‘Today, if you are or behave like a dog, Facebook probably knows it’
To someone used to ruminate about personal identity puzzles in terms of continuity through time or possible worlds, the whole phenomenon of the construction of personal identities online (Facebook, Second Life, My Space, Webpages, Blogs, YouTube and Flickr accounts, Twitters and so forth), might seem something frivolous and distracting, unworthy of serious reflection. Yet to many people who have never heard of Theseus’ ship, but have lived all their adult life with “online awareness”, it seems most natural to treat their personal identities as a very serious work-in-progress, and toil daily to shape and update them online. It is the hyperconscious generation, which facebooks and twitters its views and tastes, its experiences and its personal details. Nothing is too small to be left unsaid, anything can contribute to the construction of one’s own personal identity, and everything may leave a trace somewhere, including your silly pictures posted by a schoolmate years ago.
Some Jeremiahs lament that the hyperconscious, Facebook generation has lost touch with reality, that it lives in a virtual bubble, that it cannot engage with the genuine and the authentic, that it is mesmerised by the artificial and the synthetic. I am not convinced, not only because the genuine and the authentic tend to be highly manufactured cultural artefacts, but also because social media like Facebook represent an unprecedented opportunity to be in charge of our social selves. We can choose who the other people are whose thoughts create our social personality and hence, to paraphrase Proust, indirectly determine our personal identities. Recall how the construction of the social self feeds back into the development of the epistemological self, which then feeds back into the moulding of the ontological self. More freedom on the social side means more freedom to shape oneself. This is no longer the freedom of anonymity advertised by Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon (“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”). Those were the nineties (the carton was published in The New Yorker, July 5, 1993). Today, if you are or behave like a dog, Facebook probably knows it. Rather, it is the freedom associated with self-determination and autonomy. You can no longer lie so easily about who you are, when 500 million people are watching. But you can certainly try your best to show them who you might reasonably be or wish to become, and that will tell a different story about your self that, in the long run, will affect who you are. Facebook is Proust’s account-book, and you are the writer.