Filtered to perfection

The discrepancy between our online and offline personas.

Online, defining your own identity can be as simple as choosing a filter.
Online, defining your own identity can be as simple as choosing a filter.

When I first got Tinder, a friend gave me some advice to help me master the art.

She said I need: “A party photo to look cool, a travel photo to look interesting and a selfie to look hot, obviously.”

Obviously.

Whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tinder, social media platforms give us somewhere to stand up and proudly declare to the world, “This is me!”

An online identity can be carefully constructed in ways a real-life identity can’t. It’s subject not only to a selection process, but editing, filtering and captioning too.

In the digital flurry of words and photos, we become tellers of our own stories. It’s reasonable to want to put our best foot forward. However, with all this power and control, the pressure is on to make the most of it.

It’s the stress to impress.

Tinder, for example, is a hook-up app that asks users to create profiles with six photos, accompanied by a biography of 500 characters maximum. Other than a first name, an age and a list of mutual interests, users are expected to judge their interest in others with only this information. It’s no wonder there’s such a calculated formula to the perfect Tinder profile.

Although other social media sites, such as Facebook, let users create profiles that are more than six photos and 500 characters, the way we curate our online personas on any platform follows a similar method.

Zhang in her online world. (Photo by Erika Streisfield)

Tara Gwartzman, ArtSci ’17, is an avid social media user. Like many people, she’s felt obligated to meet a higher standard on her online profiles.

“When we go on social media sites, we get lost in them,” said Gwartzman via Facebook. “You’re looking at everyone’s life, like, ‘Oh, that looks like so much fun, oh they’re so cool, they’re so pretty, they have all these cool pictures.’”

Seeing other people broadcast their seemingly amazing lives can often make ours pale in comparison.

Gwartzman pointed out that online personas can be deceptive. She said that often times, the party you missed last weekend wasn’t actually as awesome as the Facebook pictures made it seem.

“Sometimes when you actually go to one of these parties, everyone is just sitting around and not doing anything except for taking these pictures,” she said.

“What is essential to remember is they too wear masks — the way I do, the way everyone does.”

Actively constructing my own online identity isn’t something I’d like to personally admit. Part of undertaking a more ideal version of yourself is making it believable.

But I’ll make some confessions: I “untag” myself from unflattering photos. My smile gets a little wider for the camera. I believe that captions can bring a moment to life — and I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to find perfect ones.

Before my first day of university, I looked at my profile as someone else — to put myself in the shoes of the new peers that I’d soon meet. There are times when I’m having a good hair day and I take and post a selfie in celebration. Occasionally I wonder if certain tweets reflect on me poorly.

At times, I do stop and wonder why I direct any amount of effort towards something that should, in theory, be effortless: my identity. Why do we even care?

Laurence Ashworth, a Commerce professor with a background in social psychology, offered some insight on this social phenomenon.

“[It’s] just a direct extension of caring about what other people think of us in general,” Ashworth said. “We’re social creatures. It’s important that we belong, that we’re accepted.”

Yet it’s not just the validation of others that we’re looking for when we post online. We also want to validate ourselves.

“We get information from how we think other people view us, which informs our sense of self,” he continued. “So it’s not just that being perceived positively by others contributes to our self-esteem, it’s that specifically, how other people see us actually contributes to our sense of self — who we are.”

Having an online profile where I want to share my best moments can, indeed, push me to be more conscious of them.

It's the shinier side to the coin.

While seeking to positively portray ourselves online can create a competitive environment, it also allows us to indulge in ourselves and the lives we lead. Michael Green, ArtSci ’15, has over one thousand Twitter followers. He says he loves the Twitter community for the laughs and new ideas they’re able to share with one another.

“I try to [share] a lot of positive things,” he said. “I put a little standard for myself that’s like, I won’t share something unless it makes me laugh myself.”

Playing with an online identity can help us better understand who we are as individuals. The control and freedom we have with defining ourselves isn’t always stressful. It can also be empowering.

For me, I’ve experienced both the ups and downs of defining myself in the online world. I just try to remember that there’s a person and a life outside of it.

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