Deconstructing Identity in the 21st Century
Andy Warhol saw Marilyn Monroe in many different ways...
Andy Warhol saw Marilyn Monroe in many different ways…

Never before has the individual identity been so empowered, nor has personal empowerment relied on others to this degree. Identity in the hyper-connected digital era exists in a paradox.

As we sacrifice privacy and more of our personal lives come online, the singular concept of a man or woman in control of their own manifest destiny falls.

While we share individual pieces of our lives, the image of ourselves we want people to see shifts. Our peers and family members add their own touches to the picture. Identity is no longer controlled by the individual, rather it’s painted in an impressionist or abstract fashion by their peers.

Further, identity is fractured, an overlapping jigsaw puzzle of roles. In one corner you have your work identity, in another family, and in a third, hobbies. On and on.

These identities overlap, creating confusion in some ways, a less finite person. Or perhaps more of a Warholian mash-up of four different shades of the same.

The Cuddly Narcissistic Self

iPhone 5

Fractured social identities online create a dopamine driven narcissism. We’re compelled to check our phones and see what’s being said, like, +1ed and more. We ask ourselves, “What people are saying about us, how it’s affecting our presence online, and what should I say to incur more comments and loves?”

This weekend at SxSW I decided to experiment with a pictorial featuring people looking in their phones instead of participating in the world around them. Within five minutes, I had more than 20 shots. It was too easy.

Our actions don’t define our identity anymore, rather, we opt-in and allow the reality-tv show audience to determine who we are through a kaleidoscope of tangential, fractured somewhat relevant mentions. And so the mighty Emersonian image of manifest self falls, and a new one of social network codependence rises.

We live in a dance to serve the whims of the crowd. Consider the many ways people cultivate communities with social acumen, great content, divisive polarization tactics, inclusive unity approaches, and on and on. Approach and style differ, but success is contingent on winning a crowd over, small or large.

If we’re fortunate, we develop identity by just being ourselves. But most cultivate networking, relationship and content skills. The worst engage in personal branding tactics to position images for personal acceptance by communities and markets.

The self-controlled identity lives under the bus now. Social network graphs can’t wait to roll over it.

It takes real courage to walk away from groups of people, to stand in the face of the machine, to walk your own path. But like it or not, even those bravest mavericks find their eyeballs glued to the eerie white blue screen of the phone or computer, telling them what someone just said, liked or voted down about them.

The Lost Human Soul

LOST AMERICA (at work)
Image by 4PIZON

It’s so easy to get lost in this mess.

Hell, those of us that have been out here long enough see it happen all the time. Though people protest, they buy into their Klout scores. They invest in likes, comments and the attention they receive. It becomes a part of their persona. Online social worth dominates offline activity, becoming true identity in many ways.

Why does it matter?

Though the ego may feel placated, offline people can’t relate.

A Kafkaesque Trial begins. Who will talk about me, even worship me for who I am? No one it seems. Always close, but no answer. Off to the next day and its social engagement exercise, yet another unfulfilled attempt to quiet the discontent of wanting to understand self.

The digital identity never feels quite right.

It’s an haphazard impressionist attempt at defining ourselves. Sometimes it creates Monet’s gorgeous vanilla skies but never captures the true grit of our souls. And our souls cry out.

Though we feel the Like, +1, and repinned driven dopamine rush that tells us we’re valued, no one holds us, no one tells us its OK, no one understands the pain of just living life and making it all work together.

And on that late winter Saturday afternoon, we are stuck in our phones, desperately seeking to be liked, to be understood, to find ourselves somewhere, somehow in the ether.

We are lost.

Maybe not in a nightmarish sense. Maybe it’s more like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a bizarre comedic look at the infinite loop of the human condition, and its self obsession.

We must change and adapt to digital identity in the 21st century consciously. Together and individually we will recalibrate self esteem and our human worth in this new era. It’s inevitable. The soul cannot help but to seek comfort through evolution if solace cannot be found in the old ways.

Yet identity will never be the same, and perhaps that is why so many of us feel a sense of strife when we consider how our digitized world has quietly revolutionized our souls.

