I remember when my students first told me to get on Facebook so I could see what their peers were posting. It was 2005, I was a tenure-track professor at a small Roman Catholic liberal-arts college, and Facebook was still a site that required a dot-edu email address. Back then security and privacy settings were nonexistent; once you had an account, you could see everything everyone posted, even if you weren’t that person’s friend.
And boy, was there a lot to see. This was the age of keg stands, vulgar comments, and risqué photos of women at parties, all posted with nary a thought to who might be looking, or that a professor like me might stumble across an offending post.
But times have changed. Students now know to keep their Facebook profiles spotless. Regular "Facebook cleanups" are a thing, with savvy high-school students conducting a precollege scrub to sanitize their various profiles.
Fear and anxiety — about being barred from college, getting kicked off a team or a sorority, being passed over for an internship or a job — are driving this vigilance on social media. The wrong post has the potential to go viral. So we have entered a new stage in the digital 21st century: the professionalization of social media. And that professionalization has led to a new phenomenon, especially among young people: the transformation of the self as brand. While that shift has been good in some ways, they, and we, have lost something in the evolution.
Our students are now some of the most responsible and self-aware users of social media. We — their professors, college and career counselors, mentors, coaches, and parents — have instilled fear in them about the high stakes of posting online, as I discovered in interviews with nearly 200 students at 13 colleges and universities, and from an online survey of more than 800 participants.
"I think of myself, my name, as a brand," said one young woman, Fara (all names have been changed to protect privacy). "So I like to stay active on my social-media platforms, but I choose, I select when I share ... I have a reputation, and I need to protect it. So I don’t share things that are private, things that are going on in my romantic relationships. I’m very selective. I’m a curator."
That exchange was hardly unusual. In interview after interview, students defaulted to business jargon to discuss their online lives. They talked of their names as brands, of having multiple "audiences" or "publics," of social media as a marketing tool for the self. Words like "curate," "cultivate," and "craft" came up often in descriptions of their approaches to posting. Contrary to the larger culture’s impression, the average college student is thoughtful and slow to post on profiles attached to their real names, with many young women and men doing so only once a week because they see posting on social media as a laborious activity requiring great effort and careful editing, kind of like homework or a job. (And many students described it that way.)
Fara was not alone in mentioning reputation. Another student, Brandy, described what she called "the reputation self," which involves "the way you want people to see you [online]." This "isn’t a true reflection of yourself," she explained, "but that’s still a version of yourself." Brandy believes that a person who shows a "true" or "authentic" self is "something rare that you never see anymore." She was sympathetic toward the way this makes people act artificially online. "People have pressure now, more than ever, to project an image that everything’s peachy and wonderful in their life," she explained.
This pressure has driven some of them to new platforms, where they can let off steam. They gushed about Snapchat, where posts disappear in seconds, and about pseudonymous profiles on Tumblr, Twitter, and Yik Yak. Students long to play around online, to be creative and even inappropriate, and the freedom to do so lies in anonymity. As a result, we’re seeing the rise of a bifurcated social-media universe: one with accounts attached to one’s name and brand, and the other of pseudonyms where uninhibited expression — and, yes, vile and vulgar rhetoric — reigns.
The problem with the self-as-brand social media is the dissonance it breeds. We’ve taught our kids to hide the whole truth of who they are online — even as we’ve instilled in them the importance of "being yourself" growing up. Thus the self-branding mind-set that defines social-media use among the young doesn’t make them happy. It mostly just makes them stressed.
In our classrooms, we urge our students to express a range of opinions, to disagree, to become critical thinkers. Online is a different matter. On their Facebook and Instagram feeds, they are learning to conform and be uniformly agreeable, because opinion and difference can come with a high price. Vulnerability, sadness, failure, and nonconformity are not to be owned publicly, lest they reflect negatively on their brands. Could this have an effect on how they handle vulnerability, sadness, failure, and nonconformity offline?
During my interviews, I asked students if they’d ever had a professor or a class that reflected on the ways social media is changing our world, our identities, and our relationships. "Do you ever talk about social media on an academic, critical level?" I wondered.
From most of them I got a flat "No" or a quizzical look, followed by a question like: Do you mean when professors tell you to put away your smartphones? Or how to use social media for marketing and advertising? Aside from business courses and journalism and media-related seminars, few of us talk to our students about social media on a philosophical and critical level.
And that’s a problem. We need to spend time pondering social-media use among our students. Are we reframing the experience of young adulthood in a way that impoverishes their emotional lives? Is it fair that we are evaluating people in a professional and academic capacity in a sphere originally intended to allow us to socialize and to connect? Does the punishment for online mistakes far outweigh the mistakes themselves? Since social media has largely become a sphere for displaying one’s online CV rather than a place for socializing, perhaps we need to have a conversation about the use of our real names in social media (and how to deal with the problems that anonymity entails).
Our students need their teachers to devote space and time to parsing what all of this means. Beyond questions about political silos, fake news, or marketing are the ones that affect our sense of self — the very things that the professionalization of social media is teaching us to wall off. At stake in our conversations and teaching about social media are not only the future of our students but also their happiness — and their capacity to be vulnerable, too.
Donna Freitas is a nonresident research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society. She is the author of The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (Oxford University Press, 2017).