The Crimes of Our Online Alter Egos

Words by Hannah Rabbitt

May 2014

More than a billion people have a Facebook account, 645 million tweet their thoughts in 140 characters or less and 100 million play (amateur) photographer on Instagram.

So, is the social media you the real you?

Online, we present ourselves the way we would like to be received by our work comrades, old high school frenemies and that ex’s new partner. But is this representation a true reflection of our identity?

Most of us would be guilty of hiding a Peter Parker-like secret; our social media ‘alter ego’. Where Parker has a spider man suit, we have filters (Mayfair works wonders for the skin tone) and they’re just as good at hiding the things we don’t want others to see.

A survey conducted by Intel revealed that 46 per cent of the females questioned only posted flattering profile pictures and the top reason for the social media lies for 56 per cent of the girls (and 59 per cent of the guys) was to impress people.

Lecturer at the University of Queensland Dr Nicholas Carah studies social media habits and says that we methodically choose what we put online.

“What we are doing on social media is telling a story about ourselves in a kind of public, or semi public forum. So we are telling it to somebody. So we have some perception of an audience…people learn to judge how they want to be seen by others,” he says.

However Dr Carah says that these constructed alter egos aren’t exclusive to our online presence, and that they are an extension of the masks that we already make use of in everyday life.

“There was this sociologist in the 50s, Erving Goffman, who wrote ‘The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life’ and had this theory of masks. He’s saying that when we hang out with our family versus our friends versus a professional setting, we kind of perform our identity in a particular way depending on who we judge to be the audience,” Dr Carah says.

“So we’ll say things to our parents that we would never say to our friends and vice versa. And social media is kind of the same. It’s just another place where we perform our identity and perform it based on judgements we make.”

However, in an increasingly digital society, pressure is mounting for that on-screen self to be perfect.

The issue with these virtual alter egos is that unlike Mr Parker’s webbed counterpart, the side effects of their existence are rarely positive. Social media depression is now an increasingly common phenomenon. The assumption that other people’s lives are as great as what they portray online makes many feel inadequate and can foster anxiety, and the culture of likes can wreak havoc on self esteem.

At the 2012 Society for Personality and Social Psychologists conference, PhD candidate Mudra Mukesh presented research and data showing that participants who frequently looked at friends status’ and updates displayed depressed tendencies. She found that people who had recently viewed their colleagues uploads scored their own life and achievements much lower than those who hadn’t hopped on Facebook for a while.

19-year-old Clare James* says the affects of the online stress and depressed feelings are all too real.

One look at her Instagram account filled with lo-fi filtered shots of salads, travels and snaps with her nearest and dearest, and Miss James appears to be happily sharing a seemingly stress-free life with her 2280 followers. But in reality, the constant pressure to upload the perfect photo and the anxiety of how it’s received by her followers is a big problem for the young woman.

“You have to live up to the expectations of the likes, and then if people are going to unfollow you if the photo is bad…it’s a worry,” she says.

“It makes me so depressed. Especially because people my age are so obsessed over Instagram. After uploading a photo, if it doesn’t get a good time to like ratio, I get down and start freaking out and wondering if I should delete it. It actually affects my mood.

“If I get ten likes to a minute, I don’t feel as worried. I think that it is pretty sad that it puts people in a downer. But it’s not just me; it’s everyone.”

Miss James also fears that if a picture doesn’t fit the kind of cyber persona she has created, it won’t be nearly as popular.

“I worry that the likes are going to be affected and I’m really self conscious about that,” she says.

Psychology lecturer and researcher Dr Stephanie Tobin says that in today’s society-one where we are highly attuned to being rejected- Miss James is by no means alone in the post-upload stress that she experiences.

“In one of our studies we had people come in and post an update on a researcher account. We set it up so half of the people got not feedback and the other people got comments and likes on theirs. We found that it affected belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence,” she says.

“Across the board people tend to react negatively when they didn’t get the feedback. So, what I conclude from that is that it’s just a general thing that we’re all sensitive to… we’re very sensitive to how we’re fitting in with people face to face and online. In the moment when it happens and we realise that we’ve put something out there, even though they’re just strangers, having no one respond makes you feel bad. You think ‘uh, no one cares’. So it would probably be even worse if it were your own friend group doing that.”

Dr Tobin says the amount of feedback we get undeniably shapes people’s behaviour.

“We’ve done some stuff on Instagram too and it does look like the subjective sense of satisfaction with the responses predicts people’s experiences; so the more satisfied you are with the responses you’re getting, the better off you are,” she says.

The research carried out by Dr Tobin finds that it’s not just the stress of our own uploading that gets us down; the passive observing of other people’s glamorised virtual identities has the most negative effect.

“We’ve found that [not participating online or putting stuff out there but not getting any feedback] can lower a person’s sense of belonging and meaningful existence; it makes them feel disconnected and just generally invisible. In that sense our experiences online can certainly affect our wellbeing,” she says.

“In general, I think what you see when you look at all the research out there on Facebook is that the negative consequences tend to come about more when we are doing the passive behaviours; when we’re just kind of reading what other people have posted but not actually engaging with it by commenting on it or posting for ourselves.”

Miss James knows that she needs to try to tone down the overwhelming negative feelings she gets from her uploads.

“I feel that at the end of the day, if you present yourself with perfect skin and hair and photo shop your body…that’s not what you look like. People see you in real life. It’s sad that people portray themselves as something they aren’t,” she says.

It’s inevitable that we want to post the good stuff online and we’re never going to deliberately upload an unflattering selfie, but maybe it’s time we start limiting the emphasis put on how flawlessly amazing our virtual self is.

Online alter egos? I’ll take a spider-web covered superhero over them any day.

*names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals