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The perils of pursuing the perfect digital identity

When 19-year-old model Essena O’Neill quit Instagram, leaving more than half a million fans behind, she made headlines around the world. She’s not the first person to walk away from social media, but her decision to be honest about the extent to which she was crafting an edited version of her life was refreshing.

O’Neill lifted the lid on how heavily manufactured her account was, revealing the amount of time and work she put into making images appear effortless and beautiful. Questions about her motives for deleting the account have been raised, but whether she was suffering from social media fatigue or not, she’s served up an uncomfortable truth: our digital selves aren’t real.

Over the last decade, social media has gone from being a novelty to an ingrained part of our lives. The fragments of self that we choose to cobble together on social media make up our second persona. We spoke to Professor David Marshall, chair in New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Deakin University, to find out more about the intriguing phenomenon of the second self.

We seek approval through social media
No one looks at our social profiles more than we do. ‘We’re constantly self-monitoring,’ Prof. Marshall says. Despite the name, social media isn’t so much about socialising with other people, it’s about ourselves. We may tell ourselves that we post online to help spread information, or to have a laugh with friends, but the number one reason we share online is to seek approval from other people.

We pay a price when we fake it online
Most people today maintain some sort of online identity, ranging from mildly embellished versions of ourselves, to full-blown reconstructions. Prof. Marshall says maintaining digital personas can take its toll because ‘a persona is always a fabrication’. He points out that ‘some people are really good at constructing, controlling and monitoring their persona’.

But those with the most sophisticated grasp of social media can do themselves a disservice when they’re dramatically altering themselves to generate likes and comments. Deceiving people online, even just a little, requires a certain amount of mental strength. So there’s no doubt that O’Neill, and other people who walk away, are rewarded with a sense of liberation.

We are exhausted by our second selves
Prof. Marshall explains that a sense of exhaustion from ‘mediatisation’ is now sweeping through our culture. ‘When we labour on an emotional presentation of ourselves, there’s a tipping point,’ he explains. ‘There is a cycle in this development of our digital literacy.’ After years of pedantically sculpting facades, it’s not surprising those pouring excessive energy into this world are now retreating.

'When we labour on an emotional presentation of ourselves, there’s a tipping point.'

Professor David Marshall,
Deakin University

Prof. Marshall explains that when people reach that stage in the cycle they’re coming to terms with the ‘difficult negotiation of the online world and working out what’s comfortable.’ It may mean reducing the amount of information they make public or stepping off the social networking rollercoaster all together.

Understanding our relationships with our second personas and how they’re impacting us requires introspection. If the desire to stage manage a public image has grown stale, perhaps consider following in O’Neill’s footsteps. Getting away from your second persona might be good for your relationship with yourself (and your friends).

Find out more about Prof. Marshall’s fields of new media, communication and cultural studies at Deakin University.

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Professor David Marshall
Professor David Marshall

Chair in New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University
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