By Emily Erickson
Picture this: You’ve spent the last 20 minutes clambering over rocks and ducking under fallen trees. You’re racing the plummeting sun to get to the most perfect secret sunset viewing spot on the lake before that beautiful ball of fire descends behind the mountains.
Out of breath, you reach your destination with mere minutes to spare, unrolling your blanket as streaks of color paint the sky, and inhale, absorbing the crispness of the cooling air. What do you do next? Take out your camera phone and snap pictures, later to be posted on social media, of course.
It’s important to dissect why we feel compelled to document parts of our lives for the world to see. What impact does this continuous and selective documentation have on our identity, especially as it relates to Millennials?
To help understand the “why” in this equation, I will dive back into my dusty social psychology textbook, wherein there is a phenomenon commonly referred to as Social Identity Theory, conceived by Henri Tajfel in 1979. It follows three basic premises:
First, it is a natural human tendency to categorize things, especially the world in which we live. We organize ourselves and other people into groups, and take pride in identifying ourselves by the categories to which we belong. Think: Asian, Catholic, agnostic, student, skier, accountant, American, or cat person. These are all social categories we assign to achieve order in our minds.
Next is social identification, or the idea that we adopt various parts of our identity from the groups to which we belong. For example, if you categorize yourself as a hockey player, you will most likely recognize patterns in the behavior, appearance and attitudes of other hockey players, and begin thinking and acting in a similar fashion, like growing your hair out or shortening words and names and ending them in “y” (“I had a breaky sandy with Jonesy”). Being a part of this group will carry emotional significance for your identity and will impact your self-esteem.
The third premise is social comparison, or our innate tendency to compare our self-selected groups with other groups to which we don’t belong. Our self-esteem is affected by how we view our group as it compares to others. So, if you identify as a cat person, part of your self-esteem relies on you feeling the same as, or superior to, a dog person. However, if you identify as a cat person, but are forced to conclude that dog people are actually better, your self-esteem would be negatively impacted.
But, how does this all relate to Millennials and social media?
Before the rise of social media, the categories we established, derived our identity from, and compared to others were not as readily quantifiable. There was an abstract understanding of the categories to which you belonged, as well as how you and your group compared to other people and their respective groups. But group membership and rank was mostly a matter of personal interpretation.
With sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, you actively demonstrate your allegiance to various categories, and your rank within your group and across groups is measured by “likes” and shares.
For example, I derive part of my identity through considering myself a writer. Aspects of my self-esteem are dependent on how good of a writer I am and how being a writer is better (to me) than being, say, an insurance broker.
Before social media, merely believing I was a member of the writer category and thinking that I lead a more fulfilling life than an insurance broker would enable me to have a higher self-esteem and confidence in my identity.
But today, through Facebook and Instagram, I have access to the profiles of real, successful writers at my fingertips, as well as social pages of insurance brokers with pictures of their fulfilled lives, all for me to compare myself to. And my success or failure can be quantified. Merely receiving 50 likes on my last post, as opposed to the 3,000 my competitor received, has greater implications to my self-esteem.
Millennials have come of age, trying to decipher who they are, in a time when identity and group allegiance can constantly be compared to everyone else in highly consumable and measurable ways. They are regularly bombarded by examples of what appears to be people leading exciting and fulfilled lives, as everyone puts their best foot forward on social media. Millennials not only feel compelled to document all the best parts of their lives to feel relevant, but struggle to achieve the confidence that comes from having a strong sense of identity and secure membership within a group.
So next time you see a pack of Millennials smashing their faces together to fit into one selfie screen or spending five minutes documenting their sushi, just smile. They are simply trying to feel like their lives are significant and fulfilled. Which isn’t so foreign, after all.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.