Luciano Floridi on how to update your personal online identityI recently met a very bright and lively graduate, who registered with Facebook during the academic year 2003-04, when she was a student at Harvard. Her ID number is 246. Impressive. A bit like being the 246th person to land on a new continent. In the past six years, that continent has become rather crowded, as she has been joined by 500 million active users worldwide. The number was reached last July. It is a good reminder of how more and more people spend an increasing amount of time “onlife”, interacting with and within an infosphere that is neither entirely virtual nor only physical. It is also a good reminder of how influential Information and Communication Technologies are becoming in shaping our personal identities.
In the philosophy of mind, there is a well-honed distinction between personal identity and self-conception, or more simply between who we are (call it our ontological self), and who we think we are (call it our epistemological self). Like many other handy distinctions, this too seems to work at its best once you drop it. Like a Wittgensteinian ladder, it helps you to reach a better perspective, as long as you don’t get stuck in it. Of course, there is a difference between being and believing to be. But it is equally obvious that, in healthy individuals, the ontological and the epistemological selves flourish only if they support each other in a symbiotic relationship. It is not only that our self-conceptions should be close to who we really are. Our ontological selves are also sufficiently malleable to be significantly influenced by who we think we are, or would like to be. And such epistemological selves in turn are sufficiently ductile to be shaped by who we are told to be. Enter the social self: “[…] even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people.” (Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past – Swann’s Way).
The social self is the channel through which interactive media, such as Facebook, have their deepest impact on our identities. Change the social conditions in which you live, modify the network of relations and the flows of information you enjoy, reshape the nature and scope of the constraints and actions that regulate your presentation of yourself to the world, and your social self will be radically updated, feeding into your self-conception, which ends up shaping your personal identity.
To someone used to ruminate about personal identity puzzles in terms of continuity through time or possible worlds, the whole phenomenon of the construction of personal identities online (Facebook, Second Life, My Space, Webpages, Blogs, YouTube and Flickr accounts, Twitters and so forth), might seem something frivolous and distracting, unworthy of serious reflection. Yet to many people who have never heard of Theseus’ ship, but have lived all their adult life with “online awareness”, it seems most natural to treat their personal identities as a very serious work-in-progress, and toil daily to shape and update them online. It is the hyperconscious generation, which facebooks and twitters its views and tastes, its experiences and its personal details. Nothing is too small to be left unsaid, anything can contribute to the construction of one’s own personal identity, and everything may leave a trace somewhere, including your silly pictures posted by a schoolmate years ago.
Some Jeremiahs lament that the hyperconscious, Facebook generation has lost touch with reality, that it lives in a virtual bubble, that it cannot engage with the genuine and the authentic, that it is mesmerised by the artificial and the synthetic. I am not convinced, not only because the genuine and the authentic tend to be highly manufactured cultural artefacts, but also because social media like Facebook represent an unprecedented opportunity to be in charge of our social selves. We can choose who the other people are whose thoughts create our social personality and hence, to paraphrase Proust, indirectly determine our personal identities. Recall how the construction of the social self feeds back into the development of the epistemological self, which then feeds back into the moulding of the ontological self. More freedom on the social side means more freedom to shape oneself. This is no longer the freedom of anonymity advertised by Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon (“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”). Those were the nineties (the carton was published in The New Yorker, July 5, 1993). Today, if you are or behave like a dog, Facebook probably knows it. Rather, it is the freedom associated with self-determination and autonomy. You can no longer lie so easily about who you are, when 500 million people are watching. But you can certainly try your best to show them who you might reasonably be or wish to become, and that will tell a different story about your self that, in the long run, will affect who you are. Facebook is Proust’s account-book, and you are the writer.
Luciano Floridi holds the Research Chair in Philosophy of Information at the University of Hertfordshire and is president of the International Association for Computing and Philosophy. His column appears in every issue of tpm. Read it as soon as it is published by subscribing to the magazine.