Desperately seeking…yourself: the Internet and Identity

We still talk about the Internet like it’s new. We talk about ‘breaking the Internet’ with a viral trend, about not understanding the Internet, about being confused, baffled, and floored by new things on the Internet. We anthropomorphize it — ‘the Internet’s favourite thing,’ ‘the Internet loves [insert topic].’This is partly because the Internet is always new — there are always new elements to the Internet and even the way we go about getting to the Internet is constantly changing. From creaky old Netscape Navigator, to Internet Explorer, to Firefox, Safari, and Chrome, — the Internet is defined by its variability and unwillingness to grow up.

But, the Internet isn’t new. Although academia has been using the World Wide Web since the 1980s, 1995 is the generally agreed-upon date for the inception of the global communications and Google-deep-dive repository of information that we know today. It’s 21-years-old. It’s a junior in college. It can drink anywhere in the world. It’s no longer in its infancy, but like anyone in their early twenties, the process to get to this age and the ongoing maturation of its systems and users, has gone — and will continue to go — through some growing pains.

As a global communications tool, how the Internet functions dictates content and form, and also reflects its users and people who contribute to that content. The vast majority of people who are contributing in organic ways are the ones who went through their growing pains right along with the burgeoning World Wide Web, and you can tell. At the moment, a lot of Internet culture has given way to nostalgia: lists of the 30 toys you forgot, how to tell if you’re a 90s kid, and much of that nostalgia is for old Internet platforms themselves. For example, the Wayback Machine is a catalogue of old sites that no longer (actively) exist on the Internet. Through the Wayback machine, however, you can visit your favourite defunct site and experience a wave of nostalgia that only visiting someone’s old GeoCities page can bring.

This is pretty understandable, seeing as there is a certain age demographic that experienced their first crushes and demonstrations of public affection through screen names created from maudlin lyrics; who first got up the courage to speak to that object of affection via instant messenger, whether ICQ (which, fun fact, is Internet parlance for ‘I Seek You’), AOL, or MSN; who expressed their overwrought feelings in LiveJournal posts; and who portrayed their essential teen selves through their favourite bands on MySpace pages. In short, they created themselves online through a variety of mediums — a ~*~**username**~*~here, a favourite quote and winky-face there. Liking a certain page aligns you with a particular celebrity or cause, and #tbt (throwback Thursday) and #flashbackfriday are more current examples of such identity building and nostalgia, as people who use these hashtags tend to post childhood or family photos.

For those not of the millennial age, most of online identity discovery took a more anxious form. Fretting over credit card fraud, online security issues, revealing your full name — while these all seem outdated, they were once very real concerns, when users across the world connected via their creaky dial-up, only to be kicked offline moments later by an incoming fax of their baby cousin’s drawing, sent by their aunt from ‘up north.’ There was a real anxiety about exposing yourself online to strangers, lest they snatch away critical details of your life. Usernames, depending on your age, were created as much to protect identity from the shadowy depths of the net as they were to project it. But once one member of a group folded and started using their full and real name in things like email and eBay, the rest followed. For those over a certain age, a large part of becoming comfortable on the Internet was seeing people who were ‘just like you’ do the same thing.

In short, people have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time figuring out who they are on the Internet, developing their personalities, their communications style and form, and telling everyone — whether directly or indirectly — all of the things they do and do not like. And yet, we still have a tendency to ignore much of it as throwaway bits of fluff, and pretend that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or even OkCupid and Tinder, represent nothing more than superficial forays into online culture that are divorced from anything of consequence.

Things of consequence, like, for example, the fact that for better or worse, people are more responsive to content in which they see themselves reflected back.

In 2009, OKCupid conducted a study — and then refreshed that study with new data in 2014 — that found race affects who messages back on the popular dating site. The study demonstrated society’s racial biases and a tendency for most groups to match with members of their own race, or to discriminate against certain races. Similarly, in an informal, but extensive, experiment, one journalist found that that people on Tinder tend to swipe right (match with someone) if they are in the same socioeconomic bracket, or seem to belong to a desirable class — something that people are incredibly good at predicting — or projecting — from only a few photos and some biographical information. Another breakdown of online dating from FiveThirtyEight found that users on eHarmony were clearly searching for someone like themselves. There was an obvious pattern between similar traits and whom people chose to message on the site.

