#ME and #Others: Social Media and Identity


Ten years after the invention of Internet by the CERN, social media is revolutionising the way we deal with our self images.  Created to share writings, photos or videos and made so people would never lose touch, social networks became the place where internet users expose themselves and sketch their identities.




Patrick Amey, professor at the University of Geneva, explains that “today, we are seeing a detraditionnalisation of the institutions which used to provide fixed identities (…) today acts of recognition are delivered by others, especially by our peers. Identity is a construction and success on the web and social media implies to put forward not civil identities but personal identities (…)”.


Social media value more the projected, built or negotiated identity and not necessarily our profession or status, according to the Professor. At the same time, virtual networks provide a space to create a “mise-en-scène” of our identity and environment.


“Social media take part in controlling and building a social environment that is chosen and not imposed. Workplace, wandering in the street or family are imposed environments, at least not chosen”, adds the expert.


Therefore, images are being spread online to the point that they literally come to us every time we open a social application, especially daily life pictures and self-portraits called “selfies”.


According to Olivier Glassey, professor and sociologist at the University of Lausanne, these are basically the two types of personal images flowing on social media.


Daily life photographs became so common that this has totally “modified the sentimental value attached to the image and their rarity”, says the professor. Actually, back in times people would spend hours looking and showing their photo albums, where each photo represented, a moment to remember or a special experience.


Nowadays, the personal pictures circulating online tell our life to us and to others, “it is a sort of suitcase carrying our daily life”, he adds. As a result social media became life streamers.


Also, very popular online, self-portraits are not really a new phenomenon. Since the mid-15 century artists used self-portraits to introduce themselves to the society and show who they were. The self-portrait practice became just more accessible thanks to technological progress.


Again, expert Olivier Glassey believes that what has changed is the value put into those self-pictures and the way it is shared.


Furthermore, selfies are actually a good example of showing who you are and putting forward our singularities in order to build our identities and show off our personality. It is a simple tool that can be used to communicate our image online. These self-portraits allow us to acquire a certain form of recognition and gain a certain status and visibility among our peers.


For the Canadian anthropologist Jocelyn Lachance, selfies work as mirrors. But, unlike, a mirror where you look at your reflection from your point of view, a selfie tries to tell what others could think of you. For the expert, selfies are just another way to present yourself. For example, “teenagers still pay attention to the dress code of their group at school, but now, it includes also their presentation online”, he says in an interview in Le Temps.


At the same time, “Selfies are an act of exposition”, says Professor Olivier Glassey, because people, either teenagers or adults, are submitting their image to the judgment of others. They are somehow looking for credit and acknowledgement. It may sounds narcissistic, but “it is not as simple as that. (…) authors of selfies depend upon feedbacks. (…) It does not make them that self-centered.”, he comments. So, a selfie itself is not narcissistic. It is what is happening after that may be considered narcissistic because authors of selfies usually expect comments from others to boost their ego. We all want some recognition at the end and where to draw the line for the need of recognition is another question.




But, what happens when your popularity becomes a leitmotiv ? The quest of celebrity started with reality show on TV which gave the illusion that it is easy to become famous with our daily lives. It meant that anybody could be a superstar just by exposing himself or herself.


The rise of social media opened up another door for everyone to become famous without going through traditional media channels. It is an easy access to instant celebrity among our peers but also among a larger public thanks to the way social media diffuse information.


“Social media induce an amplification of the speed of information transmission (…) gossip, buzz, and so on. (…) Information circulate so fast and are received by a large number of internet users. The value of the information is based on preferences “likes” and collective enthusiasm online”, says Olivier Glassey. As a result success and credit are embodied by “retweets”, “views”, “likes”, “shared” and not necessarily by the opinion of a community of experts.


Even, internet is full of surprises and other buzz; social media cannot turn everyone into a celebrity. According to Professor Patrick Amey, more and more people think that they have a special talent that would lead them to celebrity and do everything to become famous. Unfortunately, on social media, “there are many applicants but few are chosen”, he says. Users are hard to please and it is even harder to get the attention of traditional media.


“Many people try to be famous, but if there is no public, it means nothing (…) and if there is no feedback, it is frustrating. Also, followers can be bought to have the illusion that you are popular” says Olivier Glassey about the social media users and popularity.


Instant celebrity for anon’ users is just what it is “instant celebrity” – a rush of enthusiasm among internet user translate into “retweets”, “likes”, “shared” or “views”.




Well, if you are already a super star then social media provide a space to manage your image and spread your aura online. For celebrities, social media enable them to  “Control their image, share their experience with their fans, show their private life, social media guarantee a sustainable, renewed and close relationship with their fans, it keeps up their legend and even build their myth”, says Patrick Amey.  And, selfies are the most popular way to post among famous people. In 2013, Ellen Degeneres took at the Oscars the selfie that was the most viewed selfie of all time. Actor, writer and filmmaker James Franco said in the New York Times that “if you are someone people are interested in, then selfie provides something very powerful, from most privileged perspective possible”.  He argues that “selfie celebrity has a value regardless of its quality because it is an intimate shot of someone whom the public is curious, it is the prize shot that any paparazzi would kill for, it is the shot that magazine want to get their readers close to the subject”.  Also, celebrity selfies are not simply a portrait of a star, but a self-portrait telling about their private life. It is not just a question of vanity. It goes beyond getting credit by their peers. It is about getting attention and marketing. As James Franco says, “attention seems to be the name of the game” on social networks.




Today, it became more and more important to show off our preferences, our passions, our causes, our attitude, our private life and so on. Social media increased the pressure on determining our identities, our interests and our environment. We are what we show. We all have no choice but to express our individualism.


Social media were created to keep us connected to each other and complement social space like cafés or associations. “That is the real revolution of social media”, says Professor Patrick Amey.


You can be reassured. Real human relationships are still meaningful in 2015. “A friend by definition isn’t someone that we meet, that we do activities with?”, he says.


The danger is that these social platforms could become the only space for personal achievement. Indeed, the Patrick Amey adds that “certain social groups (…) marginalize activities that cannot grant a status among their peers”.


We need others to judge us and approve our existence. Please “like” my life and give me credit.


At the end, aren’t social media limiting who we are?