Who Am I? : Complexities of Identity Construction in the Information Age

There is a small girl standing at the top of the web page—her “back to school” bangs fall across her forehead, an American Girl Doll swings from the crook of her elbow—dressed in leopard print to match the “real-girl” sized dress.  Splashed down the screen in 44 separate scenes, this four-year old is famous.  Her name is Fable. A little girl living in Los Angeles, the stories of Fable’s life unfold for millions. We see Fable playing dress up, Fable caught mid-scream, Fable running miniature fingers along piano keys. Fable is a “real girl,” but she is also an actress in her own fairy-tale. Daughter of top-ten “Mommy Blogger” Rebecca Woolf, Fable’s name is more than a hip parenting decision. It’s a prophecy. Doe-eyed and forever chronicled online, Fable is an artifact of her mediated generation—a cohort of kids growing up alongside Disney child stars and directed by Googling mommies. With Facebook and Twitter at their fingertips from grade school on, “all the world’s a stage” becomes a virtual reality.

From birth, Fable’s sense of self has been archived in shots framed by her mother.  Paragraphs describing her quirky personality have been penned for an audience of thousands she will never meet. Fable will one day have a teacher who recognizes her as the subject of the viral blog titled Girl’s Gone Child. Her future obligatory Facebook profile will have an album of photos chosen to represent her idyllic childhood—handpicked from hundreds of maternal electronic entries. She’ll tell stories at cocktail parties as a 20-something, emphasizing those moments frozen in limelight and forgetting the ones left undocumented. She will be a million different Fables—one for the classroom, one for the playground, one for ballet lessons, one for her cell phone, one for each future boyfriend, one for each college application, one for the blogosphere and one for the “real world” (wherever that is.)

Fable is four years old, but already she is fragmented. As the years unfold before her in birthday candles and princess parties and rites of passage, she will build countless versions of herself. She will move beyond the realm of romanticized childhood on her mother’s blog to a carefully crafted set (complete with props her mediated world tells her represent “success.”) Fable is an artifact. She is both Fable and a representation of Fable—a symbol in this new era of identity construction to the nth degree. Examining virtual and “real” artifacts like Fable, the ubiquitous Facebook profile, and the micromanaged contents of the anxiety-inducing college application, we see a cultural shift in values—a transition in the understanding of identity from an authentic to a fragmented self.

Mommy Blogs and Method Acting

Image from communities.washingtontimes.com

Fable is not the only girl in the world whose every move has reached millions. In one 2009 social media study, it was found that the “Mommy Blogger” online population reaches 42 million readers. From Dooce to The Blogess to Finslippy, the most popular mommy bloggers have become beacons for success in a Brave New World of motherhood. According to one study commissioned by H&R Block, the 500 “most influential” of all mommy bloggers include award winning authors and business owners. They are 52% more likely to have completed a college degree than non-bloggers, and they make an average of $84,000/year.  In North America alone, there are 3.9 million mommy bloggers. In fact, “14% of all American moms are mommy bloggers.” Becoming a mommy blogger is a slice of the new American Dream.

What about the kids of these mothers? How are their identities developed through these online vaults housing pre-made memories? Even for families that don’t include a mommy blogger, how are parenting dynamics shaped by the advice and opinions of the virtual world?

In Thomas de Zengotita’s 2005 text Mediated: How the Media Shapes your World and the Way You Live in It, a portrait of our media hybridized lives is revealed; “[we live] lives composed of an unprecedented fusion of the real and the represented, lives shaped by a culture of performance that constitutes a quality of being, a type of person—the mediated person” (Zengotita 6). With or without bloggers for moms, children are raised to perform. They are flattered with constant feedback and ever-present choice. The advertisements on TV tell them what they deserve and how to play. Meanwhile, family, friends, and even strangers ooh and ah over pixilated depictions of cuteness. Early on, parents become stage managers—pushing their “promising” offspring in the direction of opportunities and choices that will prune them for traditionally “successful” paths to colleges and careers. Mothers like Fable’s define their daughters and sons with paragraphs like; “For the last four years, Fable has served up magic wherever she’s gone. Her smile. That laugh. Her love. Her sense of self. She has always been FABLE! Bold and in all caps, underlined and surrounded by exclamation points. Unapologetically Fable. With bejeweled hair and scraped knees and ballet slippers stained with watercolors” (Woolf).  Filled with whimsical summaries of perfectly unique children, Mommy Bloggers create a child’s sense of self—setting up sons and daughters to fulfill parenting hopes.

