By Michell Tham
As the world is propelled into the digital media age, there is a collective dependence on social media to nurture convenient communication. Fast-paced growth results in deregulated supervision, leaving many in the gray area, wondering if their rights of unrestricted self-expression will be honored. Despite the fear and rare exceptions of conflict, social media, for the most part, cultivates self-expression by allowing access to the global community, ensuring anonymity, and providing platforms for sharing.
With the rising trend of digitalization and increasing traffic on the Internet, human need for socialization and interaction is no longer satisfied solely by physical factors but more so by cyberspace instead. In Essentials of Sociology, George Ritzer informs that socialization and interaction are basic human needs that facilitate one’s development and integration into society (84-85). Without satisfaction of these essentials, one may not be as creative or advanced, such is the case with feral children. Deprived of communication with the outside world during their critical window of development, feral children do not learn basic motor skills and often develop disabilities that hinder them further in life (Ritzer 78). Social media provides an outlet of contact that expands the set of principles and values one already holds and influences the creation of new ideas and concepts. As stated in “Free Speech, Self Expression, and Socializing,” “revealing our personal information establishes camaraderie, enables supportive communities to flourish, and educates us about other people’s lives.” The exponential growth of users on social media platforms (see fig. 1) assists in the formation of more connections and combination of connections among old and new users. This presents each user with a multitude of opportunities to interact. In that sense, social media can modify and enhance creativity and imagination, which comes to reflect the way we present ourselves in reality and in the digital world.
The widespread use and reliance on the Internet will no doubt only keep increasing, with “seven-in-ten Americans [using] social media” (“Social Media Fact Sheet”). This epidemic is accompanied with the frequent of the question “Is there wifi?” because the need to update friends about what one is having for lunch or to notify the world of what one is doing has become the main concern for most people, especially adolescents. As Tsilimparis notes, “It’s an opportunity for us to showcase ourselves to the world with little or no repercussions.” He says this taking into account the inevitability of connections being on the web allows for. People from all over the world are connected to the same web, utilizing the same social media platforms, sharing the same videos that eventually circulate into most countries. Social media grants a channel for such connections to occur and thus, users are performing on a global stage in front of an array of audience members hailing from all over the world. Because media is, for the most part, uncensored, especially in the United States, maximum opportunity of self-expression is granted.
There is a certain authenticity that Internet interactions cannot reciprocate as well as face-to-face interactions. The main factor at fault is anonymity. Through social media and its lack of thorough validations, anyone can take on a character different from their true selves. “Some individuals, particularly those high in social anxiety, feel able to express hidden self-aspects (characteristics currently part of the self, but not normally expressed in everyday life) on the Internet” (Seidman 402). Because of the anonymity that can be achieved on the Internet, people feel more secure in revealing personal information to seemingly trustworthy strangers, knowing that no one knows who they are. As established previously, sharing personal information fosters community growth and camaraderie as well as expand the scope of expressionism on social media (“Free Speech, Self Expression, and Socializing”).
On the other hand, it could be said that the anonymity can also hinder self-expression. The dissociation that comes with sitting behind a computer screen can distinguish one’s true self from the self they choose to present on the Internet. This can make it seem as if the person is restricted from fully exposing their true selves. Based on Qiu’s findings, “studies have shown that individuals are likely to be concerned about their online self-image and manipulate their self-representation to create socially desirable self-image” (444). The artificial profile created signifies superciality from trying to keep up with impression management, “people’s use of a variety of techniques to control the images of themselves that they want to project” (Ritzer 76).
Furthermore, the second self-presented on social media is merely a performance on the “front stage” (Ritzer 83). Because of public judgment and the need to maintain status and reputation, people will be careful of what they say and post because it reflects who they are. Since there is a distance and barrier during interaction over the Internet, people can view a user’s profile based on their own interpretations and reasoning, whether the criticism may be good or bad; the user cannot justify their behaviors conveniently and therefore, it is easier to be cautious of what is conveyed to avoid the ambiguity leading to misinterpretations. This can be seen as a restriction on self-expression.
However, the anonymity established on social media can excavate a person’s true self. According to Seidman, “Facebook activities that accomplish self-presentational goals include posting photographs, profile information, and wall content… Nonetheless, profiles generally represent accurate self-presentation” (402). To maintain their reputation, people will often polish the way they present themselves. With regards to employment, people, especially those looking to get hired, want to give off a desirable first impression to their employers who may check social media accounts for supplemental evaluation. Although there may be a superficial side to it, the effort in doing whatever it takes to clean up their profile showcases certain personality traits, such as determination and interest. In a way, self-expression is taking place without the person’s acknowledgment of it and what they are actually expressing.
As the Internet is continuing to expand, the introduction of many new platforms allows for different mediums of expression. One such platform is YouTube, which allows users to create and upload video content. The founder of MySpace, Richard Rosenblatt, shares that “[u]sers want to be passionate about what their interests are. The habit of sharing them has become a cultural phenomenon. Online Communities like YouTube, MySpace and me.TV are all about embracing self-expression” (Goldstein). From pulling clips from favorite television shows to creating their own original content, people are showcasing their interests and passions. These aspects of leisure contribute to the makeup of one’s personality and self. By sharing their creations on YouTube, people are in turn sharing a part of themselves with people who are watching.
Another platform is Facebook. As mentioned by Seidman above, Facebook profiles can reflect a person’s personality. One way to look at how this social media platform cultivates self-expression is by looking at frequency, the frequency of posting. If a person posts frequently, this can be attributed to having an extroverted personality; this person can be seen as very open and sociable because they are not afraid to share what they are partaking in. One the negative side of this spectrum, this can also be regarded as “showing off” and gloating, even if that is not the intention. The person may be unconsciously exposing symbolic notions through the background of their pictures, such as revealing wealth by depicting themselves in name-brand clothing and accessories. Qiu emphasizes this idea by explaining that “glimpses of people’s personality can be revealed through their selfies from the environment, facial expressions, posture, and belongings” (443). Context can indirectly play a role in self-expression, serving as a nonverbal, subliminal way of expression.
Another way to analyze how Facebook, or social media platforms in general, encourages self-expression is by looking at the content of posts. Depending on how detailed or vague a text post may be and what it says exactly can reflect a person’s personality. Most of the time, sites do not have a character count that can restrict and condense a user’s intention to share all they need and want to share. Similar to frequency, if a person shares more in a text post, they are expressing the content of the post along with qualities of extraversion or narcissism (Qiu 444). Posting what is considered to be “too many” selfies in proportion to other posts can show vanity. In contrast, being too vague or indirect can indicate secrecy, caution, or introversion.
Besides frequency and content, posts can also be examined by the motive of its author. Many people nowadays post simply to satisfy the pleasure principle. According to Tsilimparis, the likes and compliments people get after a selfie or a post justify the purpose of posting it in the first place and serve as an ego booster. This can indirectly reflect one’s shallowness because social media’s main purpose is to provide a venue to share and connect and not to serve as a means of boasting or pity.
No matter what is posted on the Internet, it can come to reflect one’s personality and self-image and remains permanently embedded in the network. The growth of the web is met with the rising population of users on various social media platforms. In addition to the numerous opportunities it has created, social media has cultivated self-expression by connecting the global community, ensuring anonymity, and providing outlets for sharing and interaction. The extent to which one chooses to utilize these digital resources and to share with the world is the only predictor of the extent of the freedom of self-expression.