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Explorations in Identity and Media

I. "Diverging Simulacra."

I have always been fascinated by the ways that different digital and social media influence, tint, and distort our representations of ourselves, and what impacts these lenses have on our internal self-image and very notion of identity.

For one, to what extent do different representations of the self give rise to distinct identities or selves? That is, when staring into the black mirror, how can we be sure that our reflection is accurate? Are we seen more truly through the pixels on a screen than the pages of a book? Or are the digital and the literary person indeed, two people?

If we suffuse our thoughts with inaccurate, or even outright misrepresentative depictions of our selves, do we in fact corrupt our internal models of who we are to the point where the map no longer accurately represents the territory?

Conversely, what effect does the absence of adequately many representations of self have on our own self-image & identity? Without a reflection in the black mirror with which to see ourselves or be seen by others, do digital vampires even exist in a world where the Web has supplanted the real?

Moreover, in the era of the cyber-panopticon, in which every minutia of every minute of everyday mundane life can be captured, played back, rewound, and rewatched, what effect does the ever-present digital observer have on our behaviour?

Further still, how is our willingness - and indeed, perhaps ability - to express & present ourselves honestly and in a genuine fashion chilled & stymied by the omnipresent threats of cancellation, social censure, and invective from a global audience? What effects do moderation, or even simply the threat thereof, have on our ability to represent ourselves - and thus, on the mental models we form regarding our own identity?

Consider Baudrillard’s comments from “The End of the Panopticon” in his landmark work, “Simulacra and Simulation,” on the 1970s TV series, “An American Family:”

a family who agreed to deliver themselves into the hands of television, and to die by it, […] a sacrificial spectacle offered to twenty million Americans.

The family eventually fell apart during the filming of the series. Baudrillard opines, “was TV itself responsible?” To what extent did the knowledge that every moment of the family’s everyday life would be recorded & scrutinized by millions, modulate their behavior?

It is interesting to compare Baudrillard’s description of the successive orders of simulacra to the current state of identity in the information era. In particular, what Baudrillard terms “the order of sorcery,” or of images that “[play] at being an appearance;” that is, maps that do not depict any territory at all, but rather play at being faithful representations of some distant, fantasy locale - a map of the lost city of Atlantis, for instance.

I would go so far as to claim that identity in the digital age has already progressed to this so-called “order of sorcery,” of characters playing at being a real person, where behaviors are modulated & modified not only by the opinions & reviews of their viewership, but also the vicissitudes of the algorithm that grants them their audience in the first place. Consider Veritasium's experiment in engineering virality, and the effects that playing by the rules of the YouTube algorithm had on his content:

I can show you a graph of the length of my videos from 2011, through to today. And what you see is, at the beginning, uh, all of my videos averaged about 2 or 3 minutes in length, but these days, I’m fast approaching an average length of video of 10 minutes.

Now, YouTube never came to me and said, “Derek, you have to make longer videos”; all they said was, well, videos that are longer and get longer watch time will be promoted more on the site.

If YouTube, as a medium, can modulate the content and format of one’s educational videos on science, imagine how digital and social media in general can modulate the content and format of one’s digital “simulacrum” - of how one represents themselves online.

What effects does this have on our self-image, and what are the implications for the entire concept of identity in general? When does the on-screen persona stop being a persona? Do these “simulacra,” these representations of selves, actually map out the territory of a real person?

As far as media is concerned, McLuhan is perhaps one of the further seeing & most prophetic minds of the 20th century. In his 1964 book, “Understanding Media,” he distinguishes between “hot” & “cold” media as, respectively, those that present their content in high definition (with a large volume of information presented to the listener), and thereby require low degrees of participation from the audience; and those that offer only very limited info and thereby require a high degree of involvement.

The concept extends further beyond characterizing the medium to describing the content itself, and in particular, to the identities that the medium purports to portray:

In the very sense of a cool medium, Calvin Coolidge was so lacking in any articulation of data in his public image […]

[…] the hot press medium found [Calvin Coolidge] very cool and rejoiced in his lack of image, since it compelled the participation of the press in filling in an image of him for the public.

That is, a “cold” identity is one left to the public to fill in by way of active participation in its definition; whereas a “hot” identity is one whose mannerisms & quirks, the contours & outlines of their character, are presented in 4K, available for streaming 24/7 - whether the streamer is just chatting or fast asleep in bed, every single detail of the persona’s life at this end of the media spectrum is captured in high definition for all to view on demand.

The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born.

What happens, then, at the border of two media depictions of a “cold” identity? What happens when you “meet your superheroes,” so to speak? Would you find the human being behind the media persona familiar, or to be a different person altogether? What happens when different media paint such drastically different pictures of the same subject, the same person, that you wonder if they are the same person at all?

Is the voice in your head, reciting these words as you read them, the voice of me, or simply the thought of my voice?

How would you know? Have you heard me speak?

Thanks for listening.

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Conversely, what effect does the absence of adequately many representations of self have on our own self-image & identity? Without a reflection in the black mirror with which to see ourselves or be seen by others, do digital vampires even exist in a world where the Web has supplanted the real?

Sorry to be annoying, but could you just make your point plainly without pretentious metaphors? What do you mean by digital vampires? What is the black mirror? Do you just mean people without a social media presence? If that’s what you mean then why not say it? If that’s not what you mean, then perhaps my confusion is a predictable outcome of this writing style. Does this post say more than just a link to /r/instagramreality? It’s hard to tell if you don’t say it clearly

Most of his references are to landmark philosophers on media, i.e. Baudrillard and MacLuhan (they were both way ahead of their time, they lived in the era of TV but saw trends that would persist into the age of the net), which he does explicitly call out. Also, the title is a reference to one of Baudrillard's keystone works.

I will note aside that Simulacra and Simulation, of Matrix fame, is an absolute must-read if you're interested in social media/advertising/market of "signs".

The fourth stage is pure simulacrum, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers' lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, "hyperreal" terms. Any naïve pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as oversentimental.

Sound familiar?

What is the black mirror?

Your cell-phone, the name being coined by the TV/streaming series of the same name. Modern phones are literally black mirrors, which makes the metaphor all the more piquant.

What do you mean by digital vampires?

My interpretation: vampires avoid mirrors; people who avoid the black mirror, who don't participate in phone culture, might be argued to be less real than those subsumed by it, given how central phone culture and the net generally are to current existence. Think of the Amish. Are they "real"? Are they significant, do their concerns matter? Do you care about them at all? Do they have even the slightest impact on your life?

I think the implication in this entire post is, essentially, "social media has given us the Observer's Paradox From Hell: people practically self-modify themselves in response to the pressures of social media, becoming the mask to a frightening degree." No one can authentically present themselves; in fact, the authentic "self" may actually be suppressed in favor of the public persona. We can never approach the truth of things, especially of people, because everyone's eyes are on everyone else.

This all probably makes more sense if you're a fan of modern-day content creators (YouTube video makers, Twitch livestreamers, and VTubers especially). But all that being said, this is not a new problem at all and social media has simply upped the scale of this issue by one or two orders of magnitude.