Illustration by Noe Naranjo

When we post the past: How social media shapes identity

When Isaac Young opens Instagram, he scrolls through the daily feed perfectly tailored for him by his following list and the app’s own algorithm. He views the pages of artists he follows, stays up-to-date on the happenings of friends and tries to kill time.

On the occasion that he posts, it’s a piece of his life, of himself, that is added to his digital gallery. A selfie, a goofy photo, a trip with his family – memories that he wants to live on, now reside on his online profile.

As he has dedicated more time to the app over the years, a new facet of social media usage has presented itself.

Young, 20, an audio engineering student at Santa Rosa Junior College, is among the many individuals who are now able to use apps like Instagram and Snapchat as digital, self-curated memory books.

An entire generation has grown up on social media, and each member has a viewable recorded history online.

“It’s definitely interesting for me to go back through old photos,” Young said. “Knowing that I did do that is a pretty interesting feeling. It’s almost like I’m reconnecting with myself.”

The idea of hanging onto fond memories, saving sentimental photos and sharing these mementos with loved ones is nothing new. This is how families carry on stories of old, how parents connect with children who seem to grow up too quickly, and how individuals display who they are to those who enter their space.

A romanticization of the past remains steadfast in every generation. Nostalgia is powerful. It’s easy to remember and incorporates only the best of each era and the best of ourselves.

Social media is showing us this on a grand scale. But the largest difference in a carefully put together photo album and an Instagram profile is who this collection of identity is for.

“[Social media] generates this notion of necessity for young people to manage and constantly be on top of what they’re doing, their public display and so forth. It complicates this business of who the ‘self’ is,” said SRJC Media Studies Professor Dr. Tony Kashani.

Kashani believes digital media consumption has changed the way young minds are shaped more so than any generation. “Social media has definitely had an impact on how [young] people see themselves,” he said.

He has serious concerns of this “necessity” to not only display one’s personal life through the lens of social media but to curate an entire identity for the public.

“People put so much energy into perception management, where they think that this matters to others, but then, there’s this understanding that I think we should have about who we are, the inner person versus the outer person,” Kashani said.

He refers to those who grew up and are growing up online as “Digital Natives.” These individuals have an entire aspect of their identity tied to their online history now.

They have grown up in the age of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, all social media platforms that open a portal to the lives of their users and allow for detailed curating of their identities.

SRJC students Leela Langloys, 19, and Kimberly Kiesel, 18,  say they use social media to display rather than curate their identities and memories.

“I would say it’s more to share experiences and be like, ‘Hey, look at the fun thing I did!’ rather than be like ‘My identity is wrapped in my social media,’” Langloys said.

Kashani is under the impression that with the correct media education and parent-student relationship, social media can be an excellent tool to display one’s evolution of identity online.

“These tools give us access to so much knowledge. If we know where to look, then it’s easy to gain access to knowledge and therefore evolve,” he said.

From an outside perspective, some Digital Natives interact with social media as if it is crucial to curate the best of themselves for their broad audience.

But many, like Young, engage with Instagram and similar platforms like one would a memory depository, or a delicately crafted scrapbook.

“I think I’ve definitely forgotten who I used to be, just in my maturing process, but having a record online helps you remember a little bit,” Young said.

We are experiencing a cultural shift in the way we dedicate ourselves to the past and our own histories.

Sharing joyful memories with loved ones may be a familiar sentiment, but the way this personal and emotional reality is being shared is anything but.

Digital Natives are on the forefront of change in how we view ourselves, our histories and each other.

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