As De Zengotita points out in his work, there is no experience that goes unmediated. We do everything on the meta-level—living life inside of picture frame on a TV family’s mantel. Though Fable’s blogging mama seems to be simply appreciating her daughter through descriptions of everyday scenes, she is also building Fable’s sense of self both virtually and in reality—creating the energetic, off-beat, emphatic, and photogenic child princess. A Fable is written.

When Fable enters elementary school, she will continue to develop her identity through art projects, performances, and test questions. Every turn she takes on the way to “finding herself,” will be tied to media. In the realm of her mother’s blog and beyond, Fable will be introduced to what De Zengotita calls “MeWorld”—a tailored and mediated experience to fit her likes and dislikes. She will be queen of her bubble—living with the illusion of complete control. Discussing the childhood search for self, De Zengotita sums up this theory when he says;

“[the typical student] will be constantly and continuously enhanced by a curriculum loaded with inherently flattering assignments that ask her to represent herself (her pets, her family…her dreams, her fantasies, her preferences, her favorite this, her favorite that) and to represent them in every possible way… maybe augmented by computer graphics and digitized photographs of herself…to include in this world she is building, this little MeWorld that she shows to teachers and doting relatives and friends” (Zengotita 74).

Fable, and the children of her generation, are raised in a world designed to constantly flatter. They are building resumes from age 3. It becomes harder and harder to draw the line between the virtual and the real. Is the child acting genuinely, or mimicking the scenes of so many screens?

Through the artifact of the Mommy Blog, we see the two-way transformation of a mediated existence for both mother and child. For typing and reflecting mothers, the blogosphere is a place to harness the traditional innocence of the child. As a Mommy Blogger, it is possible to become a child again. In a world where there is so much corruption, choice, and conflict, the realm of the child is a space of innocence. As De Zengotita claims, “through the eyes of a child, the world we know as a construct becomes a mysterious necessity once again. In this way, children connect us to the world” (Zengotita 43). In writing about our children, we attempt to become more real in a culture where true authenticity no longer exists. As adults bridge the virtual and the real, they become temporary children while their own children are given adult-like wit and a grown-up stage to play. Parents share the adorably simple sentences and actions of little feet and hands to bring them “down to earth,” but they do so on platforms of a virtual world—sharing the “authenticity” of an afternoon art project or rainy day excursion while simultaneously perpetuating the blur of the virtual and real (Zengotita 58). The question becomes; “if it is not photographed, blogged, Tweeted, Facebooked, or posted, did it really happen?”

Facebook Fears and Virtual Violence

            In a blurred world of cyberspace and reality, children come of age when they have the power to create online identities independently. Heralded as a new life skill, this form of identity construction and navigation is called “digital literacy.” To get ahead, it is necessary to be strategically fragmented—redefined for the countless audiences of “real” life. An example of the modern identity crisis, Facebook says it all. Founded by a precocious Ivy League student who capitalized on the perpetual “MeWorld” perspective of his peers, Facebook is a platform for everything from booty calls to career search connections. Like so many other artifacts of our digital era, it is both an opportunity and a dangerous threat. The line is fine.

Though Facebook was born as a social media tool for 18-23 year olds, its population has exploded to reach 20 million minors. Despite Facebook’s safety attempts to make registration impossible for those under the age of 13, one consumer report reveals that there are more than 5 million users under the age of ten. Of these 5 million underage profiles, “One million children were harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on the site in the past year.” For the children of the digital age, the navigation of the “who am I?” question increasingly occurs across online platforms and becomes painfully complex. Those “awkward stages” and sass-filled statuses are published and tagged in ways that exist in cyberspace forever. As De Zengotita claims of the child who comes of age in a “mirrored world” where he or she is constantly shown representations of him or herself;

“A more elaborate self-consciousness in children [takes hold,] and that self-consciousness comes earlier and earlier in their lives…[This] means more picking and choosing between proffered versions—so many possibilities to identify with or against, to mix and match, to try on and discard, so may options among these representations of young selves” (Zengotita 56).

