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What does it mean to be ‘real’ on the internet?

From finstas to gaming: navigating digital identities on the margins
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“Someone once… called me by my Instagram name,” said Brie Augustine, a third-year student at U of T specializing in English. “They were like, ‘Oh! Brie the Human!’”

She’s referring to her one Instagram account, @briethehuman, as opposed to her actual Instagram account, @augustinethealien, which has a bio that reads “Being Conventional for public consumption.” She calls herself an alien because “we all feel alienated and isolated, and it was just my way to feel connected to the people I know but don’t get to see often.”

Augustine’s separation between ‘real’ and ‘personal’ Instagram accounts is a common practice amongst social media users nowadays. Tavi Gevinson, previous editor-in-chief of Rookie Magazine, revealed that she had three accounts by the time she was a senior in high school. One was a public account, another was for a closer social circle, and one was strictly for herself. It’s not difficult to imagine that upon the discovery of these three accounts, many questions arose about which one was the ‘real’ Tavi Gevinson. Who is she really, if she felt compelled to split her public image into three?

In her article in The Cut, Gevinson explained the complex relationships between the various aspects of herself — having been the ‘relatable teen’ who created Rookie, but also having a strong desire to indulge in the part of her life that has become embedded in celebrity culture, the same part that deeply contravened this primary image of her. She explored the multiplicity of self through her three accounts, each completely authentic, yet not Tavi without the others. In a later interview with Gevinson herself, Natasha Stagg — a novelist, essayist, and internet scholar ­— said very simply, “There’s not only one way to be a real person.”

The experience of minoritized people

Constructing a sense of self is an especially convoluted maze for minoritized people to navigate, as the process also involves interacting with preconceived notions of who they should be.

Hannah Allen, a third-year U of T student majoring in history and philosophy, spoke with The Varsity about her experience as a woman in various social media spaces. “I’m in the gaming community,” she explained, “and… I’ve kind of had this online presence that has just been painted negative in some way.” Even a few friends who are men  have said misogynistic comments.

“There are days where I’ll laugh it off, but there will be days where I have to log off because being a female and being a gamer — that simple combination can be too much,” Allen said.

The desire to just be a gamer is at times an impossible request. Allen described the profiles of people she follows online, many of them women who want to enjoy the community for what it is, but are instead forced into the position of having to prove a point to misogynist fellow gamers — simply because they are women.

“It’s just not on their minds to fight, they just want to play the game,” Allen said. “It’s like you’re forced to be some certain way.”

Similarly, Augustine has found that the enjoyment she receives from posting about music online is frequently interrupted by assumptions about her race. This happens to the extent where she has internalized those voices, questioning herself before anyone else does it first.

“I don’t listen to a lot of rap music, but by nature of being a Black woman, people always ask me about rap music,” she said. “And I feel like I should always be posting more rap music because of it.”

I told her about how when Crazy Rich Asians first came out, I suddenly felt like the whole world was looking at me for the first time in my life. The way that I had to grapple with social media as a racialized person had shifted. I no longer had to fight for attention — everyone was already waiting for me to speak, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to talk anymore.

Growing up without representation was a lonely way to grow up, but my race suddenly being hit with a wave of publicity was not something that my 19-year-old self could handle with grace. I straddled the line between an awareness of what this film meant for the Asian community, and the naïvete of being someone who didn’t have fully-formed thoughts because I’d never thought anybody would listen to me.

I opted for social media silence. The burden — and I call it a burden because it was a responsibility I did not ask for — was too much for me. How do you put your complex thoughts about race and representation into words when you’ve never had to before? Where do you begin and when does it end?

In the world of blogging, women social media producers are expected to represent their branded images within the boundaries of heteronormative femininity in the larger context of masculine entrepreneurialism. Now, in the age when people are actively hungry for the opinions of diverse people, it is as much a great responsibility to create a sufficient space for yourself as a minoritized person as it is a great relief. It’s frustrating to not be able to just exist as a person on social media, simply because your identity is not characterized by the specific combination of ‘cisgender,’ ‘white,’ and ‘male.’

Another thing that Allen touched on was how quickly her men counterparts will attribute her mistakes in gaming to her gender. As for the women who speak publicly about online harassment in the gaming community, she said, “You see how much negative attention they get being more high-profile. They publicize it sometimes to make it stop, so people are aware and called out.”

After all, being a minoritized person means having to be more intentional with your online presence. It means grappling with questions about which sides of yourself you reveal and which sides will remain hidden.

How we construct our identities

People have always had a strong desire to control and disseminate their sense of self. Social media has given us an outlet for this. Gevinson’s multiple social media accounts are highly representative of both our desires to upload experiences and materialize them, and the human tendency to be attuned to the opinions of even those whom we will never meet in real life. Maybe we don’t fear any particular object, or subject, or identity in the world — but we fear the judgements that form around it. For minoritized people, this takes the shape of an overbearing consciousness of the perceptions and behaviours we are expected to fulfill in the digital world.

When we refrain from posting, we are not held by primary emotions of disgust, or shame of the content itself, but by the secondary disgust and shame that we feel for anticipated reactions. Despite this, we still develop a curiosity about the multiple ways that we can present ourselves on social media — and not only that, we explore this curiosity through our secondary accounts, or ‘finstas,’ where we post our more personal content. We are able to crawl to the edges of one reality and peer into the alternate universe in which we do post that photo and do publish that tweet.

