Social media, one of the newest forms of interaction in a world rapidly moving into the digital universe. There’s Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and all their integrations with dating apps like Tinder & Co., more or less popular.
Every day, millions of different souls across the world connect impressions of one another and create new conversations. The digital kingdom is filled with messages, photographs and videos. Each image is posed, filtered, curated and assessed before being loaded online, no matter if they are uploaded by a girl or a guy, a man or a woman… Well, except my mum, and probably yours, they don’t edit their photos before posting.
Digital impressions are made every single day
Some are made for friends, others for online fans and others for people we want to catch the attention of. Sometimes photos are loaded to attract potential partners or dates. I have taken part to this game of course, checking out Instagram to see what my friends are doing, hunting through Pinterest for new tattoo ideas or scrolling endless Facebook timelines, until I finally left FB a while ago. I’ve even loaded photos of myself on Tinder and other the dating apps.
In particular, on Tinder, I uploaded a photograph of myself showing my tattoo… Well actually a photo of the tattoo only, and this photo doubled the interest I received so far on the app. This made me question our digital world. How did we date or keep our connections alive before we had an online playground? Does the ability to connect with strangers make us easily replaceable when the next new interest comes along? And how do we manage impressions in order to create an idealized version of ourselves? (Check my piece about dating app interactions)
The presentation of self
Social researcher Erving Goffman once explained that we manage what we show to others very carefully, we analyze every single detail about what we are about to post or say publicly. Social media enhances our ability to shape impressions, allowing us to create an online persona which we can both edit and curate. In other words, we love to choose how we show ourselves to others, and clearly social media have made this easily manageable!
If we really want to stand out, however, we have to make ourselves relevant. What we share never occurs in a social vacuum. We’re always communicating a message. And this message connects to a larger world. What we share on social media often links to the images we wish to create for ourselves. We use our online presence to tell a story.
What enables us to decide our interactions? Social media is different to everyday life situations because we are able to select the images we present. By adding a selected range of photos (that are often filtered and edited) we are able to manage the impressions we give others. Goffman would say we are provided with the opportunity for performance.
Performances are connected to the times we live in. As an individual who placed an image of myself with a tattoo on Tinder, I did so believing that my image would be interpreted according to the social thoughts or beliefs which exist at the moment. So what did my tattoo say about me, and why did I receive such a great response?
Tattoos as a form of communication
Kirby Farrell wrote in Psychology Today that as human beings we use tattoos to communicate a message. Although humans have been using inks as a form of communication for over 5000 years, tattoos are considered to be especially relevant in current times. Tattoos represent youth, adventure and forward thinking. They may represent a move towards independence or a right of passage. People who use tattoos may seem hungry for life. Tattoos emphasize the present and the beliefs the owner holds (and shares) in the present moment.
Tattoos grab attention, both in real life and on social media. This creates a feeling of importance or relevance. The more people notice you, the more important you seem to be. Tattoos give us a way of commanding attention. Displaying them on social media makes us larger than in real life. We gain status and a sense of power. These feelings are socially relevant and signify who we are and what we are representing, both to ourselves and to others.
Tattoos are intriguing. A while ago tattoos were seen to be stigmatized, and academics sometimes wrote articles exploring this stigma. Now, however, tattoos are trendy and cool. They also tell a story. Did you choose a skull, a butterfly or “I love you mum”? Where did you place your tattoo? Is it a sign of rebellion or patriotism? What size did you choose?
Tattoos are an expression of individuality. Our society currently appreciates and endorses ‘the individual’. Showing who you are has become increasingly relevant (sometimes it also became a job) in this new digital world. Therefore, using a tattoo to show a sense of uniqueness has a social value. Tattoos are a form of self-expression. As a result, we believe the owners of these tattoos are more individual or unique.
What don’t we share?
I could understand that my tattoo was sending out a message. This was what I intended after all. It shares a great deal about me. However, it also conceals a lot. There are messages behind that tattoo that I don’t share. In some ways, it provides an excellent distraction. I’m becoming an avid reader, and maybe, sometimes, a writer… But what if I am shy? What if I sometimes feel awkward in social situations? None of this has been portrayed in my cool photos. In other words, my image is simply a part of me, but not me.
By using my tattoo, along with other images, I was creating a social persona. Based on the times we live in, I received an excellent response. In every image we curate or produce, there is constant communication between who we are, what we find attractive, and the social roles we perform by placing our images online. This images, like fashion and makeup styles, will change according to the times.
You might ask whether I want to show myself completely? Am I interested in showing more than my interests, the highlights of my life or the messages I choose to put forward? My tendency to hide behind a carefully selected image might be exaggerated online, but intimacy takes time. And believe me, even when sharing in person, in the real world, we closely monitor how much we show to others.
Social media makes you sad.
And yet, despite the fact that relationships take time, our carefully monitored and edited personas have an impact both on ourselves and on others. Social media sites such as Facebook or Instagram sometimes make us sad. Seeing other people sharing sunny holiday photos can be depressing when you’re shut inside on a freezing cold day (unless you are with your other half). If you’ve just been fighting with your partner, it makes sense that “full of love” photographs will leave you longing for the ideal love. When we compare the realities of our own lives to the highlights shared by others, we often feel inadequate.
If, as Brene Brown shares, empathy is the glue that keeps us connected, we sometimes lose out when we believe that those around us are having an awesome time. As a result, we sometimes feel alienated or inadequate. When we present ourselves as a persona, we often worry what others would really think of us.
People may love and respond to my “supposed brave” tattoo. They can enjoy the story I have created for myself. I love it too, which is why I presented it in this way. And this image may even play a role in my destiny. They might help me to shape new relationships and share new experiences. The responses I received online were both memorable and thought-provoking. I was both flattered and intrigued.
I’m now left with one question: how much do we let ourselves communicate when we decide to show some skin?