The Origin of the Social Self

Personalizing our interests on Facebook, fleshing out our Twitter profiles, and picking and choosing the locations which we share with our friends on Foursquare: these are all ways in which we use social media and networking to create an identity of ourselves for the rest of the world to see. Anthropologist Herbert Spencer argues that naturally, we are beings that have “interrelated parts that operate interdependently”. With the increasing use of these different networking systems, this has forced us to segment ourselves into different and narrow identities—i.e. we reveal our businesslike personality on Linkedin, our popularity on Facebook, and with every new social site which requires us to form an identity, we create a new one which molds with the social circle that fits it.

Our relationships between social circles differ and so do the ways that we present ourselves not only to the different groups, but how we act toward them in general (and how we act toward the people who are not in any of our social media groups). The way Spencer makes his point, he seems to say that while we naturally have “parts that operate interdependently”, it is only through the recent boom in social media use that it is triggered and becomes obvious.

Then I found a scientific article from the Oxford Journals that studied the origins of social awareness. They discovered that the monkeys they were studying already had the ability to distinguish what they call the “social self”, or as they define it:

“[A]wareness of oneself as a distinct individual, embedded in a group or society that includes many other distinct individuals. We define our social selves by reference to others; there cannot be an “I” without a “you” or a “they” for comparison…monkeys appear to view their social groups not just in terms of the individuals that comprise them but also in terms of a web of social relationships in which certain individuals are linked with particular others. Their behavior is influenced not only by their own interactions with others but also by their observation of interactions in which they are not themselves involved. As a result, they recognize not only their own relative ranks and kinship relations but also the relative ranks and kinship relations of others. Perhaps more important, monkeys seem able to integrate information about their own social relations with information about the social relations that exist among others, and through such computations place themselves at the appropriate position in a network of social relationships.  (emphasis mine)

So the idea of creating an identity (or at least realizing the concept of individual identity) is not new to our line of ancestry. Personal identity is a natural instinct that originated as our way of establishing our place in the hierarchy of animals. But what is the origin of the several different identities Spencer argues that we create?  This was answered through an article which explains the origins of the “us vs. them” mentality and our need to segregate ourselves among different groups. So the fact that I alter my Facebook statuses so they are applicable to my college, high school, and family friends as opposed to my tweets which are exclusively for those that I know in college can be explained by the evolution of our interactions between “ingroup” and “outgroup” relationships. If we don’t follow each other on Twitter then you are in my twitter outgroup and I may interact with you differently, but if you are my friend on Facebook, then you can at least be in that ingroup.

I think the most important idea to retain from the combination of these two articles is that the concept of “identity” extends far beyond just the fact that it is in our nature to create a unique persona, but rather how we alter this persona based on our environment and how it helps us climb the ladder of social media hierarchy.


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