Recent posts on my Facebook newsfeed include the following: an open invitation to an Oscar Wilde séance, a Pokémon themed Brexit image, and a car with flames on it accompanied by a Guy Fieri reference in the caption. In other words, it is a hodgepodge of absurdist millennial Internet culture. A few months ago, I joined what has been termed by its members “weird Facebook.” This slice of the Internet contains a vast array of groups with memberships numbering anywhere from 50 to the thousands. These groups sometimes fall under the broad heading of “aesthetic,” a vague, tough-to-define term encompassing a broad range of content. Others are more niche, focusing on fashion, dogs, astrology, glitter, and more. These are designed to suit specific interests and create camaraderie around these interests. By existing in and interacting with online communities, individuals can create identity and construct a self that is often just as, if not more, authentic as the physical self.
Our Online Personae, Ourselves
Time magazine, in chorus with many others, has accused millennials of being the “me, me, me” generation. They say we are a generation of selfishness, entitlement, and excessive political correctness. However, this sense of selfhood can be reframed as the musings of a generation dedicated to identity creation through self-exploration. This follows as a natural progression of the intersectional movements of recent decades. Within these movements, the interactions of multiple identities come to the forefront of social justice and socially inclined conversations. Previous social movements, such as second wave feminism, relied more heavily on essentialism and collectivism, putting more emphasis on communities that can be easily grouped and denoted—by geography, by gender, by broad political leanings.
The advent of the Internet shifted this narrative. We no longer need to rely on convenience when choosing whom we associate with. We can select the media we consume beyond the options of three or four news channels. Our newsfeeds can be dominated by content we’ve curated to suit our tastes, interests, and opinions. We can shape what we see more than ever, rather than the other way around, formulating our own narrative rather than relying on a pre-made one. And through the creation of online communities, we can even handpick our social groups.
Cassidy Hill, a member of several online communities of which I am also a member, told me “I think the appeal of online communities is that you have more control of who you associate yourself with and you get to stay comfortable deciding how much you’re willing to engage with those communities.” Another, Giulia Álvarez-Katz, told me that she is herself online, but she goes to different groups for her various interests. “There’s different groups for different moods, almost,” she said. I’ve found something similar in my Internet engagement. My first engagement with Internet communities came on the microblogging site Tumblr, where I could at once be a stream of reposted pictures and a faceless feed of thoughts.
Growing up as a closeted, liberal Jew in Dallas, Texas, my own personality stood in sharp contrast to that of the majority of the people around me. From the fashion to the values to the identities of my peers, I was an outsider. After I became active on Tumblr in high school, I discovered blogs run by other queer bloggers who would answer my questions. These blogs were essentially inboxes for anonymous questions, and they enabled me to express my confusion regarding attractions I may or may not have felt. I found myself connecting with those equally confused, equally isolated kids who were looking for some form of human connection. I slowly moved from Tumblr to Facebook, shifting into a space where I could connect my public, social media self to what I deemed my own internal world, merging these disparate elements into a more complete whole. I do not wish to claim that I am more authentically me today then I once was. My shift to Facebook from anonymous mediums like Tumblr stems from the shift of my public persona to align with my Internet self.
Through the development of online communities for as many niche topics as one can think of, each person has a greater space to grow into their own identity in a previously inaccessible way. Rather than giving into the pressures to conform to a certain community standard, a person can now choose a community specific to the elements of their identity that feel most pertinent. For many, online communities are the only way to be with individuals who identify similarly to themselves. Others find niche groups fascinated by the same esoteric conspiracy theories, fan groups for TV shows off the air for decades, and support groups for specific and trying situations. By surrounding themselves with people who share their specific interests, members of online communities shape their social spaces to their identities rather than the other way around. These communities become a reflection of each individual who inhabits them.
We become ourselves online, though even the concept of online authenticity is new. As children, we were warned about the dangers of the Internet. People could craft anonymous personae, from the simple to the outrageous, hidden behind unique usernames and digitally drawn avatars. However, we’ve largely moved past the age of forums filled with faceless usernames. Though dangers still exist on the Internet, far more people have opted to use their own faces, names, and lives in their online profiles. With the move towards transparency, people have found a sense of safety online, and therefore membership in online communities has become less taboo. The move towards online transparency, likewise, increases a sense of Internet authenticity.
In previous incarnations of online communities, including the ones I’ve been a part of, the protection against judgment and outing (in terms of sexuality, opinions, and more) was anonymity. When I first began using the Internet, I was cautioned against putting personal information online. Name, birthday, even pictures were all seen as off limits territory. Now, however, many of us engage with the web through Facebook profiles containing a wealth of personal information. We post our names and our faces all across our profiles. No longer are our online personae separate from our social ones. Rather, they play off one another in a strange dance of attempting truth.
Anonymity can provide a sense of comfort and a space to create an identity that is often more authentic than our public, physical personae. On Tumblr I could first begin to explore myself through aesthetic presentation and personal expression, begin to understand my opinions regarding social issues. However, a newfound transparency through Facebook seems a natural shift in the online world, in which the created persona merges with the expression of the physical, transcending both and becoming an entirely new form of self. Under my own name, I’ve grown more social, more outspoken in those opinions, more comfortable in myself, I’ve moved to Facebook groups where all my interactions come signed with my entire profile.
The Internet as Commons, the Internet as Home
Connor Hanna, a blue-haired non-binary individual, provided some insight into this performance of persona. “I’m depressed,” they said, “and largely feel very disconnected from my body and the physical world so in some senses I sometimes feel more ‘at home’ online because I can eschew those things. But at the same time, the world is real and my existence in it has meaning and consequence, so I have to navigate it as best I can. I guess ultimately I use online spaces to create my authentic self, and my physical self is catching up.”
Their use of the idea of home is a fascinating one. For all that people say about home, it is often predicated on the idea of a physical space. But for Hanna, their disconnect with the physical makes the Internet the ideal place to construct a home. Whatever the reason, those tuned into the Internet age are actively changing the way we conceive of the very notions of space, of home, of community. The world is changing shape, and members of online communities are changing with it.
Image Source: geralt/Pixabay