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:
- The parts of our online profiles (ethos?) we cannot control (i.e., what other people post to our profiles)
- 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 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.