For most intents and purposes, I am out of touch with popular culture. I didn’t have cable growing up, never played pokemon, and didn’t really listen to music until I started exploring Spotify my freshman year of high school. I spent most of my time up until then avidly reading fantasy fiction, adventure novels, and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on. Tech has fascinated me, but I didn’t begin my exploration of the digital world until I was 14. In the eight years since, I’ve had what you might think of as a bell curve of digital media engagement, where my interactions peaked sometime between my senior year of high school and sophomore year of college and are currently on the abrupt decline.
Of these three hits, I’d consider my Sweetland profile to be the most genuine version of me. I hold the job itself very near and dear to my heart. I consider writing to be one of the most personal things you can do — even more intimate than speaking, and writing consulting means that you often work with other undergraduate students at varying stages of stress and vulnerability. My Sweetland profile, therefore, is a good balance of casual and professional, which is exactly how I try to approach writing consulting.
Still, these three profiles are a very narrow slice of who I am. I love Sweetland, but it’s not the only extracurricular I have (and in fact, is somewhat different from my focus as a student in the School of Information). I loathe Linkedin wholeheartedly, and if it weren’t required for job applications, I’d delete my profile and never look back. I barely even remember what I put on the presentation for the last hit. I think the main reason for this is because I usually go by Sam and only use Samantha when the situation requires it, so a search for “Samantha Lu” quite naturally filters out all of the parts of myself that I enjoy — my hobbies, passions, talents, and the social media image that I (used to) try to tailor.
A search for “Sam Lu University of Michigan” is also somewhat unsuccessful. Evidently, there’s a Samuel Lu who graduated from U of M’s College of Engineering in 2016, which was incidentally my first semester on campus. This could certainly be confusing for anyone who didn’t know that I am, indeed, but a small girl. The only hit is a link to my UX Design portfolio, where I redesigned Wolverine Access as a personal project. Again, this is somewhat bland, and doesn’t really give any insight as to who I am. Perhaps one could conclude that Sam Lu is an undergraduate aspiring to break into UX Design after she escapes from college, again, a conclusion that supports the idea that digital me is very much focused on her future.
Data Broker Report + Mistaken Identities
My data broker report from Instant Checkmate wasn’t me. It was Samantha Lu from Okemos, Michigan, who also happened to be 21 years old. Other than name and age, we shared nothing in common — our middle names, parents, and associates didn’t match up, which is why I assumed this Samantha was an entirely different person. The bulk of the report was about sex offenders nearby.
Reading this Databroker Report was somewhat unsettling, particularly the portion labelled “Dates Seen at Address” under “Possible Locations.” If I wanted to, I could travel up to Okemos and confront this digital Samantha in real life. But who has the time for that? This exact thought could apply to me too. Sure, if someone looked really hard, they would probably be able to find identifying information about me, including my address. But what would drive someone to take the time to act on this information? In this instance, being mistaken for someone else actually benefits me. Okemos is pretty far from the small Michigan town that I grew up in, and even further from Ann Arbor, where I currently reside.
There’s another Samantha Lu who comes up as the first result in my Googling — a middle-aged woman who is the Associate Director of Columbia University’s Student Advising team. I wonder if I've ever been confused for her!
Google Images actually turns up a few accurate results, including the picture from my Sweetland profile and my LinkedIn profile.
Social Media Use
The bulk of my social media journey started in my freshman year of high school, when I first created my Facebook account way back in 2012. 14-year-old me started a firestorm of cringey Facebook statuses, including (but not limited to) “Truth is” posts, musings about life, and oddly aggressive declarations, peppered with caps lock, of course.
