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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

The algorithms of self-concept

Updated: May 20, 2022

In 2012, Facebook went public and acquired Instagram, the new kid on the block I was trying really hard to impress.

I was 15 at the time, a timid high schooler in Malaysia — the country with the world record that year for the highest average number of Facebook friends per user. I heard about that on the 6 a.m. radio show on my way to school.

It was the year Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye played every 30 minutes.

It was the year I first got a boyfriend, when I first started taking selfies, when too much money went to buying Polaroid films before parties, and when all my posts were pictures of Polaroid pictures.

I remember 2012 so clearly because it was an inflection point in the way I perceived myself. It felt like the best year of my life, but also the worst.

I felt beautiful but ugly, confident but insecure, loud but shy, and intelligent but boring. I got my first taste of living life through a screen, where worth could be clearly defined in numbers and falsehoods were easy to hide.

In this curated little bubble, I was more seen than I ever had been before. But I developed the skill of treading with caution — I developed it so well that for a very long time, I lost touch with the girl that did things for herself. With every post, every like, and every reply, I built a new understanding of where I stood in this world.

But now I stand before a new inflection point.

Ten years later I’m dismantling every conclusion I’ve made about myself through the lenses of the platforms I use. I’m choosing to unlearn all the calculated habits born out of a desire to control the narrative others have of me.

Social media is the most universal language we know, and it’s not going anywhere. But our understanding of its place in our identities remains extremely shallow. If this continues, worth and hierarchy will continue to fester in deeper, darker ways, dragging fragile souls like my own down a behemoth of bad habits, ugly truths, damaging falsehoods, and scorned hatred.

To find a way out is to redefine what an online world means. It calls on us to hold our character up to the light, to examine how it splits between the spaces we’re most present in — the world beneath our feet and the world beneath our fingertips.

Bred by nostalgia, fed by rebellion, and spurred on by the irrational fear of losing time, there’s an evolution bubbling, one that challenges the status quo of how we’re living on the internet.

This evolution isn’t loud. It’s a choice to be a little more silent.

Which social media did you thrive on?

Instagram founder, Kevin Systrom, told The Guardian in 2015 that the company was founded to capture “what was going on in your life, as it happened.” But describing our profiles as digital diaries of “life as it happened” sounds naive now.

Or maybe it’s a joke — I suppose life can be metaphorically likened to a game of prime advertising for the highest bidder and algorithm wins over substance.

The platforms we use have changed a lot. They’re flashier and noisier, each slowly morphing into the other. Instagram becomes Snapchat and Tik Tok, YouTube becomes TikTok, and Tiktok becomes YouTube and Snapchat.

But the biggest change of all has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with silent choices, our decisions to take a step back, to worry less about our feeds, and to capture the colors of life that captivate us the most, even if they stray from the standards we’ve been so conditioned to having.

Social media is changing because our understanding of self-concept through social media is changing too.

Psychologist Carl Rogers believes that self-concept is formed through our interactions with others. We live our lives riddled by the anxiety of a self we often don’t see through our own eyes, largely depending on the expressions reflected back at us.

When I imagine self-concept, I think of a large unflattering piece of patchworked fabric. In hopes of a semblance of identity, we blindly piece fragmented moments together and assume that the pieces fit.

But online, it’s easy to feel as though the blindfolds are finally off. There’s an uncomfortable relief in perceiving value and sentiment in terms of numbers and reactions. In other words, I’d call social media the breeding ground of self-concept.

Self-concept is a collection of beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others. It embodies the answer to the question: "Who am I?" (Source: Verywell Mind)

Rogers believes that self-concept is made of three different parts: self-image, ideal self, and self-esteem.

Personally, my relationship with social media has been a phased journey searching for each of these components. I came to the realization that the platforms I use moved in the same way, mirroring the rat race we were all on. The race for something exciting, new, and limitless.

That’s how businesses work after all.

Early 2010s: The early days of self-image

Self-image is the person we think we are at a certain point in time. The modest beginnings of social media were the only time Systrom’s idea of “life as it happened” fit the part. We were excited to show people who we were because we never had the chance to do it so unapologetically.

When I first got Facebook and Instagram, everybody I knew posted a lot. We updated our statuses every hour and took pictures of everything, writing on each other’s Facebook walls way too much because it was fun and new. We didn’t know how to talk about ourselves the right way, and we didn’t know how to address an audience so big. Scrappy and chaotic, we were brave enough to make bad choices because a bad choice was the best choice we had.

Post-2014: The chase for the ideal-self

The demise of our self-image happened when those early choices became mistakes, or worse yet, when they fell into a pit of complete silence. This phase of social media was all about the self-image wanting something more, something else.

We knew what to expect because the bars had been set — there were those who made it and those who didn’t, the speakers and the listeners, the light and the moths.

