I Tweet, therefore I am – a look at social media and personal identity

I’ve often wondered about the differences in psychological makeup between those active in social media versus those who occasionally participate.  I’ve long made fun of friends and colleagues who feel the need to share their every thought or chronicle their movement through the day. Why in gods name would D think we need to know he’s just pulled up to xyz restaurant for a meeting with Bob or that he’s tired after a long day?

Is the difference simply one of I versus E – Introvert vs Extrovert, with the E’s making up the greater portion of heavy participants?  Perhaps it’s a combination of psychological factors and simply time.  I can barely answer my email, much less think about composing a meaningful post to send out to the world.

Perhaps the clue lies in the word meaningful. I’m not a casual poster or tweeter.  I’m discerning about what I think I have to offer the world.  Mostly because I think it’s a reflection on me and I want to come across as knowing my stuff or having something worthwhile to say.  I don’t want to be confused for just another social gadfly who likes to hear themselves talk.  This is different from being discerning about what other people might want to hear.  In other words, my discernment is internally focused versus externally focused.

A case could be made that social media participation helps to make people more externally focused. For her coming book, “Alone Together,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle interviewed more than 400 children and parents about their use of social media and cellphones. Among young people especially she found that the self was increasingly becoming externally manufactured rather than internally developed: a series of profiles to be sculptured and refined in response to public opinion. “On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are,” she explained. “But because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance.” Referring to “The Lonely Crowd,” the landmark description of the transformation of the American character from inner- to outer-directed, Turkle added, “Twitter is outer-directedness cubed.”

I’m in favor of anything that gets people out of themselves and focused on other people, but it’s the performance part of this that makes me a little nervous. Does Turkle’s research suggest we ultimately become whoever we think the audience wants us to be?  Sounds a little dangerous, and particularly so, if the audience has questionable values and intentions.

How might we help enable the good stuff – more external focus, but balance this out with a strong sense of self and ability to both add meaningful discourse and inspire that in others?

I’m interested in what you think. Please add your comments.

– Pam Holloway

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    One Response to I Tweet, therefore I am – a look at social media and personal identity

    1. Pam-

      Your gut reaction about the performance part “making you nervous” is probably right. It might be helpful to distinguish the type of external focus we’re talking about. Anything having to do with image-shaping is not *really* a “focus on other people.” It’s more like marketing: a broadcast in the hope of a validating response. The focus is on making an impression and receiving subsequent validation.

      I think Turkle’s title, “Alone Together,” really captures the modern American transition. The model of inner- vs. outer-directed is an interesting insight, but maybe not as helpful as something like “interpersonally-oriented vs. broadcast-oriented.” Something that shows the transition from fewer, dialog-based connections to more, broadcast-based connections. Under the new paradigm, it’s harder to gather and process the kind of social-value feedback that helps determine one’s self-image.

      I actually have a post on this topic, if you’re interested:

      http://peopletriggers.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/desires-of-the-21st-century/

      -Scott

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