Understanding ourselves has always been fundamental to human nature. Indeed, many fields of psychology focus on understanding how we form the sense of ‘I’ or ‘Me’, something that is essentially encapsulated in two concepts: self and identity.
The notion of ‘self’ is a complex thing. As far back as 1890 William James suggested that we have more than one ‘self’, that there are actually three selves that combine to form who we are. The first is the ‘material’ self which is the awareness we have of our physical world and bodies. The second, the ‘spiritual’ self is that part of us which is aware of our own ability to think about ourselves. In other words our capacity for reflexive thought. Importantly though James also suggested that we have a ‘social’ self, which is that based on the images that we create in the minds of others.
So what has this all got to do with Twitter you ask? Well, as well as our ‘self’ having a social aspect so does our identity. Indeed the many theoretical and philosophical positions taken to identity have this social aspect in common. Erikson (1959, 1968), for example, suggested a stage model of identity, arguing that it forms as a result of our resolving a series of conflicts during our development. Importantly though his was a psycho-social theory which accepted that the context in which this all happens is inherently social. Tajfels’(1970) Social Identity Theory is, as the name suggest, even more overt in this suggestion. Indeed he argues that it is our membership of social groups that is central to giving us our sense of who we are.
Perhaps the most radical suggestion though is that put forward in ‘social constructionist’ theories of identity (e.g., Berger & Luckman, 1967) which suggest that we construct our sense of who we are purely through the discourse we have with others. They even argue that this means our identities are constantly shifting and changing based on this discourse. Pretty heavy stuff.
The main point though is that we don’t just develop our self or identity in isolation. We project information to others, both verbally and non-verbally. We also constantly receive information from others in the things they say to us, and the ways in which we say them. We take this information and, at different levels of conscious awareness, use it to get a sense of who we are and how we feel about ourselves.
Put it this way. Imagine you had a disastrous haircut. This can make you feel more ‘self-conscious’, more aware of the reactions of others and how this makes you feel about yourself. You may choose to ignore what other people say (or seem to be saying by their actions or facial expressions) or it may make you feel a little unsure. Projecting a different image, and the response of others to it, may even make you feel ‘not like you’.
So, back to Twitter. The tweets we send, and the actions of others in response to those, are all social information. We are, in those 140 characters, projecting an image of who we are, often to people we have never met. What we find interesting, or funny, or what we are doing. People then respond. They may re-tweet you and this can reinforce your choice of information and words. It means people find it interesting and this is likely to give you positive reinforcement of who you are (at least at that particular time). Alternatively we may find people ignore us, or even un-follow us. At some level, this may give us a sense of doubt and lead us to shift how we tweet and change what we say.
However conscious we are of it, the ‘social’ in social media is really important to us, and for reasons that go beyond the mere sharing of information.