The way we use technology, and certainly social media, is focused on a stylized and curated presentation of the self. Because the self we present via technology has time and space in which to form before it arrives at our audience, it can be controlled more actively than our physical selves. Imagine, here, a girl named Zena: you will probably at this point dress her up in your head a certain way, maybe give her attributes that come from associations with similar sounding names. She will appear throughout this article, though, increasingly in her own terms as we follow her through her various social media platforms. And get ready: she’s really fun.
Before we get to her internet presence, let me mention the way Zena texts, because that will give you a more “intimate” view into her self presentation — this is a more vulnerable Zena, because it is one exposed only to that exclusive sanctum of people who she communicates with privately and probably sees in real life. This is a screenshot of a text she sent:
You can see she has a particular style: lots of abbreviations, enthusiastic punctuation, sound effects, attention to “mistakes” only when they compromise meaning. Perhaps more distinctive is her use of lots of separate messages to express very short segments of thought. The casual nature of the text is probably a result of the person she is texting, but remember: when texting, we can adopt particular styles of language fairly at will, a curation harder to manage in speech — what comes out in conversation comes out. You can’t edit a few characters here, a word there. While you can certainly assume certain speech affects, the process is slower and more difficult than the same changes would be in text, particularly if they are to be consistent. And Zena has probably, more or less consciously, adopted a fairly seamless style of texting that remains consistent whether she is texting quickly or slowly, casually or more self-consciously. But this is only the beginning of the way she uses technology to curate her persona.
Just as we curate our language via text, we curate Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles. Note this word “curate,” which comes to me automatically when I talk about social media. With its art world associations, we think of creation: but that’s not exactly what the word refers to. Curation involves choosing pieces that “work together” in the hope that a collection of disparate elements can compose a meaningful whole, in the hope that a unifying story can emerge from myriad references. This, then, is what I mean by curating style: taking a collection of references and using them to gesture towards some ostensible gestalt whole. Zena has a Facebook, a Twitter, and a Tumblr — she’s off Instagram at the moment — and the way she uses each of these technologies draws on cultural references to help illustrate what she wants to present as her “identity,” something which these technologies purport to gesture towards, but, perhaps, actually create.
Whether or not such a gestalt-whole identity exists, or whether or not any whole can be revealed/created through style alone (even with style conceptualized in the broadest terms), is irrelevant here. It is enough to note that in the context of a society in which we use and read style in this way, as a meaningful representation of identity, individuals constantly engage in the process of pulling together fragments of reference into new combinations. Whether or not Zena believes her technological avatars represent “her,” whether or not they actually do, whether or not these avatars are actually creating a new Zena that didn’t exist without them are not questions this column can or will tackle. It is enough to note, for the purposes of following our model internet girl, that she does, like you and me and all our friends, see her identity as reflected in social media and work to make that reflection one that she likes; she curates it.
The field of references Zena can reach towards in curating this online persona is endless because of the amount of cultural information she has access to through the internet and other media. This may be why she chooses to be a part of particular subcommunities which span across her internet engagement and her physical, “real” world life. With their own distinctive images, these subcommunities provide a narrowed aesthetic field from which Zena and other members can sub-curate their image. They allow another layer of group meaning and identity to permeate those choices, and help Zena from getting lost in her sea of options. This is certainly a reiteration of the limited aesthetic fields defined by other group identities. Probably, Bourdieu would say this endless fragmented world of reference I have identified doesn’t actually exist to Zena or any individual, because they are already consigned by class, gender, race, etc. to certain narrowed fields.
But in conceptualizing the world of aesthetic references as endlessly full of options to which individuals have more or less access provides an interesting starting point for thinking about the way style changes and evolves. When we conceptualize the stylistic options of certain individuals as necessarily limited we tend to forget that what we are talking about is not a delivered, whole, static aesthetic. And it is also worth remembering that any individual might be part of several different groups, each with individual, distinctive style. Zena, for example, is part of a group of tweeters that focus on an ironic hatred of Selena Gomez while valorizing Lindsay Lohan; this same group includes funny commentary on ridiculous sexist goings-on in the media. They type their tweets in a certain style: a style that above even content has given Zena an aesthetic field to play in, and one that she transposes onto her other social media platforms. But she also follows, on tumblr, a group of young “emo” teenagers, and her high school is a distinctive art-imbued community that follows the contemporary art world. These different fields seep across one another and give Zena a set of stylistic references to draw on as she sub-curates her own distinctive presence through all her avatars.
At the level of an individual non-Zena Swarthmore student trying to get dressed and choose a new profile picture or browse a few tumblrs, maybe even post a tweet commenting on annoying peers or events in the media, it is easy to forget that this process of sub-curation can be fun and creative and generative. Something I have always considered paramount in thinking about style is accepting both its superficiality and its deeply meaningful presence in daily life — when we accept those things, we can play. The idea of consistency especially is one that feels so arbitrary to me, and thus extra-specially fun to play with: taking it to the extreme, across your internet and real world presences, would be one way to play — imagine, here, that Zena decides to take the emo aesthetic she is exposed to on Tumblr and transpose it across her Twitter, her Facebook, and even her texting style. Such a consistency, in its extremity and also in the different social meanings of the emo aesthetic on different platforms, might create an absurd and thought-provoking effect. The opposite direction of play would lead to completely and deliberately rejecting consistency across different avatars: Zena doesn’t allow her art world school community, her ironic feminist celeb appreciation community, and her emo community to mix at all. Each of her avatars takes an extreme, complete cue from the group style it is associated most directly with and subsumes itself in that, without any outside references.
But play doesn’t need to be a big, deliberate, perhaps difficult experiment. It can mean the preservation of some spaces for certain styles of expression and appreciation for the fact that we get to jump back and forth between those spaces while still validating all of them as real. This is where style owes a special thank you to technology: it allows us discrete, perhaps anonymous spaces to create and play with identity and aesthetic.
Technology, like curation, is floating around here, not just as a source of new references, but as a source of new spaces for references. That’s where this column really starts and ends: references feeding into platforms creating communities and possibilities of communities and identities and possibilities of identities. Take to your platforms, Swatties, and manipulate them — nothing comes of nothing, matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something new out of stuff other people have made.