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By Jason Michael

Our online selves are undergoing a rapid transformation from the person to the avatar. We are becoming who we pretend to be online, and this is a dangerous place for us to go. It reduces the person and poisons real society.

Ibsen’s near mythic figure Peer Gynt, like Homer’s Odysseus, is on a journey home. In the case of Peer Gynt this is a homecoming pilgrimage of self-discovery, seeking the meaning – with a nod to Shakespeare’s Hamlet – of the commendation “To thine own self be true.” Finding ourselves; discovering who we truly are and finding our own voice, given the brevity and seeming absurdity of our own existence cuts right to the heart of what it means to be human. This idea is captured perfectly in Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy of self-becoming, the duty of people to become authentic persons in the discovery of themselves and ultimate meaning. Considering the lack of real answers to the question of the meaning of life, this I think comes closest to setting us on our own journeys of self-discovery and meaning.

With both Kierkegaard and Ibsen this all begins in the interior, in the self-centred and self-obsessed infantile and unformed person. In this chthonic void of personhood Peer Gynt is told of the alternative to authentic life:

Out there, under the radiant sky,
They say: ‘To thine own self be true.’
But here, in the world of trolls, we say:
‘To thine own self be all-sufficient!’

Social media – now very much “the world of trolls” – offers us what real life simply cannot, the ability to be all-sufficient. It offers us the possibility to find meaning in our undeveloped and un-self-become humanity. Behind the fiction of a social media profile we can be the men and women we want to be; the person we desire most to present to the world without ever affecting any real change in the person who we actually are in the real world. This I will call the ‘avatar,’ the fictive person we create online in order to perform a version of human existence before a cyber landscape inhabited by nothing but other inauthentic avatars.

By this avatarism we have begun a process of detaching ourselves from the selves we are and becoming something new – a personality, whilst appearing to be the perfected image of ourselves, that is ultimately false. Many, no doubt, will not experience this of course. Those of us brought up off-line will see the digital self – the avatar – as little more than a telephone number, a conduit through which to communicate and express who we have already become. Yet this is not the case for younger people brought up online. To an ever increasing number of them the avatar has become the de facto self, an alternative to authentic reality – a faux humanity.

In real life our encounter of the other forces us out of ourselves and into relationality. We are attracted to the other, challenged by the other, and transformed by the other. As social creatures we develop among others and by reflecting on this inter-relational reality we are driven to become persons – that is real and authentic human beings and genuine moral agents in the society we help to shape.  Conversely, the avatar – as something of a Platonic ideal of the self – drives us to compete with not the other but the avatar of the other; itself a false self. Rather than being attracted we are repulsed, rather than being challenged we conform, and rather than transformed we are subjected to a kind of developmental atrophy. We become less, contribute less, and ultimately withdraw from society.

Rather than becoming more self-absorbed as some argue, the avatarism of social media absorbs us in the non-personal self of the avatar, removing us even from ourselves and thus exacerbating our growing sense of social alienation, isolation, and loneliness. Research has shown that the artificial pleasure of social acceptance created by positive online responses is addictive. Likes and shares have the power to give us a faster dopamine high than face-to-face communication, thus driving us to seek this form of acceptance over the effort of real relational communication.

Our pursuit of online acceptance then nudges us to moderate how we behave online, engineering our avatar to better conform to the norms of our social media community. Over time those facets of our real self that are not rewarded online are dropped. We begin to post, comment, like, and share in accord with the perceived expectations of the group. Our individual identities are subsumed into the collective as we sink deeper into this social media groupthink.

Naturally this impacts on all our interests. Our cultural appreciation of art, music, literature and so on begins to narrow. Experimentation is not encouraged. Something of this can be seen in the evolution of identity politics, the collecting of multiple social and political issues into easily consumed packages of agreed opinion. While each of these issues is important in and of itself, as a package it demands ready acceptance, deviation is punished, and critical thinking is all but silenced. To be a political “conservative” or a “progressive” thus dictates one’s opinion on a whole set of separate social and political questions. It does not take a rocket scientist then to see the effect this polarisation has in the formation of social media echo chambers and blind spots.

Long-term this is not good for people or the real societies we inhabit. At once it damages the self, arrests our social, cultural, and political development, and makes us easy prey for the sophisticated algorithms used by online marketers and political interest groups keen to manipulate us. This does not, however, mean that the use of social media and the internet are inherently bad. Quite the opposite is true, but – as is the case with every arena in which people express themselves – it comes with dangers. We cannot allow social media to form who we are. We must do that for ourselves and so better shape what the internet and social media are to become.

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How Social Media Shapes Identity | Ulrike Schultze


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2 thoughts on “Social Avatarism: The Creation of the Digital Self

  1. I suppose we are into uncharted territory here. I suspect I devote far too much time to social media myself and ironically due to that fact I found this good, thought-provoking piece.
    Indeed, like any addictive substance it can and has in my instance become something of a distraction from things I really should be doing.
    Well, I guess there’s no time to address this like the present!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this article, Jason. It unleashes some big questions. You have also said what I’ve been thinking for a while, about how people conform to a whole mode of cheap, instant communication online, and that this short-circuits their communication off-line too. This has the cumulative effect for all of us of lowering our tolerance for activities that require sustained focus, and that have a history beyond the last five minutes. In short, it’s bad for our mental health. I try to keep one foot in both worlds. But I always make sure to keep a heavier foot in the embodied world, because that’s where all our knowledge is about where we come from and who we are. Despite how some of us act, we are still animals, and we are dependent every part of our physical environment. I don’t think it’s anti-progress to say that. I think all this technology is so new, that we can easily move too fast, too quickly. And the effect of that, on our environment and on how we treat each other, could be disastrous.

    Liked by 1 person

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