A Game of You: The Internet’s Effect on Identity

How many variations of you exist?

“Just be yourself.” It’s one of those loaded catch phrases that people throw around without being cognizant of how difficult it actually is to “be oneself” at all times.  Where does this notion of the genuine self stem from, and why do some people take so much stock in it? So much value is placed on the genuine self that some who meet with success are said to have sold out. But what if appealing to the masses is genuine for a person and their desire to do so is so great that selling out is an integral part of who they are? As Trey Parker and Matt Stone once said, selling out “was the whole idea” when they created South Park. And I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of other people as well.  We want to be happy. As social beings, that entails being validated by others, especially for folks in performing arts.

When it comes down to it, we’re all performing to some degree. Most people negotiate a multitude of social frames, and act different in each one. Maybe they’re Dwarf-o the great in WoW, grandma and grandpa’s good little target for inheritance money at the family reunion, the kindest guy/girl in the world to friends, and a total self-centered dick in their professional lives. We operate in a social landscape such as this by negotiating the multitude of selves so we can meet all of our needs. We need validation of our self worth in many, sometimes conflicting, arenas.

There are exceptions to the rule, two of which are pretty goddamned tragic when you get right down to it. First, the predominantly white, middle to upper middle class American lifestyle, which features multiple social frames, most of which are homogenized into a bland, viscous milk where not only everyone is expected to act the same, but each person acts the same in most social frames or communities of practice. Work, home, school, out on weekends: it’s all the same person, probably the same participants.

The second is the small-town, lower-class lifestyle in which social frames become homogenized through self-imposed segregation. I think of my hometown in particular, which people sometimes refer to as Neverland because nothing changes and few people leave. Those who do leave generally don’t come back. Those who remain generate and sustain a hierarchy that does not extend beyond community walls. You can change your position on the hierarchy, but no matter which sub community you’re a part of in that small town, you generally don’t move far, and your reputation always follows you.

Today we live in a disposable society, especially due to the internet. Don’t like one group of people you hang out with? Just toss out the old group and find another one. The internet has done for the small-town inhabitant what the city has allowed since its earliest days. If things don’t work out with the old crowd, you work the same routine with a new crowd. Thus the confidence man finds a comfortable living and the scam artist bullshits through life.

Pictured above: the trashcan of an asshole who just “can’t find a group or forum that fits his unique personality type.”

Few of us are strangers to this phenomenon. We’ve all had run ins with itinerants, whether online or in the real world—people who disappear and crop up in new groups or forums, pitching the same line of bullshit they have pitched elsewhere. It’s annoying and generally harmless, unless they’re stealing work from authors or making promises they can’t keep.

But you don’t see this as much in small towns. Well, you do. The only difference is that in a small town you can start running on empty after a while. Once your name gets around and your reputation precedes you, people seem to be more willing to listen to warning.

But online people can change their entire virtual identities. This makes it harder to regulate dangerous social aberrations.

On the other end of the spectrum—the end already established being the ability to dispose of a social frame and find a new one to reinvent yourself—there is Facebook, where social frames come together, sometimes with disastrous results. It’s particularly apparent during election season, when you realize your old pals from high school have become neo conservative Christian fundamentalists, or realize someone you respected as a colleague is prone to fits of rage and delusions of grandeur.

While seemingly paradoxical, I love what Facebook does to relational identity, but I also love the fact that we have the opportunity to experiment with our identities online. Facebook is important because we can identify problem people by noting their interactions with others. Maybe you’ve been bitching with Billy by the water cooler             about your job. You trust Billy, until you see that on Facebook he weaves an intricate web of he said/she said with his family members. Better watch what you say around Billy.

At the same time, our feedback—perhaps manifest as “unfriending,” or confrontation–gives others a chance for self-correction. People have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, or to alter their behavior in one community to get the pleasing results they find in another community. But this rarely happens. What I see is what I mentioned above. People go to a new community and act like dicks once their old community exiles them. They don’t change, they just change friends. Instead of bad personality attributes being disposable, the entire community becomes disposable to salvage the wounded pride of today’s scam artists, confidence men, and general douche bags.

I can’t get no respect . . . I guess I’ll just try being a dick on a different MMORPG. Yeah, that’ll work!

The good news is that, once we peg someone as an ass, we don’t have to deal with them anymore. Speaking of which, have you ever seen those memes and Facebook statuses that read something to the effect of “ooh, you blocked me. That’ll show me.”

something like this, but with “Facebook page” or “Myspace account” instead of “number.”

They’re indicative of the ego that people who frequently get blocked exhibit, and the general mentality that it’s all about them, and someone blocked them to establish dominance or get the last word.

Maybe they just blocked the person because (s)he’s obnoxious and they don’t want to deal with his/her shit anymore.

On a separate note, have the memes coupling Willy Wonka with shallow “nailed it” slogans completely ruined Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for anyone else?

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