I have had social media since I was in middle school. I remember my parents hating the idea and my dad immediately warning me about Instagram’s ownership of my data. Being a 14 year old equipped with an iPad mini I ignored him and the digital Alyssa Roach was born. In the beginning I posted everything: highly filtered selfies with friends, my dog, a rock outside. I had 20 followers and felt on top of the world, posting everything interesting in my path. Then a shift happened, I would look at my classmates accounts and they would have hundreds of followers. I followed them and they didn’t follow me back because I was not worth blemishing their follower ratio. I was uneasy with the person I was projecting online. The freedom to be authentic online was stripped by anxiety and, just as quickly as I stepped into the digital world, my true self slipped back.
Google: “Alyssa Roach”
My first search in a Google incognito window and started with just my name. I immediately saw my Linked-In profile and smiling professional photo of myself. A few links down was a list of Facebook profiles for Alyssa Roach with mine being about 7 profiles down. The next few pages of Google did not result in anything else related to me.
I expected the results of this search to be limited. I never won prominent merit awards or did an extracurricular well enough to be recognized on a grand scale that would generate online buzz. Facebook and LinkedIn are also the only two accounts that I use my full name on. On Twitter I use my nickname Lyss and Instagram I use a spaced out version (see photo) in order to keep these public profiles a little more concealed. I find it interesting that I chose to list these two accounts with my full name because I haven’t posted on Facebook for about a year and don’t even have my current job listed on my LinkedIn. The information is accurate although outdated but the authenticity is lacking. Nonetheless given the purposes I use these accounts for this is not surprising. LinkedIn is used for professional networking and I curated my work experience to sound insightful when in reality some of my jobs were just an opportunity to work rather than grow. Facebook has always been for updating my extended family on my happenings so it stays family friendly, always focusing on the good. I would describe these accounts as shallow and one dimensional, not necessarily negatively, however not truly authentic on their own.
Next I looked up my most commonly used social media handle “alyssalroach”, here the first three results were my Instagram and VSCO accounts. Both accounts are public so a searcher can see at least 5 years of perfectly crafted and filtered moments. From “aesthetic” homework sessions and sleepovers to my first college party and pre-pandemic vacations, it's all there.
Instagram and VSCO are both image sharing platforms and therefore, unlike Facebook and LinkedIn, there is not a lot of “written” data. Nevertheless, a picture is worth a thousand words and my photos definitely tell a long story. From my Instagram you can discover a lot about who I spend my time with and where. I often tag locations and friends in my posts connecting myself in a web of information that one could discover the building I live in at Michigan, my annual vacation spot of Canandaigua Lake, NY, my highschool friends, who I have managed to stay in touch with, and more. This is where my personality shines. After viewing my LinkedIn and Facebook, a searcher could see another dimension of my life on these profiles, but that dimension comes with filters, witty captions, and an intense screening process. I am human and this isn’t the entirety of my life. I don’t believe that anyone would think it was. In the past six months I have left out my battle with anxiety and depression, the struggles of managing online school and two internships, the death of my grandmother, and my coronavirus diagnosis. Does this mean that alyssalroach is inauthentic? No. Furthermore the idea of authenticity in relation to digital and physical selves needs to be re-evaluated.
Analysis of Authenticity
There is extreme pressure for young women in today’s society to be popular and poised online. This pressure or need for popularity greatly affects some women’s ability to be authentic on social media. Women have to walk a tightrope of being popular enough but not too popular that it could intimidate and expose themselves enough to be interesting but not so much that it may be considered vulgar. I have often found myself trading authenticity for popularity. I know what posts will get the most likes and what time on what day I should post it to lose the least amount of followers. Thinking about this now I can’t help but laugh as I imagine my physical self doing this. Imagine not going to a party because it is not at the right time for admiration or peeking your head in to see if the right people notice, and if they don’t quickly exit by clicking the delete link. The authentic me is loud and dynamic not the timid, frozen alyssalroach on Instagram. This may sound like a manifesto on my real self’s reentrance into the online world, but it is quite the opposite. When I really reflect on this issue I don’t think I want to be fully myself online. It would be nice to eliminate my anxiety of declining online statistics or impostorers syndrome while scrolling through social media, but authenticity comes at a cost that I am not yet willing to pay.
Is Authenticity Worth the Price?
I remember being extremely weary of my brother mining Bitcoin on his computer a few years ago. “Nothing is free” I said as I considered what they could possibly be doing with the computing power he was providing. I should have considered the same when I posted to social media later that day. The issue of my online data trail is not what a person could find, but what they could do with it. I proved in my exploration that I am far from impossible to find online. With only my full name you could find my age, birthday, hometown, current and pre-transfer college, major, job, family members, friends, and roommates without any need for in depth analysis or investigation. Scammers would have a field day with my data trail should I become a target. There are millions of cases of identity and financial theft and manipulation that take place using social media. I give personally identifiable information freely because it seems everyone has the same information available and how else would my Facebook followers know to wish me happy birthday?
Floridi claims that soon we will not have a disjunct between ourselves online and in the physical world, however I wonder how we will ever be able to diminish our whole selves into a 13” laptop screen. It would take so much effort to show every side of myself to the digital world that I can’t imagine I would have time to live in the physical world. Even so, we know that technology adapts at stunning rates and our world is more different now than I could have ever imagined. Our online selves in the light of the pandemic are becoming even more important to stay connected with loved ones. I only hope there is a future where we can achieve the benefits of social networking without selling out our privacy.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Where does this leave me? What boundary can I set that will allow me to enjoy our digital world and keep my body and mind safe? At this moment of enlightenment I have an urge to take the extreme route of erasing the digital Alyssa Roach entirely. My data feels out of my control and what felt like the freedom to share my most glittering self now feels binding. The only way I can see a future for my online self is constantly expanding my knowledge on threats associated with my authentic data being public and keeping a robust defense strategy, online and off. This will start with me making all accounts I can private and shrinking the amount of personally identifiable information I provide.
Online authenticity comes at a steep price of unethical data use and greater vulnerability in both the online and offline world. At the present, I am not ready to pay up. I am comfortable with my one-dimensional image, keeping my strengths in the open and weaknesses hidden from threats. We each have to define that boundary for ourselves so we can post accordingly and keep ourselves safe. Authenticity is not supreme in comparison to mental and physical safety. My online self does not have to experience the effects of attacks, but my physical self does.
The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality, by Luciano Floridi, Oxford University Press, 2016.
"Online authenticity, popularity, and the “Real Me” in a microblogging environment", By Joon Soo Lim, John Nicholson, Sung-Un Yang, Ho-Kyung Kim, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 52, 2015, (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563215004148).
"How Social Media Networks Facilitate Identity Theft and Fraud", By Kent Lewis, (https://www.eonetwork.org/octane-magazine/special-features/social-media-networks-facilitate-identity-theft-fraud).