We have developed the phenomenon of the human brand: as individuals, we curate distinct public images and advertise ourselves more aggressively than ever before. Some of us cater to an audience, regardless of whether we are officialized as influencers with paid partnerships. We do it for intangible social capital where nobody knows what the score really is, but we nevertheless always feel like everybody is keeping track.

But what are the implications of scaling down the concept of branding to the identity of an individual? Some claim it’s about applying a coherent narrative to our online presence. Writer and academic Saidiya Hartman has discussed the broader concept of a narrative, calling it “a conceptual prisonhouse.”

A brand’s success is dependent on this ‘prisonhouse’ — it is the promise of consistency. Above all else, this carefully constructed narrative is what audience members subscribe to, and how loyalty is promised in return. Selling that consistency is a practice that is intense, widespread, and long-established, permeating formal business literature from as early as the 1920s, with the last 20 years being the most significant for its development. Self-branding can take as much commitment and effort as branding for an entire enterprise.

On the level of the individual, this standard and fascination with perfect consistency is the inherent issue with scaling branding down. It’s something everyday users of social media must grapple with. Perhaps we know that we have crossed over from personal use of technology to branding when we create a finsta to seek comfort. A ‘real’ person lacks a throughline of total consistency. So, maybe where that consistency branches out, we fracture ourselves into different parts to show online, different brandings of ourselves.

Even companies have capitalized on pushing this ideal of a ‘real’ person. This ideal is the backbone of Glossier, the social media born and operated company that makes “products with your real beauty routine in mind.” Some believe that Glossier is an example of women harnessing the power of social media to turn consumer culture on its head; others claim it is in essence a corporatized feminist creation, marketing itself as empowering others when they are just a manifestation of a specific cultural moment, one that values the ‘real’ woman, the ‘imperfect’ woman.

However, instead of dismantling oppressive systems, Glossier and the ideal it supports merely create a new consumerism standard. We may have to reconsider whether we really are mobilized by these companies or if we’re being rewritten by them. While some may have found a home for their identities in the phenomenon of feminist brands, there will always be disparate conclusions of what ‘real’ really looks like.

On social media, we increasingly demand that content creators portray the version of themselves that they always have shown. We demand that our friends’ public image are identical to how we see them. Nowadays, a portrayal of yourself that feels genuine to you may be called a lie and misrepresentation by someone else, and they could be both right and wrong. No one is to say that version of you is not you, but you also cannot claim that it is the most authentic version of yourself if you’re seeking to replicate the ideals you see around you.

Of course, seeking to replicate ideals inevitably begs the question of whether matters concerning your bodily autonomy pertain to your digital self as well. The truth is, we are all left in the same game of navigating layer after layer of judgements and perspectives in the hopes that it can be consolidated into a single version of ourselves that has been created with the purest intent.

In this strange world there are exactly two settings: you can either choose the people who you allow to see you, or you open your account to any of the countless people who’ve managed to get their hands on an electronic device. We all must choose — who can touch you? Who can know you?

Being saved by vanity

Jia Tolentino, a staff writer for The New Yorker, claims that identity performance — allowing the internet to compel us to perform our identities in an attractive manner — can be good. In a way, it’s the perfect amount of self-delusion about our importance, a delusion that tells us that our content matters, though not in the way where we are constantly tuning in to the noise. But on the other hand, it does not matter if we are not being who we are.

Being on social media does not make what we do more visible — we can already be seen without it. Augustine reminds herself every so often that it’s okay not to have the most active profile. “I think that sometimes we don’t really need to post as much as we do, or as much as we think people care about what we’re saying. Really, they don’t — and that’s okay!” she said.

It is both natural and healthy to want your friends to like you — it holds you accountable for certain actions — but it is perhaps time that social media returned to its initial intent: to democratize voices.

Gevinson put it best when she said, “I think the internet is at its best when it’s used to move forward in time.”

When using social media, there is no obligation to produce content, and we are in no way required to speak on specific matters. The internet is there so we can understand ourselves a bit better, so we can understand who we are in relation to everyone else. It allows us to hold everyone all at once in a single device.

Like Augustine, Allen, and the women of this article, I have had this honour of being more intentional with my digital identity and to compare side-by-side the many versions of myself that I have inadvertently created in my years as an internet user.

I understand that this hyper-awareness comes with being on the margins, yet I am grateful to be forced to be conscious about both what I see and what the world sees when I look in the mirror that social media provides me. I am grateful to declare my personhood and my girlhood, and to indeed take the time to split them up into different accounts and to grow each of them separately.

There are several of me — some were created then deleted, some are a decade old, others only weeks. All of which have allowed me to change who I am time and time again, while still remaining the same individual I have always been, and to indulge in the parts of myself I would otherwise shove away and make foreign.

This identity performance is just perfected vanity. Vanity has been my way to accept the complexity of identities. Vanity, in a way, can save us from this prisonhouse.

Editor’s note (March 9, 4:13 pm): This article has been updated to correct Brie Augustine and Hannah Allen’s majors.