“It is often said that people aren’t as happy as they seem on Facebook, nor are they as angry as they appear on Twitter,” says Jamie Bartlett. And he would know, having become intimately familiar with the various personae people assume online while researching his book, The Dark Net. Bartlett was part of a panel grappling with the subject of how the internet shapes personal identity at Vanity Fair and Intelligence Squared’s Digital Summit, alongside filmmaker Beeban Kidron, NYU’s Governance Lab director Beth Simone Noveck, and author Cory Doctorow.
Who are you on the web?
“I think [the internet] has changed certain people, and in very different ways,” says Bartlett, who believes that the behaviour of the “uninteresting” majority is largely similar both online and offline. Outside of the majority, Bartlett posits two categories. First, there are the people who, from behind a screen and distanced from the people they are speaking to, may begin to see a difference in their online and offline personalities, and perhaps even a different kind of morality. These individuals will, for the most part, keep these two spheres separate. But within that group is a smaller cache of people whose online identities increasingly encroach into their offline world, which according to Bartlett can affect “what they think, what they do, and what they believe”, and even “fundamentally change who they are.”
Of course, people behave very differently under different circumstances, and we are constantly adjusting and presenting a slightly different version of ourselves to the outside world. Which begs the question: “What is that aggregated self, and who is in charge of that?” So asks Beeban Kidron, whose documentary InRealLife examined the psychological impact of the internet on children. “Are there formal ways in which your behaviour is dictated, or nudged, or pushed?” She says. “Is it structural?”
While he was writing The Dark Net, Bartlett spent days at a time immersing himself in online subcultures, including websites which promoted neo-Nazism, anorexia, even suicide, and found that his shock threshold very quickly lowered: “It was exciting, thrilling, terrifying… The real world becomes drab by comparison, and that’s part of the problem.”
It is not simply that the internet amplifies our existing selves, or even that it corrupts young minds ‘body snatchers’-style, but rather that the immediacy of the digital world makes certain negative or damaging behaviour appear accessible and consequence-free. “If it’s easier to do, there’s going to be a slice of people who are going to do it who wouldn’t have otherwise done so,” says Bartlett. While extreme pornography is not exactly a recent phenomenon, gone are the days when you had to go look for it. The same is true of bullying; it has never been easier to make someone else’s life hell.
That isn’t to say we should outlaw all conversations, behaviours and platforms which might be deemed transgressive. “It’s important to remember that ‘deviant’ is not the same as ‘bad’,” says Cory Doctorow. So while we’re worried about pro-anorexia forums, don’t forget; “equal marriage arose because people could, outside the enforcement ability of the state, practise an illegal behaviour which was judged immoral and corrosive until social acceptance was won.” When you have a space that cannot be regulated, Doctorow believes that is when “deviance progresses towards normalness – for good and for bad.”
The upside of over-sharing
So people have always been attracted to dangerous, ‘deviant’ behaviour. But surely this lens through which we all perceive and portray ourselves as a ‘brand’ is a new thing? Not so, according to Kidron. “Kids have always done that,” she says, describing the decades-old trope of the teenager who wants to be queen of her classroom. “Only now, it’s a much bigger room.”
“Some people call it narcissism, some people call it transparency,” says Beth Simone Noveck, who sees the digital world as an “outlet of self-expression”, and as such is convinced that so-called “over-sharing” has a social purpose. And she has a point. Organisations such as Patients Like Me and the Participatory Patient Service stemmed from somebody speaking frankly and openly about their medical conditions and treatments on social media, growing a community around that subject as a result. Similarly, the #BlackLivesMatter tag has empowered African Americans to speak up about their experiences, and has put police conduct in cities like Ferguson under a global microscope. Since #BlackLivesMatter gained traction, African-Americans are twice as likely to use Twitter, and three times more likely to post daily.
“If it weren’t for that kind of sharing, we wouldn’t have that drive towards collaboration,” she says. “We wouldn’t have people getting online and crowdsourcing solutions to problems.” Doctorow agrees: “The only way to transcend human ability and do something superhuman is to work with other people.”
One person’s breakfast is another person’s treasure
What is the magic bullet, then, that brands need in order to break through the sea of ‘what I ate for breakfast’ content and genuinely engage people? That’s simple: context.
“Oftentimes if something seems narcissistic or unimportant, it’s because we’re not the intended audience,” says Doctorow. “Those messages only have meaning because they exist in a kind of soup whose base is made up of all the seemingly unimportant moments that bond us together socially… If it seems trivial to you, perhaps it wasn’t intended for you.”
Something else for brands to consider is that consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the opportunity cost of the internet. “Our brains are finite, we can only pay attention to so many things at a time,” says Doctorow. “We’re in an arms race between our cognitive self-defence mechanism, and firms that would like to command our attention.” He calls for greater awareness of our own security and autonomy on the web, lest it become “not about your happiness, but rather… a skinner box designed to make you undervalue your privacy.” Definite food for thought for those firms who have their eyes on our finite attention span.