The piece of your identity that you surface on Facebook or Twitter (or your own website) isn't even the tip of the iceberg. It's like a funhouse mirror version of a fragment of a fragment of you.
"I kind of want to throttle the online version of you," someone I trust told me last year. "It's like you're always trying to sell something." It was a sort of throwaway comment, but at the same time it wasn't, and I took it to heart. The Internet is full of people, but that isn't worth a damn if the only pieces of us that come into contact with each other are little, distorted fragments. It becomes a collider for funhouse identities; an amplifier for the bullshit we tell the world about ourselves.
I'm on the Internet a lot.
I can't stand those pre-fab quotes that people post on their Facebook profiles. For one thing, they're usually a transparent way to get likes and clicks on a Facebook Page that will probably later be sold to the highest bidder. (The more asinine the meme is - "Share if you remember wearing trousers. America!" - the more likely it is to be some kind of scam.) But even more egrariously, they're a junk food version of identity: a way to present something to the world without having to do any intellectual or creative work yourself.
Of course, link sharing is a lot like this too: we're resharing things that reflect on our identity. There's a component that's just bookmarking in public, but it's a lot like making a patchwork quilt out of our opinions. Look how smart I am, I'm making commentary on this thinkpiece. The effect is impressionistic: a never-ending river of memes, shares and one-liner opinions that add up to some form of self-image that tends towards, but will never actually reach, being an accurate depiction of who we are. Or at least, who we are this week.
And I'd wager that we still, deep down, just want to make a connection. We want someone to see us for who we are and give us a thumbs up: a big, blue "like" for the essence of who we are as a human being. Validation at last, at least until we need another dopamine hit to re-up our self-worth.
Or maybe it's just me.
The pieces of us that count - who and how we love, what we believe in, what truly drives us every day - will always stay hidden well below the surface, hidden from each other. And that's probably a good thing. We worry about privacy and being tracked, and rightly so, but the pieces of us that are truly being monitored are superficial. What we like to buy should not say a lot about who we are as people. Our humanity is not our spending demographic. Facebook will never know what makes me cry.
I'm still bullish on social media. (NB: the real me would never use the word "bullish".) I learn so much from the Internet, and from the people I'm connected to. Those impressionistic identities may be echoes of the real people who pull their strings, but they keep me informed. I know more than I would by watching the news, from all kinds of different sources. Facebook is actually becoming the best for this: whereas I get more tech news from Twitter, I'm connected to my friends and family on Facebook. That's actually less of a filter bubble: while my friends are mostly on the left (I don't think I have a single conservative friend, now I think about it - how's that for a filter bubble?), I have family members who are full-on socialists, and family members who are full-on Tea Partiers, and everything in-between. And I get to see what each of them thinks is important to share.
But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that the profiles we see online are anything like the people we would see in person. And those people we see in person? They're nothing like how those people really feel inside.
We're all just projecting funhouse mirror versions of ourselves to each other. Deep down, that real version of us is still gasping for air.