Should we be giving more or less of ourselves to the internet?

The pandemic has driven our lives even further online – but it's become no clearer where we should draw the line.

by Joanna Kyte
05 October 2020, 8:00am

If modernity insists on a value system measured in online followers and offering yourself up to the internet, it’s fair to say that society currently sits in groups of native, neutral and non-existant. Instagram accounts are either pumped with personality or laced with unintentional modesty, Twitter pages lay dormant or drowning in oversharing while LinkedIn pages balance screaming pleas of “hire me” with decades of outdated job titles. For many of us, stats play hard-to-get in their lacking, requiring imagination to fill in a host of cyberspace blanks. And yet, on the contrary to all that these digital personas suggest, this half-heartedness often exists not out of lacklustre but as the consequence of a very present-day dilemma: should we be giving more or less of ourselves to the internet?

This question varies in levels of magnitude from one generation to the next. generation Z, inadvertently birthed into the norms of a life spent entirely plugged in, typically uphold a streamlined subconscious of online intentionality while millennials, straddling vague memories of life pre and post-WiFi, are more likely to enter into considered decision-making on how they want to engage (or disengage) with the world wide web. These decisions may be processed in questions like; should I openly document my life? Am I going to remain private or go public? Am I digitally attractive? Should I create a personal brand? What will my USP be? Can I utilise my career, interests, appearance or morals to maximise my platform? And most crucially, do I want to?

In a collective purge of our penchant for multiple online personas, the beginning of 2020 saw the internet join country music icon Dolly Parton in a celebration of the big four; LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Tinder. Differentiating each personality with visual headlines of professionalism, family, idealism and provocativity, the fast impact of the viral #DollyPartonChallenge playfully permitted us to hold up our hands to the selective behaviours we use when it comes to portraying ourselves online. From slight subtleties to outright blatant differences, the incredibly high wave of engagement enthusiastically nodded to what we already suspected to be true; the concept of digital attractiveness has become a universal desire.

On the pursuit of playful and somewhat harmless online appeal, clinical psychologist Clare Watson says that “creating a digital persona allows us to construct an 'ideal' version of ourselves, projecting not who we are but what we want to be into the world. This can be a fun, creative and freeing process, unhindered by our everyday insecurities and self judgement.” Of course, like everything, the trajectory and behaviours of performative social media has been subverted – at least for a little while – in the surreal dystopia of coronavirus. Surveys now show that less than a quarter (23%) of us hold a continued need to post content that portrays a "polished" version of our lives. The future of content creation has been shaped and dictated by being bored in the house (and in the house bored), teeing up the global rise of TikTok and the introduction of Instagram Reels. We have succumbed, once again, to the seduction of Big Brother, willingly becoming one another’s primary form of entertainment. With the value of online interactions and relationships circumstantially soaring, digital adopters and digital natives are culturally united under the swinging pendulum of stay at home and don’t stay at home.

When a societal tide turns, it’s best practice to turn with it. For the past twenty years, marked by the beginnings and uprise of springboard platforms such as MySpace and Facebook (founded in 2003 and 2004), we’ve been navigating the new art of digital self-presentation via the limitless communication of social media. When Influencer and Author Liv Purvis started blogging at the age of 16, the concept of curation wouldn’t have even occurred to her. “I don't think I even knew what a digital persona was. I think since then it's happened quite natively and unconsciously and I don't really see my 'digital persona' as anything different to my 'real life' one (which even typing sounds quite strange). I don't necessarily see the two as separate entities or existences.”

For the first time in history, we are perpetually visible to anyone and everyone that wishes to access us.  Unsurprisingly, this heightened sense of exposure has evoked a people puppeteered by hyper self-awareness, thereby declaring now as the age of the insecure narcissist.

In differing doses, we hold in our hands a modern pressure to consistently keep up cyber appearances. Psychologist Clare speculates on the cognitive origin of this performance, saying “we live in an individualistic, competition driven capitalist society in which we are encouraged to market ourselves as 'brands' in order to gain acceptance and 'success’. To not play this game to some level is to be socially unacceptable and face rejection. We are often rewarded by money and popularity for 'monetising' ourselves.”

So what exactly are the gains and losses of being overtly visible on the internet?

In the spirit of embracing sociological evolution, the pros of personal pin-ups are undeniable and good. If a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that virtual communities hold up in the face of apocalyptic despair; our need for connection increases and digital methods of sharing remain faithful. Online collectives lack limits, they open conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened and have the power to spark global movements – it’s only through our online visibility and vulnerability that we can also share in this. Access to others, when used purely, acts as a boundless tool to give voices to the voiceless. Work opportunities open up, creativity becomes collaborative and attractiveness is presented in more than one aryan aesthetic.

On the flip side, the cons of online activity act as a voice of reason that, in the day to day of digitally showcasing ourselves, we attempt to keep quiet. The loss of privacy adopted with such visibility has been taken on as our new norm, comparing ourselves to the millions of others around us who are also living under the same exposure. It’s an increasingly difficult act to juggle a life of transparency and privacy, a dilemma that Liv Purvis is acutely aware of. “I honestly think it's about knowing what you feel comfortable with, and being comfortable with setting your own boundaries. Knowing you can be transparent and honest, and not owe anyone everything is quite a freeing feeling. I don't think you don't have to share every bad day, thought and feeling or piece of personal news to be transparent.”

With each opinion, milestone or job movement shared, we give a piece of ourselves away – offering it out to be accessed not only by our friends but also by those we’ve moved on from in life, as well as strangers that we’ll never meet.

Inevitably, most of us have naturally adopted a digital persona that will be neglected or propelled as we choose from now until the day we die. Visibility is, for the most part, inescapable but what we do with this unique image and voice holds the potential power for true authenticity and endless open doors. The challenge now is to resist the seduction of beautifully curated deception and instead, project the kinds of attractiveness that exist both on and offline.

mental health
Social Media
Think Pieces