The Dissolving Mirror

Notes on Space, Place, Facebook, Harry Potter, and the Construction of Identity/ies


I don't use Facebook very much these days.

I don't object to it, as an entity, an organism: I think it's entitled to its opinions, entitled to grow, entitled to become whatever it is that they (and we) make it. I'm not overly concerned about privacy settings or what potential employers/friends/acquaintances might see (should I be? As a rule, I try not to put anything online that I don't want people to know about; but then, I'm very lucky, or very stupid, or both; my life is not divided into such clear-cut categories as Work and Home and Leisure -  I work from home, often with my friends, the very people with whom I share ideas and experiences and beers, and I'm too uptight for Leisure in the traditional sense, I think). I don't mind the pangs of irrational jealousy as all of my friends' avatars gradually turn into thumbnail-sized photos of their latest offspring or their wedding kiss: I'm going to feel irrationally jealous of people no matter what. Moreover, these people aren't even always my friends. Often they're just people I know, or have known, people on the periphery of my life, people who have briefly (for a night, a week, a few years) - overlapped with me. So they're procreating, marrying, graduating, buying expensive things: but what do I look like to them? Just as distant, just as busy/happy/empty/strange.

No, the reason I don't use it very much is that I don't trust the thing I see in the mirror; or maybe it's that I don't trust the mirror itself. I don't know what version of myself to present, mostly because I don't know what version of myself to be, or is it the other way around? Increasingly I don't know what's flesh and what's reflection, and I've begun to suspect that this is because there's very little difference.


When I first joined Facebook, in late 2004, it was different. I was a freshman in college, living across the river from Harvard, where the whole thing had been born. My peers and I used it as a way of sizing each other up: you befriended people you'd met at parties, people you sat next to in lectures, people you rode the elevator with every morning. You learned that the cute boy down the hall had a girlfriend back home and that the girl sitting next to you in Intro to Fiction also liked Death Cab for Cutie and listed Hemingway as a favorite writer (although it's entirely possible that Death Cab for Cutie and Hemingway were defining influences on everyone I went to university with). The profile was a (nearly) static thing, a collection of quotes, interests, identifications. A series of lists. And a single photograph: that was the only visual clue (though clue to what?).

There’s a transcript of an interview with Mark Zuckerberg, from the early(ish) Facebook days. “I think that the goal that we went into it with,” he says, “wasn’t to make an online community, but sort of like a mirror for the real community that existed in real life.”

The thing is this: my generation is growing up with Facebook. I don't mean generation in the loose, age-independent sense that I often do - in this case I actually mean specifically people my age, give or take a few years (people who are close to Mark Zuckerberg's age, basically). And I am not saying we own this thing any more than anyone else does; just that it's easy, under the circumstances, for me to see the evolution of Facebook as a kind of corollary to the way we're getting older.

Look at it this way: as we get older, Facebook becomes more inclusive. As we go through university, graduate from university, get jobs, go to graduate school, get married, have families, have affairs, have breakdowns and breakthroughs, it expands to encompass our own expanding worlds. The connections we made at college seemed important at the time. “The real community that existed in real life” was firmly rooted on campus and in cramped apartment buildings, revolving around kegs and lecterns - or else it existed in hometowns and shared memories of high school. (The advent of Facebook Timeline has allowed me to travel back in time, and I notice that the first few posts on my wall were from high school friends - little scrawls, like yearbook messages, recollections of inside jokes that have long since ceased to mean anything to me, and presumably also to them, declarations of affection and affiliation).

Now those connections are only a small part of the larger social ecosystem in which we exist, one that includes co-workers, childhood friends, spouses, children, cousins, second cousins, one night stands, teachers, students. In an Atlantic piece on Mark Zuckerberg, Megan Garber quotes Jeff Jarvis declaring that Zuckerberg now, “sees Facebook as a next step in the net’s evolutionary scale toward humanity" - no longer a mirror, but the thing being mirrored, too.


