Why do we reveal our lives on the Internet?Unmasking ourselves online is a simultaneous act of self-expression and a request for recognition, a chance to "project" ourselves by creating a multifaceted ever-changing digital self-portrait while interacting with others.
Many condemn the exhibitionism made possible by social media, but visual history research scholar André Gunthert refers to "a moralizing cliché" – the same one that ushered in daguerreotypes in the 1850s. These days, teenagers are accused of committing reckless exhibitionism. Back then, the working classes were blamed for unseemly narcissism. The rise of social networking has democratized people's access to public expression that they had previously been shut out of. Off-the-cuff, conversational and chaotic – the ways in which we can make ourselves heard by new online audiences also leaves a host of traces to personal identities in the form of selfies, daily accounts and moods. At a time when 26 million French people are on Facebook, rather than fall into the paternalism trap or see it as black or white (personal life as fully protected or on full display), we should understand why and how people are showing themselves online.
What are we revealing?
Researchers put together a Web 2.0 "shamelessness" classification using SocioGeek, a sociological survey on self-revelation of 15,000 French users done in 2008, which enabled them to ascertain five current ways people are making themselves visible: overmodest exposure, average exposure, physical indecency, humorous exhibitionism and tasteless provocation. They show that even when users reveal a lot of things about themselves to the point of looking immodest to the outside world, they generally do not do it unwittingly and impulsively. "The Web's plasticity increased how much we can play with mismatches, modulations or transformations of the self-image we put forth. Users are usually seeking 'self-augmentation' rather than a metamorphosis," explains sociologist Dominique Cardon in an article in Le Monde. To a large extent, the self we show on social media is more cheerful and cool than it is sad and gloomy. We show ourselves with other people more than alone, more often in attractive places, etc. Through the act of revealing themselves, users are trying to manufacture and have others recognize an appealing self-image. Forget about the famous New Yorker cartoon by Steiner from 1993 that was supposed to describe our online presence: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Today, the social media giants are asking online users to sign up as their real selves.
We are so eager to reveal ourselves online because it gives us advantages. "The ways we use it are governed by a strategic desire to manage social capital," writes Antonio Casilli in Contre l'hypothèse de la "fin de la vie privée" [Against the "End of Privacy" Theory]. Unveiling oneself is "differential" in that it is adjustable. We do not reveal ourselves the same way if we want to form bonds (usually "strong ties") with "our" tribe – what Casilli calls "bonding" – or if we are trying to create inroads with other people (more loose connections called "weak ties"). The research concludes that, "Users are inclined to use different levels of self-protection if a social circle is closer or more distant." Online users apply these different levels by choosing the information they want to dole out, who they want to give it to and they also play around with the privacy settings platforms provide. "Web 2.0 interfaces all provide a personal entryway, a report form that is the point from which all browsing begins. It records certain unchanging permanent characteristics about people, but also and, most importantly, identity traits that are much vaguer, more shifting and diverse that people have in terms of their tastes, friends, activities or things they have accomplished." These users still have to learn how to use these parameters correctly.
Self-revelation and a call for recognition
Tweaking your online exposure is one thing, but the prevailing reason for self-expression is a call for recognition that comes about through revealing your political leanings, cultural tastes, sexual orientation, etc. "The identifying traits revealed culminate in tracing outlines of a remarkable facet that is supposed to hold some sort of value, whereby we are looking for confirmation from other people and where the barrier to entry is to de-intimize or de-privatize," point out Fabien Granjon and Julie Denouël. Online expression and asking for recognition are closely intertwined. Serge Tisseron talks about "extimity" to define the "process by which fragments of one's inner self are offered up for others to see before they are validated."
In this way, revealing oneself online would not be a sign of obliterating private life or surrendering privacy, but rather a process for building a self that is dynamic, changing, diverse and under constant discussion. Far from passively relinquishing oneself, the person is forever building a digital self-portrait.