Saddled with too many choices of who to be, the pre-teen is constantly conflicted. No longer are the inevitable cruelties of middle school hierarchy limited to the black top playground fight or even the backstabbing three-way telephone call of the baby boomer generation. Now the 12 or 13 year-old gangly student must present him or herself as “punk,” “hipster,” or “preppy” in both virtual and real life—taking care to be consistent. The list of “likes” is long. The inbox of “private” messages includes venomous jabs that would never be uttered without the protective shield of the computer screen.  In many ways, the fighting words of Facebook are far more violent than the physical punches of the backyard brawl.

Image from rgent006.blogspot.com

According to a fact sheet developed by the activist organization dosomething.org, “nine out of ten middle school students have had their feelings hurt online.”As middle school students undergo the hyper construction of identity on multiple platforms, they get hurt in very real ways. Attempting to pay attention to a million things at once, they lose track of themselves. De Zengotita sums up the plight of the digital age pre-teen girl as he states; “they are media queens… they become who they are through that media, gazing out its windows and into its mirrors, determining expenditures of billions of dollars as they steer industries this way an that…They know everything. Every lyric, every gesture, every band, every brand name, every novel expression of approval or disdain…They are performers” (Zengotita 83). These performing queens have the ultimate script. With unlimited information at their fingertips, they are obligated to keep up with second-to-second waves of “cool.” When the latest Youtube video provides the context for cafeteria conversation, deliciously dramatic Facebook newsfeed threads are referenced in hallway asides, and MTV reality must be maintained (in addition to reading those old-school printed books for class,) it’s no wonder kids these days have less time.

Neil Postman, author of the 1985 cultural commentary Amusing Ourselves to Death, says that “our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture” (Postman15). With more than 167 million users in the US alone, Facebook is a metaphor for our culture. On Facebook, we define our expectations of citizenship in both online and real communities. Our children are raised without distinction made between virtual and real cultures. They are ongoing students of etymology—writing an unprecedented language for an evolving world imbued by social media.

The College Application Conundrum

            Leaving middle school clique dominion and learning to navigate the muddy social waters of high school, Millenial students become commercialized personalities and profiles as they enter the infamous college application process. Gone are the days of filling out paper transcripts and handwriting 1-page essays. The college application process has been revised for the digital age—operating online, incorporating virtual lives, and inducing plenty of stress. For the high school junior or senior student, the college application resources are endless. A simple search engine exploration yields hundreds of thousands of results—from professional ACT and SAT tutors to essay samples, personalized timelines and plans, and a dizzying array of “where should you go to college?” online quizzes to take (google.com). On the College Board’s website for prospective college students titled “bigfuture.com,” a ten-part slideshow breaks down the process of the college app—a sort of “how to” for manipulating the student’s many mediated identities to catch the eye of admissions officers across the country. In its introduction, the slideshow emphasizes the importance of the application essay: “Your essay reveals something important about you that your grades and test scores can’t—your personality. It can give admission officers a sense of who you are, as well as showcasing your writing skills.” In a mediated world of disjointed identities, telling admission officers “who you are” is no simple task. If the applicant truly followed these, he or she would write an essay that reads like an M.C. Escher print. It would be filled with the conundrums of multiple representations—personality traits that can’t be separated from the scripts parents, television shows, Facebook newsfeeds, and trending tweets. The essay would end; “I am not really me.” Of course, this never happens.

