because everything is expected to be erasable, revisable, and reversible anyway (one way of reading ‘the right to be forgotten’).
There might be some truth in all this. In 2013, Instagram contained over 23 million photos tagged #selfie, and 51 million tagged #me. At the time of writing, a search engine such as Statigram indicated that the #selfie had more than doubled (52 million) and the #me almost tripled (144 million). However, in the end, I am not convinced by the Jeremiahs, for two main reasons.
First, because the supposedly genuine and the authentic, too, tend to be highly manufactured cultural artifacts. What we consider natural is often the outcome of a merely less visible human manipulation, like a well-kept garden. Indeed, we have had such an impact on our planet that geologists now speak of ‘anthropocene.' ‘Nature’ is often how a culture understands what surrounds it.
And second, because social media also represent an unprecedented opportunity to be more in charge of our social selves, to choose more flexibly who the other people are whose thoughts and interactions create our social personality, to paraphrase Proust, and hence, indirectly, to determine our personal identities. Recall how the construction of your social self (who people think you are) feeds back into the development of your self-conception (who you think you are), which then feeds back into the moulding of your personal identity (who you are). More freedom on the social side also means more freedom to shape oneself.
The freedom to construct our personal identities online is no longer the freedom of anonymity advertised by Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon, in which a dog, typing an email on a computer, confesses to another dog that ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’. Those were the nineties. Today, if one is or behaves like a dog, Facebook, Google, or at least some security agency probably knows about it. Rather, it is the freedom associated with self-determination and autonomy. You may no longer lie so easily about who you are, when hundreds of millions of people are watching. But you may certainly try your best to show them who you may reasonably be, or wish to become, and that will tell a different story about you that, in the long run, will affect who you are, both online and offline. So the onlife experience is a bit like Proust’s account-book, but with us as coauthors.
The Jeremiahs may still have a final point. They may be right in complaining that we are wasting a great opportunity, because, still relying on Proust’s metaphor, what we are writing is not worth reading. They are disappointed by our performance as authors of our own self-narratives. But then, they have a picture of the past that is probably too rosy. Couch potatoes have been watching pictures and making small talk about their cats and the last holidays, in front of the wall of Plato’s cave or TV screens, well before Facebook made it embarrassingly clear that this is how most of humanity would like to spend its hard-earned free time anyway. Aristotle knew that a philosophical life requires leisure. Unfortunately, the converse is not necessarily true: leisure does not require philosophy and may easily lead only to entertainment. The result is that, as we learn from the Chorus at the beginning of La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi:
Giocammo da Flora.
E giocando quell’ore volar.
[We played at Flora’s,
And by playing, time flew.]
Excerpted from "The Fourth Revolution" by Luciano Floridi. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright Luciano Floridi. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.