by Sanjana Roy, DLINQ Intern, Architecture and Environmental Studies Joint Major with a Minor in Biology
My experience of creating an identity on the web started out with my first Yahoo email account at the age of 9. I was gifted a shiny, pink iPod shuffle on my 10th birthday, my first personal relationship in what was to become a series of digital devices, a journey that is now casually accepted by many. As someone who belongs to the “Gen-Z” generation, the influence and rapid growth of technology and online platforms fell in synchrony with our growing adolescent years. Back then, the extent of my involvement with virtual platforms was browsing Youtube for music, under the eyes of my parents’ who relentlessly warned of the dangers of the web, illegally downloading it through some web service, and dancing in the bathroom with my earphones plugged in. Little did I know that technology would shape my experience with almost every aspect of the living world.
I progressed to Gmail at 11 years, identity defined only by my email address and name. I used to spend afternoons messaging and chatting with friends on the family computer in the office, where my parents would occasionally pop their heads out of suspicion. Soon acquiring the iPod touch, I had the privacy of my own viewing through the then, 4 by 2 inch screen. I had the freedom to browse Youtube and bookmark my own searches away from the watchful eyes of my parents. As for social media, I was only allowed to set up a Facebook account when I was 13, a fairly late age for someone in my generation. I understood it to be another dimension where my friends were getting to know one another in a different sense and connecting in ways that seemed “cooler” than in-person. I was thrilled when I was finally allowed to get on the platform my friends had been using for the last few years and quash any ounce of FOMO (acronym for “fear of missing out”) I had been feeling. I was able to check out what my friends had been sharing on their timelines, photos from their weekend hangouts, what they found funny. I was able to talk with ease on the platform everybody now preferred. I was able to look up my people’s profiles and understand how they represented themselves and what that said about them. Similarly, I was able to curate a representation of myself through this platform, craft a picture of who I was, or rather, who I wanted to appear as. I could now add books that I had read and TV shows I had watched to my profile, pages I had liked and groups I was part of would show up as well. The number of friends I had was, of course, a constant stress in the beginning because I didn’t want to seem “uncool” with only less than 150 friends to my name. It was the process of creating a digital identity that I took upon, one that is now so often required in this world to have any real sense of online presence and connection to others.
This virtual reality tied me closer to the portal of physical access, which was then still my iPod touch. It was extremely addicting. Knowing that every piece of information you put out there was received by someone – your friends, your friends of friends, or god-forbid your family – knowing that you showed up on their feed and in their thoughts, knowing that someone formed an opinion of you today or was reminded of your existence, was a black hole of thought everyone is now accustomed to dealing with in some form. However, virtual platforms designed to connect with and make new friends slowly also evolved into information outlets for different journals and news sources, people advocating for different causes, spreading new knowledge and passions, and voicing their opinions and beliefs. I have considered this immediate access to information very beneficial for me, although this does come with negative consequences. Many a time, it has helped me learn things I wouldn’t have otherwise: intersectional feminism, stigmatism around mental health, what’s happening in Zimbabwe, and many other topics that helped me think more critically and with greater perspective. Being aware of what the rest of my generation was up to was also a big plus. This didn’t seem very productive at the time, but the Gen-Z generational tie is the strongest there has ever been due to social media platforms and is a force that has led to the rapid spread of youth movements around the world, one of them being organization around climate change.
Sliding your thumb down to refresh is the new unconscious reflex we have all developed. Every refresh, every like, every post, the access to new information, feeds your system and ups the dopamine hit. It’s a rewarding game you play which you never tire of, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. The presence of advertisements on these platforms slowly crept upon us before we could understand what they were doing. Only recently did people realize that their existence on these platforms is being capitalized on, their searches are being processed, the number of times they view something is being recorded, that they are being sold as products to big data companies and advertisers, and that they have been subtly influenced into purchasing from companies that have targeted them as prospective buyers or even into voting. Elections have been won off of the data from our use of online platforms. Little did I know when I started my Facebook account at the age of 13, when I made my Gmail account at the age of 11, that my online experience would be scrutinized for others’ benefit and my online behavioural habits categorized into a specific type of person that can be influenced into performing actions.
I have become increasingly critical of online platforms yet I continue to use their services. Over the past few years I have created profiles on Tumblr, Youtube, Snapchat, Quora, Pinterest, Tinder, Instagram, Nike Run Club, LinkedIn, the new rage of TikTok, and the list goes on. Through my likes, my searches, and my shares, I create a picture of who I am, what I believe in, what I value. I am highly conscious of my digital identity, how I am viewed through the eyes of other people on the web, however, no matter how many pictures and how much information I take down or limit, my usage of these platforms is the most valuable data I give away to those that govern the system. In a world that has come to be so heavily dependent and reliant on these virtual avenues for information, connection, and presence, they are difficult to abandon, especially for someone whose formative years were spent interacting through these platforms. I guess in a way it is like eating meat: many people are aware of the industry’s unethical practices, yet this consumption is a pleasure most are not willing to give up, but some are willing to alter the ways in which they consume. Only, in this case, you are the meat. You are quite literally selling yourself. We can be as careful and critical as we want on the web, but our information is being taken from us, our privacy being broken without our explicit consent. We are slaves to the system we have designed for ourselves and we don’t fully understand the implications of our actions on the web. The urgency of this message hasn’t entirely been felt by many. Thinking back to my parents’ warnings of the dangers of the web earlier in 2009, the dangers of technology and its usage have evolved a long way from ‘the dark web’. This is all that we know, but there is surely so much more that we don’t as big tech companies have proven that they cannot be trusted.
And so the question of creating yet another presence on the web through a professional portfolio confronts me, creating yet another way in which I can be found and putting more of my data out there. This would be different from any other social media account, where my usage wouldn’t be analyzed, but it is still another avenue through which I will be seen. Although I have set myself up through all these different ways on the web, I believe I have still been able to keep myself relatively more hidden than others I know. This portfolio would expose my genuine interests, things I have accomplished, and my goals for the future. How much do I want to establish myself digitally and create a more concrete presence on the internet? Do I want to be seen on the first few Google searches when my name is typed in? Between the spectrum of blessings and curses that the internet offers, one has to find a balance. How much is too much? How easily do I want to be found?
I guess my answer lies in my firm belief of the blessings: the web as a tool for connectivity. In my opinion, being a user of the digital world today requires one to be aware, critical, and savvy, in one’s usage. However, I think my beliefs have also been conditioned by how I have grown up on the web and reaped the benefits it has offered while also learning about its downfalls through the platforms themselves. The identities we create on the web are extensions of ourselves that we present to the world. They are new and evolving identities that we must be conscious of as we build them and as information from them is compounded over the years. These identities are more critical than ever as almost every aspect of our lives has some connection to technology and the information that is processed through it. We must evaluate how we relate to our presence on the web and consider how we are personally impacted. There is so much more to understand in order to truly be conscious of our usage, but this is also something we must learn through our usage, as we grow in our role as digital citizens.