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?