‘Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.’ – Dr. Seuss
Wise words from another children’s author. Yet in this age of branding, of social media, of digitisation to the extreme, how are we to know who we are? Rather than staying at home and pondering their choices, people go around the world to ‘find themselves’, when the reality of who they are might well be more easily discovered mouldering under a dirty pile of washing in the corner of their bedroom. It feels as if now more than ever we are made to know who we are, and to present a consistent picture to the world, because the world of people with whom we communicate is moving gradually onto a different plane – the digital one. How do we cope with this? How to decide which parts of ourselves to present, which parts to keep private, which parts to wheedle out and throw away? In a time when friends, enemies, colleagues and bosses have access to all our intimate details via social media, it is a question worth asking.
Putting up a front on a twelve-hour basis is exhausting enough. Arriving at the office with a smile no matter what’s going on outside, leaving your personal life at the door, building a personality around professionalism, are all things we have to do to preserve our sanity and our reputations. Yet ‘who are you?’ is no longer really a question of personality, especially in a professional setting. It is now a question of branding. Which groups have you joined on Facebook? Which fan pages? Are there photos of you stumbling drunkly down the street at 4am every Saturday, or enjoying a cosy night in playing board games with the kids? Does it matter either way? Are you reflected in any of these things?
Like it or lump it, in today’s world, the results that come up when your potential new boss searches your name on the internet will probably have a bearing on whether you’ll get the job. Your colleagues will probably be your ‘friends’, at least online. So when you start complaining that you hate your job and are looking for a new one, you’ll have to watch out. It’s hard to say you’re networking with the hope of changing career when everyone from your current position – seniors included – is able to watch what you’re up to.
The internet can be useful; it can be a tool, a portal, or a dictator. It can give us access to our closest friends twenty-four hours a day if we so desire; and allow us to see what our enemies and exes are doing if we are curious. Online, we have the freedom to switch personality; the freedom to choose who we are, what we look like, the expressions we use. We can blog under a different name, using words we would never use, punctuating our sentences with things our nearest and dearest would never recognise as our own.
How, from this, do we build who we are? Can we trust people’s instantaneous reactions to what we’ve posted on Twitter? Our associations shape and influence us in many ways; some obvious, some subtle. Yet now we have more acquaintances than ever before, from places we might never have heard of had it not been for the internet. Gone are the days when people grew up knowing those in the surrounding villages, being involved in their lives, in their decisions. Now a fifteen-year-old on a forum in the UK might have friends in Massachusetts, Mumbai, Melbourne.
When we had ships, we traded goods. When we had planes, we traded places. Now that we have this digitised, somewhat ethereal thing called the internet, we trade in something far more subtle. We give and receive parts of our personalities, our experiences, our feelings, our whole lives, to people we have never met and are unlikely to see face-to-face. We ask the opinion of ‘experts’ on Twitter for all to see: ‘What should I do?’ ‘Should I wear the red one or the blue one?’ ‘Is he cheating on me?’ The fact that all this has been accepted as the norm is quite terrifying when considered seriously. Yet it is useful, and I for one would be lost without the internet, without my means of instantaneous intercontinental communication which allows me to be ‘in the office’ whether I’m at home, on a train or in a restaurant.
So how do we cope? We brand. We set up a ‘self’ we don’t mind being in the public arena, and we run with it. It seems to have been a transition with which few have had any obvious problems. But for how long can we keep it up? How long until we tire of the social revolution, throw in our e-towels and try to re-form ourselves into people rather than brands? Will it ever happen? Or will we become more and more digitised the further into the 21st century we go?
What do you think? Are we becoming brands rather than people? Are you tired of your ‘online self’? I’d love to hear your thoughts.