This are now much more inclined to share

This essay explores social constructivism through the lens of digital
self-representation, and examines how, in today’s highly mediated world,
external influences such as race or ethnicity, gender,
socio-economic status or class and sexuality can significantly affect the ways
in which an individual chooses to represent themselves online. Although
historically, self-representation was uncommon, now with the advent of social
media technologies, the gap between the private and public spheres has
lessened. People are now much more inclined to share their lives in the online
sphere, but the way in which they do this is largely influenced by what they
believe others expect of them. In particular, this essay explores a case study
which truly demonstrates the effects of becoming aware of the fact that the way
one sees themselves, and the way others see them, are two different things. It
also looks at the digital photo-sharing application, Instagram, and the many
affordances it offers to allow people to manipulate their digital identity.

 

Firstly, constructivism is a learning theory that describes how humans
acquire and learn knowledge. It considers learning as an active process and
emphasizes individual learning experiences. Social constructivism, however, is
a learning theory that highlights the significance of social interactions and
the role of culture in creating knowledge. Although it also states that
learning is actively undertaken, it specifically calls attention to the
importance of communicating and corresponding with others. One’s
self-representation is an amalgamation of how the people around them perceive
them. They are subconsciously influenced by how other people see them, and the
expectations that other people have of them. As mentioned in Lecture 4B (2017),
social constructivists argue that “facts” are not natural or self-evident, but
are actively created by people. Thus, one’s perception of their “authentic
self” may simply be a social construct, based on the perceptions that other
people have, of them. And thus, the way they represent themselves may also be
based on these perceptions.

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However, self-representation is not a new concept. The way one dresses
and the way they choose to speak can be interpreted as a form of
self-representation. But platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which allow
people to post images and write about themselves, find their origins in
sixteenth century diary writing. While Augustine’s Confessions, written in 397-8 CE is usually identified as the first
autobiography, writing about oneself did not become popular until it was
feasible to do so. The main limitation to this, was the lack of available
technology. Most people did not know how to read or write and access to paper
was limited due to its expensive nature (Chartier, 2001). When diary writing
did take off, it was a very personal means of reflecting on oneself. Diaries
were not meant to be read by others, although as time passed, this began to
change. Through the gradual development of technology, new methods of
self-representation have been able to appear. The camera allowed people to
first, take still photographs, and then, take moving pictures to document parts
of their lives. The development of television and the internet meant these
images could be shared to mass audiences. Thanks to the constant development of
technology, self-representation methods have evolved over time, as new
affordances have become available.

 

Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter (Carpenter, 1972) presented a very
insightful and interesting case study when he took up a job as a communications
consultant for the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in the 1960s. Upon his
visit to the remote village of Sio, Carpenter gave people polaroids of
themselves, allowing them to see themselves for the first time. However, upon
receiving these photographs, the villagers could not read them. To them, the pictures were flat, static, and meaningless. But
“recognition gradually came into the subject’s face. And fear” (Carpenter,
1972). He described the effects of seeing these images severely, referring to
them as a feeling of “instant alienation”. The sudden onslaught of
self-awareness that these polaroids brought to the villagers almost created a
new identity for them. He said, “for the first time, each man saw himself and
his environment clearly and he saw them as separable” (Carpenter, 1972). For
the first time, these people became acquainted with the idea that there were
two versions of themselves; the version of themselves that they knew, and the
version of themselves that other people saw. And the recognition of this
concept was enough to change the way these people lived.

 

Carpenter noted
that he revisited the village months later, and noticed that many things had
changed. This self-awareness had influenced this community to rebuild houses in
a new style and carry themselves differently. However, they had been
transformed into detached, lonely and frustrated individuals. This case study
begs the question about how much of an effect other people can have on one’s
identity and feelings of self-worth, and how these external perspectives change
the way people present themselves, especially in such a heavily mediated
environment.   

 

One form of digital self-representation is the ‘selfie’. A selfie acts
as a snapshot of someone’s life through which discourses
such as their race or ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or class and
sexuality are represented. And when uploaded to social media, selfies form the
basis of the curation and production of an online identity. This curation,
however, also leads to certain aspects of a person being hidden or obscured. This
then raises the issue of the “authentic self”. Rettberg (2014) states, “creating
and sharing a selfie or a stream of selfies is a form of self-reflection and
self-creation”.  The fact that we try to
curate the most perfectly accurate versions of ourselves online, immediately
proves that the identity we are building is not necessarily real. In order to
highlight certain elements of our personalities and lives, we obscure other
parts of our identities. “Perhaps the reason
we feel the need to take another, and yet another selfie, is in part that we … never
seem able to create a photo that will ‘fully correspond to what you want to see
in yourself'” (Rettberg, 2014). However, ironically, ‘what you want to see in
yourself’ is often highly influenced by the aforementioned discourses and other
social constructs.

 

Instagram is an online, mobile photo-sharing application,
which allows users to edit and share photos and videos on the app itself, and
on other linked platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr. It is a
completely photo and video-centric application, so text updates are not
possible. However, Instagram allows its users to add captions to each of their
posts, and an instant messaging feature has also been added as of September
2015 (Betters, 2015). Thus it is a perfect example of a platform through which
social constructs influence the way people present and represent themselves.
Instagram allows its users several affordances through which they can shape and
create an online version of themselves, but the way that people choose to use
these affordances, is based on their own cultural and social influences.

