Online Identity

There is a common complaint that online interaction is less authentic than personal interaction. We can take as long as we want perfecting a Facebook post, and to a lesser extent a text, whereas conversation requires an immediate response. We can choose which photos to upload to Instagram to show our lives in the coolest light possible, whereas it’s much harder to fake it in real life. When we interact with others online, there’s a pressure to seem like nothing is going wrong, that we’re always having the time of our lives.

These are all valid points, but I think they fail to capture the full complexity of what is going on. I make the counterargument that in many ways online interaction is more authentic than personal (physically proximate) interaction.

Sometimes people have fleeting thoughts that, if expressed, would cause others around them to be distressed and maybe fearful. But if the person never says it, we are none the wiser, and most people would not hold others to thoughts that they actively rejected. Basically, we can choose who we are. By a similar process, we choose who we are online; it’s just a question of how much filtering goes on. Just because presentation is more controlled doesn’t mean it’s less authentic. If that were true, the most authentic form of a person would be projecting every thought they had on a screen above their head at all times. And if you think that is authenticity, then I don’t think we should be prioritizing authenticity above all else. Then you have to strike a balance somewhere between showing what we are now and what we aspire to be, and I’d be very suspicious of anyone who said that our current filtering level (of personal interaction) is exactly the right balance. Online, we show what we strive to be, but this is just as important a part of our personality as what is observable from moment to moment. Does it capture the full picture of us? No. But it is important, and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as “inauthentic”.

But say you really dislike the intentionality of such interaction. I still hold that because many people don’t realize the audiences they’re addressing, some online interactions are more revealing than personal interactions. I have many friends who I knew as normal, nice people, and would never have known that they support Trump, or are outspokenly pro-gun, or are anti-science if I hadn’t seen their posts on Facebook. I think this is important because more than making my day a little sadder when I see these things, it shows just how tailored personal interactions are. Almost everyone changes their representation of themself to some degree when interacting with different people or groups. Some barely do it at all, some are silver-tongued snake charmers, but almost everyone does it, even if only subconsciously. But if a person isn’t very conscious of the audiences that can see what they do online, they may end up revealing a side of themself to audiences they wouldn’t normally. This could take the form of seeing a really thoughtful and heartwarming post that awkward kid in your class made to one of his close friends. Or it could take the form of seeing your friend quote false statistics in the name of causes you despise. The point is, not everyone is a social media master, and you can learn a lot about a person if they weren’t thinking about you when they liked or commented on someone else’s post.

I’m not saying that social media is the be-all-end-all of human interaction. It has real and constraining limits. But to blindly categorize it as lesser than “less authentic” than personal interaction is to miss the larger picture of how our online and physical selves relate to the world around us. In this day and age, you need to understand both.

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