by Angelos Stratis
During my internship at the Expatriate Archive Centre, I mainly focused on examining stories of persons living and working away from their country of origin. These stories were primarily documented in forms such as handwritten diaries, photos, scrapbooks or letters. However, nowadays, the ways we document our lives have dematerialised. According to Russell Belk, a consumer psychologist at Canada’s York University, “our information, communications, photos, videos, music, calculations, messages, written words, and data are now largely invisible and immaterial, until we choose to call them forth. They are composed of electronic streams of ones and zeroes that may be stored locally or in some hard-to-imagine cloud” (Belk, 2016). Still, even in the dematerialized form, these ways of documentation are just as important as their material predecessors -they provide a platform to communicate our experiences and identity. As the internet is gaining more and more prominence in our lives, and the material ways of self-documentation are being replaced by their digital counterparts, the issue of how future archivists will look back at our time through the material we provide online becomes urgent. The concern behind this transition mainly lies in whether the ways we chose to document our lives and portray ourselves online correspond to our actual experiences.
Whereas older forms of documentation, such as of diary-keeping or personal scrapbooks, were more geared towards individual use, documentation of our lives online through social media, such as Instagram or Twitter, is much more socially oriented. As a result, factors like social comparison and reputation building, have been found to interfere with the content and version of our self we chose to upload or not upload online (Thomas et al., 2017). These socially geared functions have been found to often result in a highly curated version of the self that people chose to portray on social media (Hogan, 2010). The rigorous curation of the online self even became an issue for the founders of Instagram, with co-founder Kevin Systrom admitting that he would not post to his own profile unless the moment fit with certain social criteria or was deemed special enough. Systrom went on to explain that this was the main cause behind the inception of Instagram Stories: users’ profiles were becoming so curated that they wouldn’t upload unless the content was considered a “highlight” or was in line with their “personal brand”.
Examples of the curated online self and how it can be manipulated to portray a desired image have been demonstrated by online artist Amalia Ulman, who completely transformed her online persona as part of an art project. On April 19, 2014, Ulman posted a photo to her Instagram account along with a caption reading: “Excellences and Perfections”. After that post, and over the next five months, Ulman completely transformed from a modest art-school graduate to unapologetically vein and materialistic. Her persona was curated to mimic popular tropes of online self-representation like the Tumblr sad girl, the wannabe it girl trying to make it in LA or the wellbeing guru. Moving from one trope to another, not only the aesthetics, but also the personalities of her online personas radically differed from one another, as well as from her former posts of her “real” self. While her first persona was a young girl obsessed with stuffed animals and Japanese kawaii culture, her next persona adopted a much more sexualized attitude, seemingly undergoing a breast augmentation surgery and becoming a sugar baby. After the sugar baby persona, Ulman’s online character found redemption in getting married, having a child, and becoming a wellbeing guru. After the five months, Amalia’s Instagram account abruptly went back to normal, leaving her 85.000 followers speechless. Ulman went on to showcase “Excellences and Imperfections” as a performance art piece in various art galleries and was even featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30, with critics heralding the piece as the “first Instagram masterpiece”. Her online performance shone a light on social media’s ability to dupe, and on how seemingly authentic experiences documented online can be a product of rigorous curation. She also revealed that her intention was to explore the performative side of online identity and showcase how creating simplified characters based on tropes and stereotypes can become a successful reputation-building strategy on social media (given the massive number of followers she amassed while posing as these tropes).
On 2016, another Instagram account by the name of @lilmiquela emerged. What is special about Lil Miquela is the ambiguity of whether she is a real person or a virtual simulation. Scrolling through Lil Miquela’s account, one can see her posing with “real people” or other known social media influencers in real life locations. This visual strategy roots a 3D persona, who would otherwise feel like a video game character, into reality and, surprisingly, creates heated arguments in the comments section on whether she is real or not. “Yes, she’s real, she’s a student in visual arts and such so she works on her pictures she takes of herself”, comments one gushing fan. The Lil Miquela phenomenon has posed interesting questions about what makes a persona “real” online, and where the limits between our online personas and “real-life” selves lie. For instance, how much morereal is a living, breathing social media influencer than Lil Miquela? It is often said that not even supermodels look like supermodels, and this can apply to social media stars or other forms of celebrity; with the right lighting, photoshopping and a high enough camera angle, anybody could make themselves appear like a different person online. Apart from that, Miquela’s account could be read as a caricature—an over-exaggerated version of how people curate themselves online.
Both these examples demonstrate how one can potentially create an entirely fictional identity on social media. And even if the curated self could per se offer important information about a specific cultural context, exploring the links between the curated self and the real-life person behind it could add new depths of analysis or even result in entirely new readings. Given that traditional ways of documenting one’s life have been digitised and mainly occur not only online but also before an audience, future historians will probably be tasked with disentangling avatars from the “real” people behind them or with redefining what counts as “real” archival data altogether.
Belk, R. (2016). Extended self and the digital world. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 50-54.
Hogan, B. (2010). The presentation of self in the age of social media: Distinguishing performances and exhibitions online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(6), 377-386.
Thomas, L., Briggs, P., Hart, A., & Kerrigan, F. (2017). Understanding social media and identity work in young people transitioning to university. Computers in Human Behavior, 76, 541-553.
Angelos Stratis interned at the Expatriate Archive Centre in early 2018. He is pursuing a BA in European Civilization at Hellenic Open University.
photo credit: Gerardo Obieta