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How the Internet Shapes Who We Are

International Internet Day is a reminder of Internet's major influence on us.

Key points

  • The use and design of the internet influence how we think about ourselves.
  • Social media splinter our self-representations and experiences.
  • Algorithms propel highly individualized experiences.
  • The Pinwheel Self theory captures the current identity.

The 29th of October marks International Internet Day, a reminder of the world wide web’s exponential influence on who we have become. One thing we ought to think about: we all need to make our minds up about who we want to be online.

With an enormous accumulation of personal data, the internet has become a seductive experience. It is human nature to crave the experience of premium customers who get offers tailored "just for you." So, we willingly and progressively teach the algorithms who we are. Online chat rooms seduce us to communicate with automated replies sent by bots, precisely personalized to us. Our love lives are being revived with artificial intimacies, such as private messaging on Tinder or OnlyFans and our work lives with LinkedIn and Twitter.

Given that the bots are trained with information directly supplied by us from multiple locations and contexts, they often catch us surprised with how much they know about us—sometimes it seems more than our friends or spouses. As the internet becomes more like ‘us’, what does it hold for the future of selfhood?

From the identity perspective, it does not matter which technologies we use in the future. Nor does it matter whether the governance structure of the internet lies in the hands of national governments, autocrats, or technology giants. What matters is the extent to which the algorithms imitate the workings of a human mind. Not as well as a direct causal influence, but if we look more closely, the internet’s evolution neatly maps on the evolution of human identity.

When in 1983 two computer networks exchanged information with each other, it was just like two humans exchanging a smile across the street. Global network operators started with the same principle as communication between two human minds. The Relational Self Theory describes identity as a negotiation of relationships between the Self and the ‘other’. The Self is not autonomous but bound in relationships with other minds and material objects, such as a personal computer.

With Windows 95 (the first operating system packaged with a web browser, Internet Explorer), the internet entered our homes. Our relationship with the world wide web got personal. Quadratic machines began sending information to and from our bedrooms. The internet inveigled itself into our daily activities, holidays, and family get-togethers. Our professional and private identities have blurred; our memory capacity and conversations have expanded with online capabilities.

According to the Extended Self theory, individuals can extend their identities into material things they buy and objects they own. The early internet prompted identity extensions not only into objects such as computers or smartphones but also into the activities supported by these technologies, such as e-reading or website browsing. These activities soon turned into habits and ways of being. The Expanded Self theory got revised as the Unbound Self theory. Soon after, a new identity theory got conceived: The Networked Self Theory.

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Source: Copyright: Pexels

It was only after watching the Pinwheel firework at Mqabba square that I realized the power of the Pinwheel metaphor. A Pinwheel firework perfectly captures our current online behaviours. Unlike other types of fireworks, the Pinwheel rotates around its own center. Its colourful glitters are individualized.

Each data point—a photo, a text message, or a Snap—is a glitter for the algorithms to spin. The wheel gives rise to short intense experiences, and, occasionally, its flames reach spectacular heights.

Facebook, Twitter or Instagram host multiple rotating identities, just like the Maltese towns that host the Pinwheel Fireworks. Different squares please different market segments and so do our self-representations on different social media platforms. We pick and choose a different identity for a different audience—we share updates on work meetings on Microsoft Teams, and dinner plates on Instagram. The more time we invest in sharing different parts of ourselves on different platforms online, the more the algorithms splinter our understanding of who we are.

Back at the Maltese square, I watch how the wheel rotates and creates spectacular sparks around its own flaming core. When the sparks burn off, the wheel disappears in the black sky. I take a quick snap and upload it to my Instagram story. The story goes viral but disappears after 24 hours. Instagram stories and other ephemeral media are about quick gratification. Their popularity and short presence reflect the current identity crisis we experience; collectively as nations, and individually as parents and children. They signal that the Pinwheel Self is in transition to a different type of identity.

The new identity will not be about individual rotating wheels. The future internet will be a drone light show, reflecting fluid and unique identities moving and changing in a colossal spectacle. Identity formation won’t be an incidental detail but an integral part of the show. You won’t be able to write yourself out of it, we all will be the spectators and participants in the show of shows. When, exactly, the transition will occur is uncertain but one thing is clear: we form the internet, and the internet forms us. It is time to embrace our joint future.

An abbreviated version of this article was originally published in Stavanger Aftenblad, Norway

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