What do you think?


  • This post is BEAUTIFUL.

    I have nothing to add.

  • Wow. Found this through Marjorie and have to say there are some deep thoughts and insights here. And, like you mention I definitely fall guilty to the whims of the crowd. While I don’t think all “digital identity” or “footprint” is negative or cultivates this outcome – most does.

    What really resonates is the point you make about our constant reaction to how everything we create is being received. At the end of the day, if we are living a truly meaningful life (As defined by us), that is aligned with our values and beliefs… The external world either affirming us with likes, or not, shouldn’t have an impact on our journey.

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights,


    • What will be amazing is to see how our children adapt to this and process identity. They won’t have legacy concepts, and thus meaning will shift for them. But I certainly hope their journey is not one that is so dependent on social validation.

  • SXSW is a beautiful illustration of this.

    I’ve never been in a space before with that many people and felt that alone and lost. It offers up the worst of our digital behavior reflected back to us in garish, never-ending waves.

    • It’s amazing. Pomp and circumstance at its worst. At the same time it can be glorious in the way that it brings you together IRL with people you have talked to online for so long!

  • Absolutely beautiful post. And, incredibly thought-provoking too. I’ve never been to SXSW, but I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    I’ve marveled before – especially with young people – how groups of them will sit together at a restaurant, yet no one is talking to each other. They all have their noses buried in their phones. It makes me sad. It’s crazy how we crave the attention we get from digital media, yet don’t know what to do with the attention sitting right in front of us.

    Yet, I’m guilty of this too. And, it’s why there are some days where I feel absolutely fed up with digital media and just want to shut it all down. You can absolutely gorge yourself with all of this content or spend too much time building a digital persona instead of focusing on the stuff that matters.

    • It’s bizarre really. We are not present physically anymore. What matters has shifted, but not necessarily for the better as you say.

      I like the tension of your comment, focusing on what matters. We are strained, moving back and forth between old and new. What’s right, what’s wrong? It feels off.

      • Tension is a great way to describe it. That word has been rattling around my head a lot lately. And, I think those of us in digital media/marketing feel it more than most. For us, we have to maintain some level of connectivity and online presence because of the work we do. But, at what cost?

  • I will never lose my quill pen soul in this digital world. Ditto what @MargieClayman:disqus and @lauraclick:disqus said in terms of “beautiful post”, and @twitter-16668285:disqus ‘s description is both telling and proof that the more “connected” we think we are via technology, the less connected we might actually be in person. It makes me crazy to see people at dinner, at a conference, head down, shoulders hunched, punching buttons furiously, totally oblivious to what is actually happening around them. Wow…just wow: thanks for this post. Cheers! Kaarina

    • Well, thank you. Glad you liked it. I am so guilty of this behavior, it’s not funny.

      On Sunday night, our team had dinner together and we all put our cell phones in the middle of the table, and left them there until the dinner was over. What a great idea. What a better experience. I hope you are doing well!

  • Powerful piece, Geoff. And even though I’d love to deny it, it’s hard to not be part of the narcissistic behavior described. We are all participants, of course. Why just the other day I caught myself texting while walking, almost into the street. But you’re so right about the emptiness and usually the only reward is that short-lived dopamine rush. I’ll be honest, if I spend too much time on social I feel kinda dirty afterward ;) Strange thing is, the deeper I get into this, the more I need to retreat to my old school ways (read: pen and paper). I think I need it to maintain sanity.

    • We are definitely all guilty of this. I don’t know any blogger or personality online that spends time here that doesn’t fall into the trap. But it’s such an empty one. It feels almost Faustian in nature.

      As you noted, I, too, am often going old school, spending more time with my friends before social took off, and the like. Seeking traditional entertainment like sporting events. But it is all changing so…

  • I think, as with other human behaviors, obsession with personal image and tendency toward narcissism has always existed. Online tools are just another vehicle to accelerate and amplify them. Politicians and other performers have always been more concerned with how they are viewed, and individualists have always resisted. Our children are already finding ways to reclaim their privacy – my 19 year old is talking of quitting Facebook (for the second time in 18 months). The pace may be quicker, but the issues are the same as they were. Read about our Founding Fathers: social striving, gossip and intrigue were an integral part of their social structure. “Consider the many ways people cultivate communities with social acumen, great content, divisive polarization tactics, inclusive unity approaches, and on and on. Approach and style differ, but success is contingent on winning a crowd over, small or large.” This has always been true, and always will be. It just happened in parlors, newspapers, and personal letters. It’s human nature.