Numerous studies worry about the superficiality and possible corrosion of human interaction from such dating sites (the studies on whether or not that is true are still very mixed), they provide a wealth of information into people’s online actions, translated into real-life action. There are few other sources that so clearly represent someone’s identity that can draw as direct a line between online behavior and real-life decisions as these dating tools. With each passing year that the Internet ages, the need to separate our ‘online’ personalities from our ‘actual’ personalities gets whittled down a little more as these behaviours flow freely between our internet worlds and our actual worlds. Purchases are made online, activism starts online and moves to the outside world, people meet potential partners by curating a profile page that represents themselves. Identity building online is real — from your childhood Neopets to your Facebook profile, to your Tinder bio — and whether good or bad, the fact that we are seeking out similar faces and people is a reality.

While studies suggesting we are all a little more biased or prejudiced than we would like to believe can be horribly depressing, there are also positives to seeking yourself. Unquestionably, the Internet has become a tool for minorities and others who have felt marginalized by mainstream society to connect online. The removal of geographic barriers mean that people can meet and talk about their common interests and shared life experiences regardless of location. Expanding common experiences across regions, such as knowing that kids everywhere are using Vine or following a certain band, can create bonds. Take Bronies or comic book fans — Internet back channels have existed as long as the Internet has existed, from the first informal chat rooms to your own particular Twitter circle. People actually have Twitter friends now that they met online, and sometimes, meet IRL (In Real Life).

This plays out in public affairs in various ways. Whether you’re fighting for or against an issue, a large part of the battle is connecting with people or making it feel like this issue means something to them, personally.

One of the dangers comes in assuming you know your audience without doing any of the work to actually understand them. You might think it’s Jenny from rural wherever, with three kids and a minivan that you’re after — it’s not always. It could actually be downtown Michelle, lawyer and urbanite, who cares about your cause. Or Bob or Richard; Braedon or Noah; Ashley or Ava. As the aforementioned Tinder experiment lays out, with things like online dating, we base our likes or dislikes on a number of signs, and what we’re really doing with public affairs campaigns is trying to decipher those signs.

Semiotics is the study of signs, and when looking for resonating messages, you’re essentially trying to figure out a series of symbols, guides, hieroglyphs, that all say that your message in particular is meant for a given individual. Kind of like dating. The trouble is, not all signs mean the same things to the same people. The text that one group might find inspiring, another finds off-putting. Markers of class can vary widely from culture to culture. It’s not always straightforward as to what you’re communicating and to whom. Moreover, it’s not always easy to tell what, specifically, is making your message resonate or not. It could be the phrase you’re using. It could be the typeface. It could be the photo — or it could be a small part of the photo. A picture with a lake in the background could be comforting and cottage-y to some, and ominous and bleak to another. Making assumptions about what types of things certain types of people like is not only exclusionary, it’s limiting for your messaging.

Much like users’ online exploration via MSN and through MySpace, discovering the ins and outs and likes and dislikes of your audience is work. You don’t just land on the perfect set of Good Charlotte lyrics that expresses your inner you, you have to try a few out first. You don’t just select a perfect Facebook profile picture that speaks to all of your interests and many-faceted personalities forever. Responsiveness is usually emotional and automatic, but how we see ourselves and what we’re looking for often changes or shifts subtly. While remaining consistent, people are often looking for new and more interesting ways to express or define themselves. And if people are looking for themselves online, that means what they are looking for is subtly changing and shifting too.

So the Internet constantly seems new, partly because of all of this fluctuating identity-building and as a giant communications tool, the World Wide Web has become the de facto area to do it. The Internet will continue to experience growing pains as we all continue to muddle around with our own biases and preferences and constantly update what and who we are in our own heads. Clearly, as the studies indicate, none of us are perfect, and so neither is our online behaviour. More and more it is a reflection of offline personalities. Identity is also partly manufactured, and sometimes people don’t know something about themselves until they see it coming from someone else, someone they aspire to be. It is individual, but also influenced by the surrounding content. So it would follow that successful messaging needs to do the same and follow these paths of self-discovery.

Hitting the right messaging mark with the right people online takes investigation and it needs to be updated, and updated as frequently as people’s own need to cultivate their online selves. Small changes to public affairs messaging can make a big difference to what you are saying to your audienceナthe kind of big difference as say, a new ~*~smiley face~*~ here or winky face there.