What is left of me after I shut down my computer, turn off my phone, or wipe away my makeup? What about after I quit my job, after I move, after I lose my health, after I get older? What if no one knew me—would I still be someone?
In 1984, on the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Some Like It Hot, the film’s director, Billy Wilder, and two of the lead actors, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, reminisced about what it was like for them to work with Marilyn Monroe. She died in 1962, three years after the film premiered. The three spoke negatively and detached at the same time: Marilyn was a mess during the filming. There were days when they shot dozens of takes for a single line, days when the actress was hours late and days when she didn’t show up at all.
An interview with Jack Lemmon in the 1990s revealed the deeper causes of Monroe’s dysfunction. “She would be fully dressed and made up and everything, and still sit for an hour or more in the little portable dressing room on the set and not come out until she had psyched herself up and could face the cameras,” the actor recalled. Lemmon believed, as “an armchair analyst”, that Marilyn “had been building to such an incredible figure of stardom and everything, that although she wanted it, you know, as a young girl and a struggling actress who wanted to be a star and all of that, it was such an enormous magnitude” that she could not cope.
We often pity the stars who have to rise to the standards set by a capricious audience, who deify them one day and trash them the next. But we can easily overlook the fact that this experience, once reserved only for celebrities, has become, more recently, familiar to ordinary people as well, now that we all have to defend a reputation that we have created for ourselves through social networks. Even when this reputation consists only in the image of an interesting and positive life.
Compared to stars like Marilyn Monroe, we have not been pushed into public life by talent or poverty. In fact, most of us do not even monetise our own exposure on various networks (it is, however, fully monetised by others in our place). Still, that doesn’t stop us from continuing to fight to make a name for ourselves, for several reasons deeply rooted in our psychology.
The primary reason is that, being social, we long for the appreciation of others, and on social media, this appreciation seems more focused and easier to quantify than in real life. This supposed advantage—because reducing appreciation to three emotions: pleasure (like), enthusiasm (love) and amazement (wow) only builds our impression that the feelings of others towards us are more transparent—comes with a major disadvantage. Without us even realising it, it changes the way we relate to our own identity.
Self-disclosure theory says that our identity is like concentric circles, and each circle is a layer of information about ourselves. When we meet someone new, we show them the first circle from the outside: how we look, what social status we have, what we do, what passions we have, what causes we defend, what music we like, what books we read, and so on. As we get to know each other, we begin to allow the other to access inner circles, which contain more and more specific and more private information, even secret: what memories we have, what are our fears, failures, regrets, affinities, or unique preferences, and so forth.
The basis of this theoretical scheme is the idea that lasting friendships are built not only on affinity, but also on intimacy. And intimacy is impossible in the absence of this revelation of the self, as it is in the absence of its reciprocity. On Facebook, on the other hand, we only have the illusion of privacy, because, in reality, online communication is built differently than real-life communication.
Theoretically, when we post something on Facebook, we unravel ourselves, waiting for reciprocity. In reality, how many of us would be happy to see that, 20 minutes after posting a picture with our children, another 20 friends would post pictures with their children as well? Probably the most selfless and non-narcissistic of us would be happy. The rest, the majority, would feel that the picture of their child was overshadowed by the other photos and that the appreciation (not the reciprocity) they had anticipated would actually take longer to make an appearance, or it would be insufficient. Therefore, on Facebook, self-disclosure works according to other parameters than in real life.
First of all, social media predisposes us to treat our own identity as a brand. In this paradigm, the picture of my baby is not exactly about the baby, but more about me. It is a message that says something beautiful and tender-hearted about me—that I am a family person, that I know how to appreciate my child, that I have a beautiful child, and this all makes me at least a little more special. (After all, who else has such a beautiful child?)
The problem is that, by definition, the personal brand is an individualistic and egocentric concept rather than a solidarity and community one. In order to grow, the brand needs to shine brighter than the others, to stand out, to prove its uniqueness. Therefore, the way social media operates tempts us to treat our connections with others as the means by which we can better polish our reputation. And this, instead of concerning us, makes us addicted, just like anything else in real life that we consider an indispensable tool for a likeable identity.
Erving Goffman’s metaphor, “life as a theatre”, now needs an exponent, a power to be raised to, now that Facebook has become the stage on which we play out our lives, and the backstage is real life itself.
Goffman said that the spheres of our lives, the private and the social/public, are like the sections of a theatre. He believed that we have private spaces, behind the scenes, where we prepare (like Marilyn Monroe, in the cabin) before going on stage in society and playing the role we want to take on in public. Social media has made online life even more interesting than real life, mainly because of its promise that we will be able to control our image down to the smallest detail. In reality, it is our fear of losing control and becoming truly vulnerable that makes us vulnerable.
The most well-versed in the use of networks are also the most exposed. The fact that more than two-thirds of today’s teens choose to talk to their friends on Messenger rather than face to face is no longer a surprise. But the willingness of young digital natives to face the consequences of the technological revolution that is still in its infancy exposes them as prey to the most skilled in building a certain identity in order to take advantage of others.
The principles by which we live our lives today reinforce the idea that anyone can be the skilled author of an impeccable reputation. And we have come to treat our own reputation as the only indisputable proof of whether or not we deserve to be appreciated and loved. From one point of view, no matter how new the infrastructure of this illusion is, it is an old myth, even if today it is masked by a dignified pretence.
We are flooded with messages of health and the worship of youth. Indeed, the two give us impetus, but we will not have them forever. Why link our importance to something so fragile and fleeting? We like stories about people who were once poor and managed to become magnates without anyone’s help. However, we seem to forget that money is only valuable when we don’t pursue it for it’s own sake. Likewise, our work is capable of ennobling us and making the world a better place, but when we fanatically pursue our usefulness, we become blind to other values, to our own factual value.
When we do not know our value, we end up confusing it with the balance of our successes and failures. Hyper-focused on fine-tuning the seemingly controllable parameters of our identity, we tend to see the promise of Christianity—that we have value because we were wanted and loved by God—as completely anachronistic, although it is the only promise that can truly tell us something about us. Who else today would believe that our identity is not, first and foremost, something we build, but a gift that was given to us before we were born?