I just finished teaching a class called Social Media & Society, where we examined the impact of digital and social media on us as individuals and on society. Normally I teach my students about the strategy behind social media, but this time my students and I got to dig deep into areas we rarely talk about. Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of what we discovered.
Personal & Social Identity
Who we are as individuals determines, in part, the way that we use social media and other forms of mediated communication. Our digital identities are shaped by intersectionality and the platforms we leverage when expressing ourselves online. Some of the strongest influences related to personal communication include how we perceive ourselves not only as individuals, but also within the larger context of society. Our sex, gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and social class are all integral to the roles we take on in our uses of emerging media.
As communicators, researcher Katerina Tsetura argues that , we generally view diversity through a lens limited to one or two factors, rather than implementing a multidimensional approach whereby groups are separated by a core set of attributes such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, or sexual orientation. This latter approach allows for individuals to better recognize and relate to well-defined groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, LatinX, African Americans, Veterans, and the like. Understanding the value that different groups contribute to society has a direct correlation to our personal and social identities, often influencing how we interact and behave on social and emerging media channels.
British social psychologist Henri Tajfel and his research partner John Turner first introduced a social psychological approach to group dynamics, the Social Identity Theory (SIT), in the 1970s. This theory provides a conceptual framework for better understanding how individual self-concepts are influenced by group membership and has been widely adopted in social and organizational psychology, as well as sociology. SIT is based on the idea that individuals evaluate and identify themselves in terms of their social groups and the perceptions on how these people reflect their own personal values. The more positive their perception of their group, the more positive their self-evaluation.
As such, our personal identity is comprised of the sum of our personal social experiences, as well as the way that we see ourselves and the world. This “self-concept” encompasses many different components, including values, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, interests, and behaviors, but also our race, sex, gender, ethnicity and more. Development of a personal identity theory is one of the most important elements related to the larger construction of an individual. It is through this process that an individual is able to perform an in-depth self-analysis, allowing for identification as a member of a specific social group. This values-based concept of personal identity influences the formation of the larger role identity and how that individual will behave in each situation. Behaviors exhibited in social settings or on social media apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, are then influenced by an individual’s self-definition.
With this concept as a foundation, it is important to connect this to social media, which allows an individual to create their personal life narrative, choose what is important to remember, what to edit, embellish, glamorize, or simply leave as a pure reflection of themselves. Each decision reflects their self-identity and personal expression, often resulting from a well thought out methodology specific to these online environments. According to researchers, Megan Wood, William Bukowski and Eric Lis, younger users experiment with various behaviors and interactional styles through social media, playing a central role in the formation of their identity.
Let us examine some statistics. An astonishing five billion snaps – both photos and videos – are created daily. What’s more, on a single day, people watch one billion YouTube videos, 6,000 tweets are sent every second of every day on Twitter, and Instagram users post 500 million stories daily.[vi] What does this mean for the development of self? According to Kate Eichhorn author of The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media, the over-consumption of social media is certain to have a profound effect on the development of identity. We are already starting to see some of these impacts.
From a generational perspective, those individuals born between 1997 and approximately 2015, known as Generation-Z, simultaneously live and cultivate identities in both the real world and online communities. Like recent generations, Gen-Z must examine and define both their personal and social identities, having some flexibility on how they would like to present themselves accordingly. Additionally, writer Katie Steinmetz noted, “There’s so much pressure on young people, who are still forming their identities, to present this crystallized, idealized identity online.” More than connecting with their friends or seeing the latest TikTok trend, Gen-Zers spend considerable time managing their identities.
In my new book, GenZ: The Superhero Generation, my co-author and I explain that, Gen-Zers are branding themselves from the time they first begin using social media platforms and must determine early on how they would like to present themselves on these social media platforms. Similar to the development of an individual’s real-world identity, our sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, and social class also influence how people communicate through mediated channels.
If you’re interested in learning more, then check out my latest book with Adrienne Wallace, Social Media and Society: An Introduction to the Mass Media Landscape. We explore the relational, societal, and self while analyzing the social media environment. The book establishes a framework for understanding how technology, culture, democracy, economy, and audience fragmentation interact with each media industry differently and relate to media literacy.