The declaration of the self-image became a chase for the ideal self, and we ourselves in a transactional exchange of adoration and attention with those who drew influence with numbers. The technology that drove our platforms matured, building a space that fed the ‘ideal,’ an illusion to fill the hollow cavity between the person you think you are and the person you want to be.

The 2020s: The rebellion for self-esteem

This is the social media we’re on today, a melting point of self-images and ideal selves, coexisting in a digital terrarium of hierarchy and conflict. We’ve mastered self-optimization, and we’re Jedi-level growth hackers — until one day, we lost all the patterns we knew how to work with.

In 2020, we finally faced a question I didn’t think I’d face this soon.

What would social media look like if the world stopped?

Would we lose a portion of our self-image? Would we give up on the chase for the ideal self?

Confined within smaller spaces, stuck in the same routine, social media took on a new shape in my life. I had less to prove, bigger things to care about, and not enough time to lose to the fear of being perfect online.

I wanted inspiration, not validation. I wanted to explore new ideas and learn from stories and people I resonate with and believe in. I wanted to do it on my own time, at my own pace, and in my own space.

Over the past two years, my social media feeds have taken on a new color of creativity, passion, and honesty. From where I stand, it looks like everybody is after the same thing. Society has changed, and our expectations of the media have changed with it. The search for self-esteem is a phase we need to perfect, and it starts with understanding the systems of change that have shaped our online habits over the past ten years.

Healthy and unhealthy change

Until recently, I’ve noticed that my relationship with social media was largely motivated by a darker relationship with change. Khe Hy describes this perfectly in his essay on habit formation. In an attempt to curb his love for skinny margaritas, he dissects James Clear’s four stages of habits — cue, craving, response, and reward.

Hy likens the craving for a drink to craving social media. In both scenarios, some form of desire is unmet, causing us to act on the difference between the way we feel right now and the way we wish we felt. “We turn to our bad habits because we want to feel differently,” Hy summarizes.

Ironically, ‘bad habit” was a common description of social media.

It did feed a craving. The gap between my self-image and my ideal self was amplified by a desire to be perceived as someone different. To be someone different.

As I sat idly at a crossroads, restless in my inability for self-love, I latched onto social media, searching for ways to change into someone that I recognized less and less.

So, what is ‘healthy’ change?

I believe healthy change is driven by fulfilling a sense of purpose, not a gap between states of mind.

Healthy change is born out of spaces that feed our curiosity with autonomy and empowerment. The quieter corners of the internet are often overlooked by the prevalence of cancel culture and tribalism, but they’re present and they’re growing louder.

Discussions around mental health and wellbeing are more prevalent, a shared appreciation for literature has been revitalized, photo dumps are shifting the tides on our definition of ‘picture perfect,’ and creativity has never been more rewarded. These are only a few of the new standards changing the dynamic of how we consume and participate in the social media economy.

Healthy change can also be seen in the rise of Substack over the past two years. Nathan Baschez writes that Substack “was about creating a morally superior playing field that could help heal our minds from the damage done by social networks.” In this new system of media, Substack’s founders were adamant to move away from a model run by advertising and engagement algorithms — both designed to appeal to spur-of-the-moment cravings for more. Here, writers and readers have the ability to build deeper relationships, born out of choice rather than a calculated face-value suggestion.

Once the old rules are gone, a new world of possibility opens up. (Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie, A better future for news)

What comes next?

I don’t think the answer to better online communities lies in any web3 or metaverse mission statement. In fact, I don’t think the biggest takeaway from the past ten years of social media should be about platforms at all.

Everything starts with people. How we treat ourselves in this space. How we treat others. How aware we are that everything we do has consequences that bleed into things bigger than what’s on a screen.

Can we mend the broken bridges between the person in the mirror and the person we become when we’re online? Do they support each other? Do they bring out the best in each other?

In an ideal world, the intersection of our physical and digital worlds should strengthen our grasp on reality. It’s a powerful combination of knowledge, reach, awareness, and communication. But this power rests on fragile soil that needs to be watered, nourished, and loved.

Our self-concept needs a check-in every now and then. We need to rest, reset, and remember why we act the way we do. The failure to do so feeds our demons and surrounds us with things that make us angrier.

I’ll end this post with a few ways you can do that right now. Pick up your phone and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Pull out your most used social media platform today and take a look at your posts. Point out two in particular: one when you were happy, and one when you weren’t feeling your best.

  2. In both situations, what was your motivation for hitting the ‘post’ button? What did you want to change?

  3. What impression did you want to leave on the people who followed you?

  4. Forget all those people completely. What did you want to do for yourself?

  5. Think about your self-concept right now — who you see yourself to be, who you want to be, and what drives your self-esteem. Would you change anything about these posts to make them seem more authentic to you?

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