14-year-old me’s Facebook reflects a shallow, attention-focused person. Nearly every one of my status updates and posts are specifically designed to elicit an audience response of some sort, whether it's the "like my status for a truth is!" or an aggressive selfie with an intentionally casual caption. The caps lock I used for my status updates in particular signifies either an inability (or unwillingness) to communicate deeper levels of thought and reason, along with an unwillingness to keep things private. But there’s a sort of shameless confidence implicit in these artifacts. If I thought my sentences were interesting enough to broadcast them in caps lock, regardless of how relevant this content actually was to the rest of my Facebook friends, I must have had a lot of gall. This is a marked departure from my current favorite mode of communication — all-lowercase text messaging — and my comparatively low-key social media habits today. I think the biggest difference is that I've begun to care less and less about what digital me is like. That is, the older I get, the more I realize everyone is merely putting on a facade.
I haven’t made a Facebook status in years. In fact, in recent months, I’ve deactivated or deleted a majority of my accounts, including my Instagram and Snapchat. I’ve thought a lot about how I spend my time, especially as graduation looms nearer and I’m forced to consider what post-graduation me will do with her time when she’s not working. One major reason was that the digital version of myself has little to no impact on my real-life self — the way I conceptualize it, digital me is merely a way to distract from the day to day. Time spent on Instagram’s endless scroll is just time I could have spent reading or doing something else that has more measurable returns than a time suck.
Quitting most social media has made me reevaluate who I spend my time with and why. If our only interaction was to send stone-faced selfies to one another on Snapchat, abandoning that platform altogether means that I no longer interact with that person, period. But if selfies were the only communication between us, was that acquaintanceship really anything meaningful? More specifically, if the only version of me someone interacts with is surface-level digital me, then where does real-life me come in?
Philosophy Behind Use Change
If I had to further explain why I started closing down my digital self, I'd probably say something more along the lines of what philosopher Luciano Floridi suggests about human self-understanding. He frames the past three revolutions as ultimately centered on human perception and argues that we're in the midst of a fourth revolution that actually emphasizes how informational human identities are (Floridi 96). Floridi also suggests that the current generation is possibly the last to experience a clear distinction between offline and online states.
I think that's the biggest driver for my departure from social media. In past years, I've noticed that the rush of happiness from offline experiences is beginning to pale next to the excitement I derive from an abundance of likes on an Instagram photo or the number of views on a Snapchat story. I struggle to immerse myself in books the way that I used to. There just isn't enough time is what I tell myself. At first, it was extremely difficult to pull myself out of the attention-seeking mindset I'd so deeply fallen into (I had a 900-day Snapchat streak! There are extracurricular events on Facebook that I can't miss!), but I found that once I deleted or deactivated those platforms, I soon forgot about them. Without repeatedly fueling my obsession with my digital self, I began to prioritize my offline self a bit more, and in the process, I have found that I understand a bit more about who I am, how I operate, and my relation to the world around me (as per Floridi's argument). I spend more time journalling, thinking about what kind of future I want for myself, and even recognizing that value close personal friendships more than surface-level acquaintanceships.
Maybe it's futile. Digital technology is undeniably woven into my life, and I spend most of my waking moments interacting with it, whether that is checking my email, doing my homework, or listening to music, so I'm not truly offline after all. I guess it doesn't matter to me in the end, because (for me at least) it's no longer possible to go offline and still fully engage with the world — I know I'd be missing out on a lot of information, knowledge, and connection. I've accepted that staying logged in is the price I have to pay to interact with other people and information entities the way that I want to.
Someone who had full access to my digital footprint would be able to precisely follow my use habits over the past eight years as I began to show less and less of myself in the virtual world. If your only concept of me was virtual, you wouldn’t have a very accurate or authentic picture of who I am, and I prefer it that way. Even if someone managed to find one of my defunct social media accounts, I probably wouldn't care very much — there's nothing incriminating out there about me, at least that I know of. Digital me has yet to impede real-life me!
The data broker couldn’t find any useful or accurate information, which I’ll take to mean that my attempts to stay under the radar have worked pretty well so far. It’s always easier to reveal more about yourself as time goes on than it is to reveal too much and delete what’s saved online about you.
“Self-Understanding.” The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality, by Luciano Floridi, Oxford University Press, 2014.