My “Social Self:” Present, Ill, Immortal


Evan Perry, the boy who teetered on the roof ledge of bipolar disorder for most of his short 15 years, was recalled as creative and artistic by family and friends in the documentary, Boy, Interrupted (2009).  He was a young musician and playwright with depth and complexity. Acclaimed, adored, yet misunderstood by the people in his life, Evan Perry inevitably developed a confused impression of himself that he could not be at peace with so long as he was alive.

Philosopher and psychologist William James (1890) defined the “social self” as “the recognition which [a man] gets from his mates,” so that “properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind.”  Boy, Interrupted documents the “social self” of Evan Perry.  In it, each significant person in Evan’s life gave testimony of who they knew him to be in attempt to piece together the mystery of who he really was.  Had Evan known this much more positive “social self,” would he have been as confused about who he felt himself to be?  Would he have resorted to means of desperation to end the confusion?

We can assume there was dissonance between Evan Perry’s sense of self and his “social self.”  Today, we have quite the extraordinary fix to such dissonance: Facebook.

Despite whoever I think I am, I want you to think I am who I want to be.  This is an echo of Erving Goffman’s concept of self-presentation, which held that people will try to control the impressions other people form of them (Goffman, 1959). You will never know who I am unless I express myself to you.  Depending on how and what I express, your impression of me will form and contribute to my “social self.”  I desire a positive “social self,” and I want to see evidence of it to feed into my own,  vulnerable sense of identity.

Where “What’s on your mind?” translates into “Who are you?”, Facebook is an identity-creator’s Minecraft.  Desire for the “real” is what philosopher Stanley Cavell (1979) said is the reason for desire of self-expression, but on Facebook, my self-expression does not have to be real at all.  I can choose to limit or omit what I share online, being as specific to crop an askew piece of hair out of a picture.  I can even share falsified information, such as expression of emotions that aren’t even there– a smiling emoji typed on a horrible day, or a #blessed tagged during a self-esteem low.

Shared items on Facebook are the airbrush-strokes to my self-portrait.  You behold my masterpiece, and share what you think of it as easily as I share “who I am.”  It is in this give of character and take of feedback that Facebook gives us our connection between personal sense of self and the “social self.”  Author and reader blend into one and creator and viewer fuse together in the process of finishing a single identity.  On Facebook, I share who I want you to think I am, you acknowledge it, acclaim it, and verify the new identity with the hypermediate click of the mouse.  And at the birth of it all is me, with you in mind, choosing what parts of my self to actualize in the first place.

Facebook is our means of announcing our presence to the world, achieving a “present-ness” unlike being at one with what is around us, but where the world comes to know us instead.  Evan Perry may or may not have known himself, but he knew his presence was felt by all that knew him.  How accurately he was interpreted by his loved ones was something he never manipulated through Facebook, and something he never received mediated feedback for.  Instead, we come closest to knowing Evan Perry in a way that is hauntingly similar to the flood of testimonials Facebook users post to a dead friend’s wall: immortal commemoration expressing not who I am to you, but who you were to me.

Cavell, Stanley.  1979.  The World Viewed: Relfections on the Ontology of the Cinema. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Doubleday Anchor Books.

James, William.  1950.  The Principles of Psychology. 1890. Reprint ed., New York: Dover.




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