In the podcast you can find in the SoundCloud file above, I discuss the question:
Has contemporary digital-media culture fundamentally transformed the ways in which people construct their identities?
Have a listen and let me know what you think by entering a comment in SoundCloud, or at the end of this post. Below is the transcript, references, and music credits.
I’m tempted to say that the answer depends on the age group of the people in question.
Fleur Gabriel, in her 2014 article, Sexting, Selfies and Self-Harm, refers to the ubiquity of digital media in young people’s lives, and says the following (p. 105):
Social media demand that young people actively and deliberately think about and negotiate their own visibility – the image they project, the identity they want to have.
The kind of exposure social media gives used to be reserved for celebrities, but now, even young children are having to negotiate the complexity of a life lived under the scrutiny of strangers.
But is this a fundamental transformation in how people construct their identities, or is digital media just a new tool that people are using, perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the autograph book, which in my day, girls used to carry around and have their friends and classmates write in? A well-filled autograph book was a token of one’s popularity, much like having a large group of friends and followers on social media is today.
Victor Jeleniewski Seidler, in his 2010 book, Embodying Identities, argues that complex historical, cultural and social forces have a powerful influence on our identities, before we’re even self-aware enough to question them.
He gives the Catholic versus Protestant example, but we could also look at factors such as city versus country; rich versus poor; large family versus small family; how much education our parents had; and that’s without even mentioning race, gender, disability, disadvantage – so many factors that are beyond our control, but which have a huge impact on who we become.
We’re all subject to this unconscious conditioning, and we build on that inherited identity throughout our lives – not just in our youth – by making choices that further define our identities. People have always done this, and digital-media culture is a relative new-comer in that long list of forces that shape our identities. It doesn’t negate or minimise any of those formative forces, so I don’t think digital-media culture has fundamentally transformed the ways in which people construct their identities, but I do think it’s having effects in some areas.
Take employment, for example.
In a 2015 survey of 300 Canadian employers (Harris 2015), 63% said they look up candidates online, usually using social media sites, before deciding whether or not to hire them.
What are they looking for?
They’re looking to see how creative and articulate candidates are, and whether they seem likely to be a good fit for the team. They’re also checking for consistency between a candidate’s application and their online profile.
Given this new form of screening, candidates could be tempted to keep a low profile online, but that would be a mistake. Surveyed employers said they’d consider it a red flag if they couldn’t find any trace of a candidate online, as it would indicate that they’re out of touch with the technology that’s in use today.
And here’s where it really gets interesting – almost half the respondents said they’d decided not to hire someone because of something they’d seen in the candidate’s online profile, while just over a third said they’d been swayed towards hiring someone, based on their online profile.
So, I think it’s fair to say that as employees, we have been compelled by digital-media culture to carefully construct and curate our online identities to ensure our ongoing employability.
A well-constructed online identity can also show a prospective employer that a candidate has some sense of the importance of a brand. And it’s not just marketing agencies that want this. Jeremy Goldman and Ali Zagat, authors of Getting to Like, a book about personal and professional branding, say that every company wants to become a ‘brand that’s surrounded by buzz’ (p. 15). So they look for people with a strong personal brand, as shown by their online identity.
Goldman and Zagat say that ‘The idea that hard work alone will get you ahead has been thoroughly discredited. When it comes to your career, perceptions matter’ (p. 14). In managing perceptions, we have to carefully choose what to include in our online profiles:
- What kind of profile picture is appropriate?
- How much personal information should we share, if any?
- Which issues are we happy to be associated with, and which should we avoid?
- What multi-media elements could demonstrate our digital competence?
These are things that most employees haven’t had to think about in the past.
So, to summarise, I think that the many forces that shape our identities will continue to outweigh the relative new-comer that is digital media, but that digital media will become increasingly important as a tool we use to present our identities to employers and to others that we want or need to engage with.
Thanks for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring this question with me.
Gabriel, F 2014, ‘Sexting, Selfies And Self-Harm: Young People, Social Media and The Performance of Self-Development’, Media International Australia, No. 151, pp. 104-112.
Goldman, J & Zagat, A 2016, Getting to Like: how to boost your personal and professional brand to expand opportunities, grow your business, and achieve financial success, Career Press, Wayne, New Jersey.
Harris, P 2015, Survey: How employers look you up (and why your online presence really matters), Workopolis, retrieved 02 December 2017,
Seidler, V 2010, Embodying Identities: culture, differences and social theory, Policy Press, Bristol, UK and Portland, Oregon.