Social Media and Self-Representation: a Selective, Self-Imposed Surveillance

As of late, I have been intensely interested in how people of my general age bracket (25-35) represent themselves online, and why they represent themselves in the ways that they do.  Unfortunately, this post will probably raise more questions than answers, but I hope to begin a dialogue that will enrich our awareness of how social media, self-knowledge, and self-representation intersect. 

At work, my colleagues and I have regular conversations and debates about the usage of Facebook and other social media.  What purpose does it serve?  How do people use it and misuse it?  How much is too much?  My part in the great Facebook debate always turns to how annoying all the blatant self-promotion is that some folks enjoy on one hand, or public self-flagellation on the other.  I am sure, however, that if you went through past status updates you would find that I am guilty of this from time to time as well, almost without awareness. 

Never before have we had such a platform to express ourselves, nor such flexibility in how we do this.  Have a song that describes your day?  Post it.  Adopted a new dog?  Show her off.  Annoyed at a coworker?  Go ahead and vent!   My interest is not solely that Facebook and other social media users are under surveillance, as most of it is self-selected surveillance.  It is what the user does with this knowledge – does he use Places to show that he went to the expensive Japanese restaurant with three of his coolest friends?  Does she post sad song lyrics after she and her partner split?  And most importantly, why are people motivated to do such things? 

In my research, I stumbled upon a fantastic article titled “Friend Me If You Facebook: Generation Y and Performative Surveillance” by E. J. Westlake.  As Westlake writes, the then-new and even more public News Feed feature “certainly made me more conscious of the way I behaved on Facebook—the way I performed” (22).  In fact, when I began to look up my search terms “Facebook,” or “social media,” and “self-knowledge,” the majority of the articles that came back to me delved into the notion of surveillance.  It is as if all social media users are saying, I agree to exhibit myself, but we are choosing what version of my “self” that is shown.  In other words, we are creating our own characters.  How many memoirs have been criticized for manipulating the truth? Well, social media, particularly those with an autobiographical flair, like memoir, is a version of one’s own truth, and not journalistic fact.  Westlake continues, “[Users’ performances] are energetic engagements with the panoptic gaze: as people offer themselves up for surveillance, they establish and reinforce social norms, but also resist being fixed as rigid, unchanging subjects.”  And to my point about self-promotion or self-flagellation, Westlake quotes a critical journalist: “Quoting Thoreau’s famous line that most live lives of ‘quiet desperation,’ [Boomer journalist Robert J.] Samuelson groans, ‘Thanks to technology, that’s no longer necessary.  People can now lead lives of noisy and ostentatious desperation.’”       

I would be very interested in what the UK community thinks about social media, self-knowledge, exhibitionism, and other related topics. 


Westlake, E.J. "Friend Me If You Facebook: Generation Y and Performative Surveillance." Drama Review.

     52.4 (2008): 21-40.  

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