So the construction of a profile, an (online?) identity, becomes increasingly complicated. For a start, it begins to rely as much on what they have to say (or post) about us as what we have to say for ourselves. The photo of me, aged 19, wearing a deconstructed cardboard Budweiser box as a hat, is part of a long visual narrative that also includes images of me on the steps of the Supreme Court building, me wearing a cap and gown after earning my master's degree, me on a dhow off the coast of Kenya, me, aged 10, dressed up to play Robin Starveling in the school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The profile is now an interactive thing. We don't list our interests anymore - perhaps because we're less sure of these things, perhaps because these things are no longer a good benchmark for anything (we've finally learned that having incompatible musical tastes doesn't make people incompatible partners), or perhaps because who we are is too tied up in how we want to appear to certain people. Multiple identities: I don't use Facebook very often - or, more accurately, I don't use it constructively (I use it voyeuristically on a daily basis) - because I'm not sure how to present a single version of myself to so many conflicting audiences. I haven't yet decided who the one person is that I can show to colleagues, family, close friends to whom my online presence is only a shadow anyway, distant friends to whom I want to appear objectively successful and sorted, even though nobody is ever really either of those things. Did I say my life was not divided into clear-cut categories? It turns out this doesn't matter: I'm still performing to different audiences.

Last week I came across this piece - "The Data Self (A Dialectic)" - by Nathan Jurgenson. “We cannot describe how a person creates their Profile without always acknowledging how the Profile creates the person,” Jurgenson writes. “Experience creates documentation and documentation creates experience," he concludes. So while I am deciding (or not deciding) how to present myself, what I have already presented, what I am selectively, actively presenting, is influencing that decision.

It’s easy enough to see how this might work in practical terms: Jurgenson uses the example of Spotify, “a streaming services that syncs with and publishes to one’s Facebook profile...because my Profile contains listening behaviors that I know are being judged by others, I may choose to listen to slightly different music to ‘give off’ the impression I wish to portray.” And it’s also not hard to imagine how the construction of the online self might influence the construction/perception of the offline self. The profile and the person create each other. Perhaps it's not just that the mirror has been turned on itself; it's that there is no mirror anymore.


"That pleasant Pavolovian buzz of seeing that someone has responded to something I have posted somewhere is not merely pleasure at having gained some attention; it is also a moment that feels like control over an identity that has slipped away into the permanently public realm."

- Rob Horning, "Data Self Redux"


There's another thing my generation (again in that very specific sense) has grown up with: Harry Potter. When the first book came out, I was almost exactly the same age as Harry (when the final book came out, of course, I was already into my 20s, spending a giddy summer in Oxford, but I still felt it was somehow significant that this story had unfolded over more or less the same span of time that we had gone through adolescence).

What strikes me about these two very separate things is what they seem to share: an inherent tension between reality (whatever we take that to actually mean) and fantasy, between security and freedom. There's the desire for familiarity, rooted-ness: in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, for instance, there's a young boy struggling to fit in, and subsequently finding a world in which he does fit in; on Facebook, there's a desire to feel connected with people we've met - or, rather, a desire to strengthen or acknowledge the connection, to make it 'tangible', even if in an intangible way. But on the other hand there's also the freedom of possibility, the joy of unfamiliarity: a magical world where broomsticks fly and evil takes a physical form; an online identity emporium, the ability to build a self, the potential for endless iterations and incarnations.

I'm not suggesting that this is unique to my (or anyone's) generation (and I certainly recognise the awful arrogance - as well as the futility - of writing about "one's own generation", or anyone's generation). I'm suggesting that maybe some of these things that we like to point to as - what? symptoms and/or causes of a new breed of shallowness and short-sightedness? - are actually manifestations of a deeper, more timeless struggle. It's a struggle that Yi-Fu Tuan articulated in 1977, the struggle between place (security) and space (freedom) - "we are attached to the one and long for the other". Perhaps now the sense of struggle is heightened by the sense that security is harder to achieve, but so too is freedom. By Tuan’s definition, is “online”, which offers security and freedom in equal measure, and threatens both, too, a space or a place? Is it both? Is it something else entirely?


I find myself thinking again of the mirror; the dissolving mirror, the mirror that no longer exists. Much has been written about the narcissism of my generation (and here I mean generation loosely: the narcissism of what I've seen called "the internet age", I guess I should say). And it is narcissistic indeed to spend too much time in front of the mirror. But does this change if the mirror is not a mirror?

I think of "the ways in which individuals are simultaneously being created by their digital presence," as Jurgenson puts it; and so the corresponding ways in which I might be different if my digital presence was something other than what it is. It does funny things to my sense of time: the before is also the after; the documentation of an experience prematurely takes into account the experience of documentation.

I think, too, of the Mirror of Erised - the mirror that shows the "deepest and most desperate desire of one's heart". Maybe this is what we see just before we start to construct our online identity(ies): the thing we want to be, not the thing we could be, or should be, or will be, or even have been.