    • I think that’s a fair counterpoint. And I am sure that the gossip became as petty as we see now.

      But I do think self reflection has never been so blatantly obvious and transparent, and perhaps that’s why we are more conscious of it. And repelled by it. That’s the curse of digital visibility.

  • Bravo. Very well written. Finding our way back is one of those very important challenges. Learning how to not want to share every moment online is increasingly going to be part of our “work.” Learning not to hang from every system or platform’s utterance. Ignoring the red lights and the parenthetical (4) on your FB or G+ so you can just live some more.

    Great post. Much appreciated.

    • It’s the old taco dilemma… Should I share my tacos? Does anyone care that they are grouper tacos? And maybe they do, but only if we are really that special with our virtual taco sauce.

      Then there is the inversion of the taco dilemma. Do we want to really invest time talking about tacos? LOL.

      OK, maybe it’s a good thing I just left Austin with all of this taco talk. Thanks for coming by, Chris. I really appreciate it!

      • Thanks to you both for very different reasons. Geoff, I didn’t know you until Chris led me here. Now I do and I’m glad he did. May you find partial peace today.

  • Geoff, beautiful and well thought through as always. I’m feeling more connected when I’m out with my family and participating (though I still take the pictures and share), when I’m in class with students, when I’m working hard on a client project and not checking in constantly.
    There is indeed a void of hitting refresh to see what is next, and recently I stared into the abyss…and walked away for a little while.
    Things that help me to give back in my world (volunteering,working, teaching) definitely help keep me centered. If those things increase my online and offline connections, all the better. But I’ll be doing more of the offline when I can, and noticing more, thanks to your thoughts here.

    • It’s an amazing contrast, isn’t it? I am about to get off a plane in a couple of hours, and at that time, I will join the family in Miami. I plan on turning off the devices and getting down to some good old fashioned quality time.

      Did you almost go completely dark?

  • This really struck a nerve for me. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit – about the need to feel accepted and putting too much weight on that simple click of the +1 or like button, but wow, how we let it run our lives.
    We become so exhausted being social online, the thought of being social in real life takes second place. I used to watch people in the airport. Sometimes, I’d even TALK TO PEOPLE. Now I watch my FB feed. What does this mean for our future? UGH.

    • Certainly we are the worst cases as the ones who are leading the charge as content creators, but I think if you look online, you will see that you are not alone. It’s really quite amazing actually.

      Hope you have a great week planned!

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  • A brilliant post, my friend. I’m glad that I didn’t have a badge for SxSW because it gave me an opportunity to connect intimately with people after long last. That’s special.

  • I had the pleasure of participating in National Letter Month (lettermo) in February. Although I am a full participant in social media, I am also a strong proponent of still engaging in letter writing, phone calls and actual facetime! (Skype is good too though!)

    The experience of delayed gratification and of what we GIVE in communications is lost in the immediacy. These are important skills that have to be felt and learned. I recommend anyone take a moment (it really only takes a minute or two) to sit down and handwrite a note and mail it to someone. The gratification is prolonged and deep.

  • Oh, and I forgot to say, Geoff, that this is a beautiful post. Thank you for thinking about it. Remember the tipping point? Before you had a cell phone but others had one? Anyway, that was the tipping point for me. I could see people with them and I saw that desperation already. I couldn’t figure out why they needed so badly to talk to people ALL THE TIME. “They must be very afraid to be by themselves,” I remember thinking.

  • Measuring our worth (or impact) by the digital affirmations of others – it’s a form of social slavery. I wish I could say I’m above it all, but like you, Geoff, I have found the siren song to be very seductive over the years. It’s difficult to be invested in social networks without being overly-invested…

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