Are we constructing social media, or is it constructing us?

By: Alana Valko

We share everything with each other, sometimes telling more to our digital acquaintances than to our mother. Not surprisingly, the line between personal and public image is becoming increasingly blurred. At the same time, posting comes with strategic goals in mind to audit our image. That begs the question -- are we truly ourselves on social media if we are constantly monitoring what we post?

During the Art of Storytelling lecture at this year’s Michigan Fashion Media Summit, former “DKNY PR Girl” Aliza Licht discussed her ascent into social media marketing with Donna Karan in 2009, tackling a brand’s entrance into our now social-driven world.

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Starting out, thinking about how to do social for a brand in 2009 came with much uncertainty. Priorly utilizing finely monitored press releases, brands now had to cross the line into a whole separate entity of commentary. And yet, it didn’t help that social sites were unknown territory at the time. Premised on the idea that people are utilizing it to build and maintain social connections, social networking sites operate as tools for fostering relationships, not necessarily news. For a brand in 2009, thinking about how to operate as another shared connection fostered a playground of possibilities.

Today social sites are a key tool, if not the most important tool, that brands use to reach new audiences and form their reputation. Influenced by the anonymous personality of Gossip Girl, DKNY PR Girl was an online “fashion-friend,” as Licht puts it, humanizing the brand so that consumers received access into, at the time, a tightly-kept fashion industry. Rather than pumping out marketing campaigns and press, DKNY PR Girl engaged with audiences personally, providing consumers and extended audiences with sassy, quick insights into her daily life running around New York City for Donna Karan.

The idea of ‘humanizing’ on social media is an odd phenomenon. While most efforts to become more people-centric on social center around colloquial dialogue and relatable commentary, this sentiment still functions as a conscious, monitored effort.

What’s nice is that, because we’re so tech-savvy, social media allows us to continually craft and develop our identity. It’s one area on the web that is a piece of our own, which we can use to assemble a personal narrative.

Yet, social media increasingly serves as a self check-up -- a place we go to when we want to feel better about ourselves. When having a bad day, we turn to social to tell the world of our struggles, or maybe for an unconscious effort of instant gratification. Online interactions provide opportunities to strategically streamline and check-up our presentation, perhaps manipulating a desired identity that is not truly ours.

But what is our identity? Fetching a definition from Psychology Today, identity centers around the question “Who are you?”, relating to the values that we carry which determine the sort of decisions we make. However, much of our identity is not chosen by ourselves, but rather is a construction set by parents or dominant cultures.

In this way -- is social media a tool constructing our identities, or a place in which we can construct it for ourselves? A mixture of both, I’d say. When Aliza Licht created DKNY PR Girl in 2009, she crafted a figure for the brand that was authentic, engaging, and, through her charismatic voice, a relief to see from a company. Still, she constructed it as part of the DKNY brand, to uphold brand values, and in a way, establish what those core values for the brand were. Running around with a branded Twitter handle was not to be taken lightly.

Now, a company’s social accounts are obviously quite different from our personal accounts, but the way in which we construct ourselves on the web still aligns with our own personal agenda. In the age of influencers and Youtubers alike, personal and public fuses as one, where the nitty-gritty details of someone’s life becomes more attractive to view than surface-level appearances. Licht kept this in mind for DKNY, pouring out a daily public diary as a guru in an industry known for being untouchable, even fantastical. Influencers in today’s game of social adopt similar strategies -- but at what cost?

Efforts to become more humanistic often come with an underlying attempt to  become more desirable, too. As we become more approachable on social, becoming ‘influencers’ to our own lifestyles --  highlighting Instagram stories of our meals, tweeting out our daily strifes -- we’ve also adopted better strategies to make our desire for attention less noticeable. Sharing everything with each other, it’s easy to be blind-sided by efforts of manipulation.

Controlling the information we post enables us to foster and perform particular qualities about ourselves we might find most salient to our identity. At the same time though, posting becomes a negotiation of between what we are and what we want to be. If we only see photos in our timeline about our circle’s spring breaks in the tropics, it’s easy to believe that this is normal, and not a function of social media’s ability to strategically manage our impressions and expectations. No -- not everyone has the money, time and status to vacation like a celebrity, but tropes we construct and follow on Instagram sure make it feel such a way.

Perhaps then social media is not just a passive platform in which we have full autonomy to decide who we are. What’s on social media acts as an active negotiator in our consultations with our identities. It up to us to decide if its benefits outweigh the costs, but even a quick release from social seems to make us uncomfortable with what we miss out on.

Alana ValkoComment