Sunday, March 21, 2010


I have been mulling this over for a while, and as my graduate students read a book on gut feelings and decision making, I am ready to say something. As my students embark on an understand of self, agency, and cognition as very messy things indeed, I would like to do the same here.

Researchers in psychology recently published this article. In this article the authors claim that, contrary to what one might assume, online profiles (e.g., Facebook) "reflect actual personality." (Please read the article for things like research methods). Now, I do have some problems with the conclusions of the article: "Instead, [online social networks] might be an efficient medium for expressing and communicating real personality, which may help explain their popularity." I would argue we could interpret or study such networks for how they cultivate "real personality" - that is, the study treats as stable what I would treat as rhetorically unstable. That aside, their findings point in interesting rhetorical directions. The two I will deal with are:
  1. The parts of our online profiles (ethos?) we cannot control (i.e., what other people post to our profiles)
  2. The agonism (this is a term I apply here) that constrains our profiles (i.e., putting things up that others will "agree" "reflects" us accurately)
The first is interesting in terms of how our audiences become our co-authors. What this finding suggests is that we are perceived not just directly but through others. This is really nothing new ("it's a motley crew I run with"). What is "new" (at least outside of rhetoric) is that these identifications are accurate ways to assess someone -- that who you have identified with says something about you. This is, for instance, why I typically shudder when people start a conversation with "you would like this." I shudder because I am about to have something about me revealed to me (whether I like it or not -- which is not to say that that other person is always "right"). We are, to some extent, what people say to and about us. This is the social nature of ethos/identity/personality (a hard to define-parse matrix to be sure).

The second finding strikes me as another way of saying the first thing: that the "honesty" our expressions of personality (ethos?) are shaped by audiences. Not only do our "friends" reveal our personalities in what they say to us in public, they constrain what we add to our profiles implicitly. The study suggests we are not likely to put "false" impressions of ourselves up if we think our friends will see it this way. That is, we shape our profiles on the fly based on what we know our friends and relations to already know about us. Our friends, in other words, keep us who we are (online and, I would argue, in the flesh).

This is, likewise, why I never quite understand Plato's worries about rhetoric. Just because things are subject to rhetoric/persuasion/manipulation does not mean that they can, at any and all moments. become whatever. Anybody who has ever attempted persuasion knows that you don't need foundational truths to stop persuasive attempts (you just need your own argument).

Thus, here is my conclusion. Identity (as a loose and trouble stand-in for many other "self" terms) while not simply static and expressible but rather dynamic and cultivated, is not infinite. We find ourselves always in communities to whom we both present and owe our identities. And those communities help to cultivate and constrain those identities. I could certainly remake my Facebook profile to make me into Johnny Bravo, but I would have a lot of convincing to do before anyone bought it.


  1. So, say something apropos about that scene where Jesus zonks on the cross on that cneturion says, reflectively, "Truly this man was the son of God."

    I like what you're saying here. It seems true to me. I'm more interested in how it works away from Facebook... I've sometimes wanted interview a "born-again" Christian to ask him how those around them reacted to the inward revolution experienced by my interviewee. It seems that being born-again requires a community that allows that kind of thing.

  2. I think you are likewise onto something. I wonder at the "born-again" phenomenon, which strikes me as individual, in the context of religiosity, which seems inherently social. That is, the "born-again" phenomenon is individual but seems largely mimetic. Thus, to even think of being individually again requires both a community to allow it but also to generate it. And this gets close to point I was making in the post today.