 

One such cultural or social influence is race. At the root of race and ethnicity are shared values and cultural
norms which unite people from a similar background. These cultural norms also
dictate standards of beauty and what is typically viewed as attractive or
appealing. A person’s race or ethnicity may influence the way they choose to
present themselves on a day to day basis, but elements of this cultural
background are often also visible in the way they present themselves in the
online realm. In Indian culture, for example, as with many other Asian regions,
fair skin has been favourably viewed since historic times. This notion is a
social construct stemming from the idea that people who are rich and do not
have to work for hours under the harsh sun, are fair-skinned, and more
desirable. Although this is a shifting perspective, and people are now much
more appreciative of olive and darker skin tones, the attitude does still
exist, and many people, including myself, tend to prefer to present themselves
with lightened skin.  

 

In order to do this, Instagram provides its users with a
great range of editing and sharing options to easily personalise their image
and represent themselves in their truest form. There are 25 pre-set filters
which can be applied to an image, as well as the option to leave it “normal”
and without any added overlay. This affordance can be viewed as a form of
social and technological constructivism as there are set filters which can
frame or influence the user’s representation of themselves (Hutchby, 2001).
However, there is also the ability to edit photos from scratch by changing
brightness, contrast, warmth, saturation, highlights, shadows and more,
allowing the user to regain some control and autonomy.

 

It is interesting to note that most definitions of the word
“filter” involve removing something. For example, a cigarette filter stops some
of the harmful substances in a cigarette from reaching the smoker’s lungs, or a
water filter, which rids water of impurities to make it safer to drink. As
Rettberg (2014) highlights, “Instagram filters may in fact remove data, for
instance by making a colour image black and white, but often the perceived
effect is of adding to the image: boosting the colours, adding borders,
creating a vignette effect or blurring parts of the image.”

 

When it comes to filters, Snapchat is
notorious for its frequently changing range of filters which users can adopt in
order to add colour effects to their photos, feature Bitmojis, show off where
they are or celebrate a holiday. There are also face filters which detect one’s
face and alter them in amusing or aesthetically pleasing ways. One such filter
is the ‘doggy filter’ which has become an infamous symbol of promiscuity. The
filter itself has an innocent design adding dog ears on the face of the
individual placed in the center of the screen and a tongue which appears upon
opening one’s mouth. It was originally just a cute addition to Snapchat’s long
list of filters, but at some point was labelled the ‘hoe filter’ making it
infamous amongst the app’s users as a filter primarily used by women to look
promiscuous. Of course, this is again just a social construct, but it ties in
with Bijker’s concept of a “technological frame” which refers to the shared
meaning that a group has for an artefact (Lecture 4B, 2017).

 

Instagram also provides the affordance of
linking accounts. When an individual first creates an Instagram account, they
are offered the option of signing up through Facebook, connecting their
accounts. This attribute subconsciously coaxes users into expanding their
social network in order to broaden the reach of their posts. Instagram wants
its users to be able to represent themselves in the same way over a multitude
of platforms. Perhaps this could fool the user into believing that their online
identity is more authentic if it is mirrored throughout the digital space.

 

 

Another influential discourse which may
affect the way one presents themselves is gender. Gender
“describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as
masculine or feminine” (Nobelius, 2004). While biologically, there are only 2
sexes, gender is a spectrum and one’s gender identity is their personal
experience. Most societies adhere to a gender binary, which is a division
between males and females, resulting in gender roles and stereotypes and ideas
of masculinity and femininity. Thus most people’s representations of themselves
tend to lean to one side. Males are more likely to be portrayed as muscular and
strong, courageous and tough, while females tend to be portrayed as more dainty
and cute or overly sexual. Gender identity also feeds into one’s sexuality and
in some instances, homosexual males may be presented with more feminine
attributes and homosexual females with more masculinity. However, it can be
argued that gender is a social construct.

 

 

A great
celebrity example is Ruby Rose. She is gender fluid, and highlights the amount
of freedom this gives her. “I definitely don’t identify as any gender. I’m not
a guy; I don’t really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one. So, I’m
somewhere in the middle, which – in my perfect imagination – is like having the
best of both sexes” (Mooney, 2015). Rose is a key figure in the burgeoning
movement to create awareness for the transgender community and her selfies give
insight into how her portrayal of herself changes on, what can be interpreted
as, a daily basis.  A quick look through
her Instagram feed shows a range of styles, both clothing and makeup, which
shift from the feminine side of the spectrum to the masculine. In particular,
is a full body mirror shot in which Rose is wearing a bikini
(stereotypically feminine), but is covered in tattoos, with bronzed skin and defined
muscles (stereotypically masculine). This one image alone shows a clash between
gender norms and in doing so, demonstrates gender fluidity in its simplest
form. Ruby Rose is not of one particular gender, but is an amalgamation of
everything that falls in the spectrum.  In
a sense, Ruby Rose is an example of how social constructivism may not affect
one’s self-image.

 

According to Gillespie, Boczkowski and Foot, “In
much of contemporary scholarship, media technologies are no longer treated as
things that simply happen to society, but rather as the product of distinct
human and institutional efforts.” (Gillespie, Boczkowski
and Foot, 2014) Similarly, when a person chooses to use
these affordances which are “richly etched with the politics, presumption, and
worldviews of their designers,” to help shape the way they are presented
online, they are very clearly feeling the pressures of external influences,
whether it be racial norms or gender stereotypes or other factors, and are
moulding the representation of themselves, to fit the expectations of these
influences.

 

As examined in
this essay, social constructs definitely play a large role in the way people
construct their digital identities. Specifically, if there is a gap in the way
in which an individual sees themselves, and the way in which they would like to
be viewed by others, in most cases, they would try to close this gap. Although
exceptions such as Ruby Rose do exist, the large majority of people seem to attempt
to conform to social norms. This demonstrates how social constructivism affects
one’s digital self-representation.