British government suggests we are what we tweet, but what does this mean for social network citizens?

Who am I? This question, asked so often, is deceptively profound and intrinsically difficult to answer. But this hasn’t deterred the British government from trying. In a new report titled Future Identities, the government has sought to understand our contemporary expression of the self and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the findings indicate that we are what we tweet (or post, like, tag and pin for that matter). The report draws evidence from a myriad of academic disciplines to suggests that social media is driving radical transformation in human identity. As we increasingly cast ourselves online, we find it increasingly difficult to draw distinctions between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ self, to the point that the two seem to have merged. According to the report, this trend is also shifting our attitudes towards privacy, with people willingly sharing unprecedented levels of information in the public domain.

Of course, the conception of technology as more than a mere tool but rather an important element of our social and psychological lives is far from novel. First published in 1984, Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self explores the early interplay between the computer and identity, taking particular interest in the ability of this now-ubiquitous machine to shape our cognitive development. For Turkle, the objective computer that does things for us is inextricably woven with the subjective computer that does things to us, exerting considerable influence over the very nature of our being. But while the seminal notion that we use computers to actively construct the self continues to ring true today, the extraordinarily rapid development of such machinery has enabled a new world of possibilities for identity formation. Most significantly, the advent and proliferation of the internet has completely revolutionised the interaction paradigm central to Turkle’s pioneering work. No longer confined to the dyadic relationship of human and machine, the present-day second self is brought to life through a dense and complex network of human interactions. As Turkle herself explains, “Increasingly, when we step through the looking glass, other people are there as well”.

In the case of social networking sites, it is not so much that other people are there but rather millions of other people. The immersive online environments offered by social media enable users to remain constantly connected to one another: creating and consuming content with consummate ease. But what should we make of all this private information being publically shared? The report suggests that our present-day willingness to disclose personal details has dispelled any ideas of online anonymity, with our intimate thoughts, feelings and behaviour constantly broadcast to our social circles and beyond.

In an ironic critique of this very phenomenon, German artist Tobias Leingruber has created personal identification cards for ‘social network citizens’. Given we already use Facebook to connect to a host of online services, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that the social media giant will be used for offline identity checks in the future. As Leingruber playfully suggests, “next time someone needs to ‘see your ID’ – how about showing a Facebook ID card instead of the documents your government gave you? On the web this is common practice for millions of people already. Therefore – Forget privacy.” It appears the user’s next battle is about who controls their privacy, and there is much to be said on this matter.

Leingruber will be addressing ‘The Future of Identity in a Digital World’ at the upcoming Unlike Us #3 conference. Tickets can be purchased here.