Is social networking redefining identity? - RSA

Is social networking redefining identity?

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  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain
  • Social networks
  • Technology

When did you last send a tweet? What did your Facebook friends have to say about how they’re feeling this morning? How important are online networks to your sense of who you are? Chances are you’ll have something to say about at least one of these questions. For a majority of Britons, online persona and virtual networks are becoming increasingly definitional.

Monday saw the publication of a new report that looks at the impact of technology on identity, by the Government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington. The report, The Future of Identity, identifies ‘hyper-connectivity’ – near-continuous access to the Internet – as a very significant development.  Beddington argues that hyper-connectivity is likely to have a profound effect on how people regard their place in the world and define themselves.

The report suggests that the ubiquity of smartphones is changing the way we relate to others, and may lead to place-based communities becoming less cohesive. In tandem, hyper-connectivity enables greater connectivity between otherwise disparate groups, making it very easy for groups to organise themselves quickly.

The Telegraph, reporting the publication of Beddington’s report, emphasises the risk that the rise of social networking may “fuel social unrest”. The role of smartphone technology in the riots of 2011 was well documented, and it’s clear that these communication platforms offer the means to facilitate phenomena like rioting, protesting and social disturbance.

But is it really accurate to say that hyper-connectivity can in itself be a cause of social unrest? I’m not convinced that these developments in technology are responsible for bringing about the motivation or impetus for groups of young people to loot and riot across the UK’s cities. Sure, they provide the communication platform to make it easy for large groups to organise themselves, but why should the existence of such technology be a trigger?

The perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted

Having said that, it occurs to me that there are other ways in which in hyper-connectivity is likely to impact on us, as individuals and as a society. I’m sure the perpetual presence of the smartphone impacts on our patterns of attention – we’re always on ‘standby’, ready to be interrupted. As Jonathan Rowson noted in this blog, connectivity comes at a cost, undermining deeper connections that are all too easy to take for granted. Whether or not we’re aware of it, the reality is that many of us are addicted to receiving new information – the kick we get out of receiving new emails, SMS, and reading the latest Twitter feed is unrivalled by face to face interactions. Comparing ourselves to others is an inevitable side effect of online social networking, and this can have hugely negative consequences for self-esteem and assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

All of this must be affecting our brains somehow, whether the impact is on our patterns of concentration, expectations for instant information, or ability to focus our attention deeply. What we pay attention to can have a profound effect on our overall outlook, as Nathalie Spencer discusses here. Hyper-connectivity must also impact on our inner life – how comfortable would you be to spend half an hour doing nothing, without a Smartphone to engage with? What would it mean for your sense of self if all your online presence were to be erased?

Beddington’s report suggests that in the future, it is very likely that someone with no online persona will be regarded as unusual or even suspicious. This seems to indicate that the blurring of the boundary between online and offline identity is set to intensify. All of this makes me think that we may need to force ourselves to disconnect, unplug, and make space to notice and appreciate our offline selves.

But, do we have the willpower? Are we prepared or able to face up to the possibility that hyper-connectivity might be damaging, and whose responsibility is it to put preventative or protective measures in place? Which public or private bodies would fund research to find out whether and how smartphone usage is harmful to our wellbeing? Are we already in some sort of collective denial about the damaging impact of hyper-connectivity and might this mean sleep walking, in a hyper-connected way, into future problems?

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  • Hi, Emma!

    Great post! I definitely agree that our hyper-connectivity makes it difficult to differentiate our online identities vs. our real identities. I discussed this in my own blog post you can check out here:


  • Keeping up that separation definitely has value, I'm sure. It's all too easy to assume that everyone has constant access to email, as I learned to my embarrassment last week. I emailed someone a few hours before we were to due meet, to say I couldn't make it and it simply didn't occur to me that they might not get the message in time. I felt dreadful that they then went and waited for me at the pre-arranged venue and didn't read my email until getting home. A cautionary tale!

  • Thanks for this. It's an interesting thought that we're all cyborgs now. I think I'm right that a crucial element of the definition of a cyborg is that natural tendencies are increased or enhanced by technology. I'm sure there are lots of ways in which hyper-connectivity can be enhancing and it's up to us to think carefully about how to be better cyborgs.

  • I think there is something definitive about the smart phone here. By accident rather than by design I have kept my 5-6 year old pre smart phone, and need to be near a desktop or laptop to connect online. This preserves to me some separation between the virtual and real world. Especially as often I work in offices where social media are banned, Facebook-ing is something 'I do when I get home' not an ever present. Maybe this is why I think I'm a Gen X'er....

  • I am disabled. I have just survived lung cancer, circumstances force me to live in a town in Ireland where I am hated. In 14 years I have one friend.I am 63 years old. I have had hyper-connectivity since 1998 (64k leased line into Dublin). I have always spent ALL my time connected to the Internet. I have hundreds of friends online. You are making the mistake of thinking that there is a dichotomy between online and offline. There isn't Watch the TED video on cyborgs read Cyberculture 2013 which was published today quoting the above government paper.I Watch RSAnimate on the power of networks. I AM ME whether I am in front of a computer chatting or buying toilet rolls. We are all cyborgs now.