Social media’s charts and metrics turn us into quantified digital versions of ourselves

Who am I? Better check the stats. See-ming Lee, CC BY

Earlier this month, LinkedIn announced an update to its users’ already-teeming profile view. The social network now lets you track and chart who’s viewed your posts, complete with a “performance summary” and a colorful demographic breakdown. The new analytics tool extends last year’s big feature update, which encouraged users to see how they “rank” (as in, “You rank in the top 48% for profile views among your connections”). The service already let you track your profile views, with an “insights” graph and an invitation to “See how you’re trending.”

On LinkedIn, we see ourselves in reflection – as we do all the time, though perhaps without such bar-graph depth. Life online is a hall of mirrors, where we catch our own visage multiple times a day. There is that scrollable story of our lives, Facebook’s Timeline.

On Twitter we may glance at our profile’s mix of pithy self-description and retweet metrics. Google “self-Googling” and nearly a million hits come up. We know that those Netflix or Amazon recommendations are generated from a history of our clicks. Even the ads we see are glancing back at us with tailored copy – and we have a dawning sense that that’s really us they’re pitching to.

We’re always encountering these self-likenesses. The sheer quantity and variety matter, but what’s more interesting is that they are not like a reflection in the mirror. Instead of the face and upper torso, we see retweet counts and Google search results. Lots of these self-likeness snapshots confront us as numbers and text. Seeing ourselves like this, tallied and set in type, almost certainly changes the self-image we carry around. The result is not just amped-up self-consciousness, but a different kind altogether – more thing-like and tabular. The self that’s looking back through the glass resembles an instrument panel.

Check your social media instrument panels, recalibrate the self. Roger Smith, CC BY-NC-ND

The reason this matters is that we never stop revising the picture we have of ourselves. We sense that our identities are fixed in place – rock-solid and immovable – but we’re wrong about that. Each time we see ourselves represented in, for example, our Twitter profile or judged with a flurry of comments on our Facebook status, we recalibrate. Yes, these are tiny, iterative acts of self-adjustment; no one fancies himself dashing and mysterious after 150 likes on his filtered Instagram selfie. But the self is, as the sociologist George Herbert Mead observed 80 years ago, “an eddy in the social current and so still a part of the current.” Our lot is continual adjustment, based on what we see in all these glowing LED rectangles.

What does that little screen tell you about you? Japanexperterna.se, CC BY-SA

As a result, we’re getting used to seeing ourselves as detached and distributed – as something external to our bodies and inner experience. It’s true that we have been thinking about ourselves as objects to be managed (and promoted) for a long time. “Possessive individualism” is a major strand in the history of the Western self, one that political scientist CB Macpherson has traced back to the 17th century. Certainly the injunction to “sell” oneself predates Mark Zuckerberg. But the self-likeness deluge can’t help but amplify the point: you’re the product and its chief marketer. The language of “self-branding,” so recently off-putting and gauche, is now utterly banal – in part because we’re spending so much time tuning and calibrating and viewing our web-based doppelgängers.

These portraits, some of them anyway, are composed in numbers and line charts. WolframAlpha offers “personal analytics” for Facebook. The analytics are personal – and colorful. A few dozen charts, maps and tables add up to a numerical portrait of your life on Facebook. There’s your most-liked post, a word cloud culled from your statuses, and a graph tracking the length of your posts over time.

Oh no! Are more followers disengaged than before? Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter, CC BY

Social media sites like LinkedIn and Pinterest present users with profile pages that resemble gaming leaderboards or a corporation’s annual report. Twitter, on its newish profile page (“a whole new you”) and almost everywhere else, banners your Tweets-Following-Followers triptych. Fitbit’s dashboard could be mistaken for a flight simulator. On some sites we don’t see the numbers, but know they are there. With Facebook’s Timeline, for example, most of us sense that our reverse-chronological self is generated by a likes-and-comments, secret-sauce algorithm. It’s not just the hardcore quantified-selfers who get to see themselves reflected in charts and figures.

Data-rich self-representations aren’t new – think report cards and resumes. There are just a lot more of them now. It’s like a perpetual Google alert – and with no real opt-out. The result is something like digital self-consciousness, in both the behind-the-screen, computerized sense and the ones-twos-and-threes numerical sense. If the self, as sociologist Erving Goffman famously argued, is a performance, the online enactments are dispersed and disembodied. Plus the scene never ends, and there’s no backstage. Psychologists have written about “public self-consciousness” for decades, but we’re now faced with dozens of always-on selves getting served from data centers thousands of miles away. And these self-likenesses aren’t just out-of-body but digital in that second sense: numbers set in flat sans serif. We’re used to seeing the dashboard self, in other words, and its fun-house, bits-and-binary reflection doesn’t faze us.

You are the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. Dustin O'Donnell Design

So the online self is both external and metricized. Taken together, these two traits encourage an Oz-like mentality. We’re pulling levers and uploading profile pics, or we’re anxious that we haven’t fed our Klout-filtered amour-propre lately. We come to see ourselves as fungible objects, requiring constant work – product-improvement work – to exchange for friendship, employment and self-esteem. Those are good, necessary things, of course. But Facebook and its rivals need us to keep preening, posting and working. That way they can deliver tailored ads that, in their targeted flow, look like us.