From Shelf to Self: Identity Construction in the Digital World
When we were thinking about ways to describe the focus of our consumer apps, we often found ourselves using the analogy of things tacked up on bedroom walls. Or record collections. Or the books on one’s shelf. All of these represent a physical manifestation of who we are, what we are, and how we want those closest to us to perceive us.
Using this framing, of the shelf as a proxy for the self, it’s an interesting coincidence that the words self and shelf are only one letter apart. Because to self-chronicle is to self-construct. The journey of identity construction is intertwined with our active collecting and chronicling of things and ideas. It isn’t that fixed self that we have to actualize or memorialize, it’s the changing and evolving one.
Life online can move so quickly it often feels like a blur. Swipe left, swipe right, swipe up, swipe down. Dings and pings for update notifications. The rabbit holes that algorithms send us down, some of which end up being too good for our own good. And the next thing we know, three hours have passed. In a lot of ways, today’s internet moves at such speed that it puts us in a kind of trance.
Is the ‘metaverse’, being heralded as the next manifestation of our connected lives, going to make things any better? What about the lean-back AI-generated future? One hint may lie in the ‘For You’-page, and the impending FYP-ification of our digital spaces. Everything is being personalized not just down to the level of the individual, but also to the moment at which the individual opens the page. Today’s online experience is dictated by momentum, instead of discrete moments.
What if we could slow things down, so that each digital moment doesn’t merely ‘autoplay’ into the next one? A place where things that truly resonate with us can be captured and serve as extensions of ourselves. Where our online actions are more intentional, more contemplative, and more deliberately non-swipey.
At koodos, we describe the places we building as a “sanctuaries”.
“One of the most necessary corrections to the character of mankind today is a considerable strengthening of the contemplative element in it.”
The people already using our apps come for a variety of reasons, including during a “koodos moment” — that recognition of “i love this”, that this thing I have encountered online really meant something to me, has reminded me of someone, has really resonated with me. If we wanted to get big-brainy about it, collecting lifts that moment to the level of consciousness. Of going from just one more nanosecond of life online to something of significance for us.
But simply collecting digital things, and moments, isn’t enough.
To produce is to real-ize
In French, the word for producer is ‘réalisateur’ — or the one who realizes. To produce is to realize. It’s the idea of making something ‘real’, of taking a jumble of ideas and turning them into something understandable and appealing. That’s what good producers do. They make things that don’t yet exist ‘real’. And this applies beyond the context of identity construction. If we think about the process of navigating ideas, we strengthen our understanding of the problem or get clarity on the idea by producing, by shipping, by putting something out there. The act of producing helps you realize the idea and take it from abstract to concrete.
On the advice of a dear mentor, I (Jad) recently took part in a Hoffman Institute weekend retreat and was taken aback by the centering on “Expression” in their process:
In a psychotherapeutic context, you might have heard the advice to sit with that feeling to get through it faster. This is similar. Expressing ourselves — whether that’s by speaking to others, journaling about it, embodying what we’re feeling physically — the act of “expressing”, and therefore “producing”, helps us realize.
On the internet today, consumption is considered the main way to establish one’s particular identity (i.e. we are what we consume) and production is usually ignored in the discourse around identity-forming, since whatever we do outside of work is considered “consumption”. But what happens if we reframe so that more of what we do is framed as “productive” — so that it isn’t just what we consume that shapes our identities, but rather what we produce?
And the more we realize, the more we become ourselves
The unity of one’s life consists in the coherence of the story one can tell about oneself.
— Simon Critchley
As life plays out, we’re constantly re-writing our one-page autobiography. And the story that we tell about ourselves might be different in different contexts, around different audiences or in different points in time.
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I — I hardly know, Sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I am not myself, you see.”
— Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 5, Advice from a Caterpillar
We’re constantly writing a rough draft of our autobiography. It’s perpetually reshaped by our experiences, but also bounded by where we’re at in our development. The more our story comes together, and the more at peace we are with our story, the more we know ourselves. And, in culture today, we’re in the metamodern phase of rebellion against a fixed state of self — moving beyond the postmodernist view of “performing” as whoever we want to be at any given point in time.
Delineation of the self as part of our story
As we chronicle our lives online, we are forced to distinguish between our role as reader and our role as protagonist. And in that process, we separate the self from the things that influence the self in the story we tell ourselves, and the story we in turn tell the world about ourselves.
We rarely record such a realization of ourselves. Instead we capture bits of our selves, operating in particular moments. But it is this deliberate self-chronicling that becomes self-constructive.
So rather than view our identities as a “nucleus” and our quest to center who we are in one place — to create one single central story, or one ‘profile’ of ourselves — our identity might be better conceived as “distributed”. Distributed across media that’s shaped us. We are a constellation of the things and experiences that define us. Or to use Walt Whitman’s phrase, “we contain multitudes”.
The reluctance of most user-generated content platforms to come to terms with their status as not just a social network but also a personal resource is rooted in this tension. Therefore, any effort to understand the nature and origins of the self is an interpretive effort largely done elsewhere, in parallel perhaps to our life online.
Our understanding of who we are is best served if we view it through a constructivist lens. That way we can see ourselves as the product of the situations in which we operate, the sum of things in which we participate, and put our gaze upon what is hopefully a vast collection of encounters and experiences.
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