Instead, college applicants memorize a template for the ideal personality. They are taught to tailor their traits to fit into the puzzle they seek—a skill set that will prove useful again and again as these students venture through higher education and into a work force of cover letters and resumes. In slide six, the College Board set of recommendations gives and example of what most universities look for: “Katherine, a college freshman, had to describe why she would make a good Reed College student for that school’s essay. ‘I am a huge fan of Beat Generation writers, and many of the West Coast Beat writers attended Reed,’ she says. ‘So I related my love for writing and the Beats to why I would be a great fit for the school.'” Katherine has learned to fit herself into a desirable mold—a version of herself created to fit Reed College. Is Katherine an authentic fan of Beat Generation writers, or has she subconsciously created this passion in efforts to appeal to a certain audience? Did Katherine stumble upon a Beat Generation novel in a used bookstore one day, read the first 10 pages, get chills of inspiration, and then devote herself to reading Howl, Naked Lunch, and On the Road? Or did Katherine recognize Beat Generation writers as a key piece of the self she aimed to create—a symbol of “hipster” status? Did she receive a recommendation from amazon.com or a “oh I thought this just sounded so much like you” book gift from a close friend or relative? Did Katherine Google elite liberal arts colleges, find Reed, and then read the texts? The options are endless and the routes circuitous. In any case, it’s more than likely that this college applicant shifted herself to fit into the “accepted” parameters identified by her college of choice.

Image from fastweb.com

In the all-American college search, the practice of “self branding” is particularly evident. Despite the fact that slide 7 of the College Board’s essay tips encourages applicants to “[avoid temptation] to write what you think the admissions officers want to hear; answer the question honestly,” the concluding advice includes videoed interviews with top admissions officers about what they look for in application essays. In an October 17th editorial published by the Minnesota Star Tribune, columnist Katie Humphrey revealed the new game admission officers play—searching students’ many identities and trolling for inconsistencies: “A survey released this month by Kaplan Test Prep found that more than a quarter of college admissions officers browse applicants’ digital footprints, and in an increasing number of cases find evidence that lowers students’ chances of getting in.” Here we see the common contradiction. In our hyper mediated existence, we are always trying to convince ourselves of “authenticity” and “honesty.” Honesty and authenticity remain in quotes because they are representations of themselves. The logic is too circular for each to stand alone. Admission officers look through online profiles in efforts to find the most “authentic” candidates, but by performing the search at all they confirm that in-authenticity is the norm.

In Mediated, De Zengotita argues that “mediation crosses an ontological threshold when a thing can become its own simulation. At that point, mediation transcends physical platforms of representation. It’s everywhere and nowhere” (Zengotita 215). In an effort to make this slippery theory more tangible, De Zengotita gives the example of Mt. Everest. That famed mountain is no longer a geographical location or landmark. Its rocks and peaks and valleys exist physically, but it has become better known as a representation of achievement and success. To summit Everest is not only to step onto a shelf of rock, but to be photographed with your country’s flag, become the first woman to conquer a man’s feat, or pay your way to the top. Commercialized and published, Mt. Everest is bought and sold for the metaphor is has become. In the same vane, for students like Katherine from the College Board, Reed College becomes “Reed College.” Ivy League institutions like “Harvard” show up in the studies of respected academia and the big screen reels of popular culture.

Perhaps the most difficult jump to make in the analysis of representative and mediated selves is the hurdle that comes before putting our own names into “quotation marks.” To realize completely that we are only representations of ourselves is not a happy way to live. Bearing the understanding of our countless conflicting identities, we become Mark Zuckerbergs in a hall of mirrors—watching actor Jesse Eisenberg play the part of Mark Zuckerberg in a blockbuster film about a “Harvard” student who rose to the top. If we lived that way, we might all be nihilists—wondering “what’s the point?” after going one meta-level too far. To avoid this insanity, we happily continue to rebuild ourselves daily. We tweak our resumes, mirror the speech patterns of each person we talk to, and interview with a predetermined set of answers in mind. We take care to be always appealing. As Neil Postman declares in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials” (Postman 93). From mommy blog pride to preteen Facebook profile maintenance and college application charm, we see how the currency of American society has changed. Though we continue to preach capitalism and the “American Dream,” our screens tell a different story. We no longer think in dollar signs. In 2012, it pays to be a chameleon. The one with the highest stockpile of identities wins.

Image from american-studies-digest.blogspot.com

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