Thursday 2 December 2021

The Triangular Self in the Social Media Era

This post is part of a series on the new journal Memory, Mind & Media. Today, Qi Wang talks about her research on the triangular self. Her paper, ‘The triangular self in the social media era’, is now available open access.

Qi Wang is Professor of Human Development and Psychology at Cornell University. Her research examines how cultural forces, including the Internet technology, impact autobiographical memory and the sense of self. She is the author of The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture (OUP 2013) and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Qi Wang

In the era of social media, we can share online our daily experiences as our lives unfold, at any time and as frequently as we’d like, with diverse audiences physically afar. This way of remembering and sharing personal experiences is unprecedented in human history. It also uniquely contributes to how we view ourselves in a digitally mediated world. I propose a triangular theory of self to characterize the sense of self and identity specific to the era of social media. 

One form of selfhood, as traditionally understood, is how we privately view ourselves, our traits and attributes, our social relations, and our life experiences. I call it the represented self. This form of selfhood is externalized to the public sphere in the social media era. Through our online sharing actives, we strive to connect with others and express ourselves, and how we share our experiences later becomes how we remember and tell our life stories. 

Furthermore, through sharing our views and experiences on social media platforms, we acquire a digital extension of our selfhood, which I refer to as the registered self. The registered self as we present in social media often depicts our uniqueness and our ideal self-images, with the assistance of rich technology features in multimedia forms, such as text, photo, video, hyperlink, and even livestreaming and augmented reality. It is also open and communicative, to invite and engage our audience. 

Also, with short, frequent, and real-time posts of "what I'm doing right now" and often immediate reactions from our audience, we experience a sense of constant presence of others in our lives. The third form of selfhood is what I call the inferred self, where the virtual audience collectively form knowledge about us based on our social media posts and through their engaging in various ways with our posts. Working through a transactive mind, the virtual audience make sense of the disparate experiences we share online and interweave the slices of information into a coherent life story about who we are.

The three forms of selfhood mutually influence each other. For example, our personalities and motives influence how we share our experiences online. How others respond (or not respond at all) to our social media posts can in turn affect how we feel about ourselves and our self-esteem, as well as how we share our experiences in the future. 

In summary, the triangular theory of self conceptualizes the self as represented in the private mind of the person, the public sphere of social media platforms, and the transactive mind of the virtual audience. The three forms of selfhood interact in dynamic ways and together constitute our sense of self and identity specific to the social media era.

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