Updated: Aug 17
In 2019, I created ASH + BURN, an interactive emotional intelligence workshop which asked participants to design an authentic personal brand by re-framing a major "failure story" into a "hero's journey" (with the help of their fellow participants). As part of my research, I developed a brand for myself, one which as has enabled me to not only seek out, but to be identified for, opportunities that align more directly with my skills, education, experience and core values. Ironically, the one thing that seems to limit my ability to authentically express myself and connect meaningfully with others is social media.
In 2010, after a longitudinal study about our "Facebook personalities", Social Psychologist Sam Gosling and his research team concluded that, contrary to popular opinion, people do not create idealized personalities on social media. The personality style that we demonstrate on Facebook reflects their actual personality in "real life". However, personality - the combination of characteristics that one uses to interact with the world - is not the same as identity - the fact of who or what a person or thing is. As such, our ability to express the "fact" of who we are on social media is determined by the platform's options for self-definition.
Further, identity is a two-way street. The idea that we know ourselves better than anyone else is characteristic of "liberal humanism", the prevailing philosophy about human importance and uniqueness, a philosophy that is becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world where each of our identities are structured by computer algorithms and nearly all of our interactions are facilitated by them. Even without robotic "middle men", who we are has never been 100% up to us. It is a co-created concept, developed internally and also through our interactions with our environment and the other inhabitants of it.
In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Dunbar explained it informally as "the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar". Dunbar also estimated 150 as, roughly, the size of Neolithic farming villages. In 2018, the average number of "friends" any given individual is connected with on Facebook is 338, which is more than twice as many as the human animal has been socially conditioned to manage. Of course, most people maintain a social media portfolio, one that extends beyond Facebook, and have amassed far more than 338 "friends" in total.
People use a variety of different social media accounts in order to express different parts of themselves to the world, as well as to reach different types of people. It's not uncommon for someone to, for example, have a Facebook account to keep in touch with their out-of-town family and high school friends, an Instagram account to catalog their adventures in baking as well as to follow fellow in-home bakers, a Twitter account to "like" and "re-tweet" posts by their favorite celebrities and politicians, a LinkedIn profile to apply for jobs and maintain a professional presence and a Bumble account to seek out potential mates and friends. What in the world are we doing? We are compartmentalizing our identity in order to connect with more and more people. But, as we fracture our identities into smaller and smaller pieces, our interactions with other humans become shallower and shallower. Perhaps only our computers and our SmartPhones will be the one ones who ever truly know us.
I was recently asked to create an "Identity Wheel" for a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion learning journey at my company. The instructions were to show your social identities and then suggest a general percentage of how much that identity influences how you "show up" at work. In creating my wheel drawing, I found that it was impossible to outline my personal sense of identity (inner circle) without also identifying my identity, as experienced by my social system (outer circle). We don't live in dark rooms alone. Our identities are socially constructed, so neglecting that piece is only telling one version of our story.
My Identity: The Story Told By Society
Because of how I look, the prevailing social identity I experience in society is that of a white woman; for this reason, I gave it 90%. Regardless of how many of stereotypes, privileges and limitations I personally experience, a general observer will attribute all of them to me. Of course, being "white" alone is a highly privileged social identity and, as a result, I am rarely restricted access to anything on the basis of my skin color. However, being a "white woman" does come along with specific societal expectations of behavior, to act conservatively and deferentially, lest we be perceived by white men and other white women as "troublemakers", "spinsters" or "sluts". Additionally, I feel as if I am in constant competition with white men for "air time", to be taken seriously, to be given the same opportunities and to be equally compensated for equal work. Among non-white men and women, I feel quietly challenged to listen more deeply and and demonstrate more compassion, suggesting that many of those individuals have been disregarded, judged or kept at an arm's length by people who look "like me".
I am, as of writing this, under 40. This is a fact that is easily "guessable" by my physical appearance. But, being under 40 also means that I am part of the Millennial Generation (aka Gen Y). So, in addition to any basic assumptions that people may have about white women under 40 (that I am married / in a romantic relationship, have a college degree, that I am "fertile" and likely to have more children), I also conjure all the positive and negative associations people have with my generation (that I need constant feedback from my managers and wish to "save the world"). However, being 36 and on the "cusp" of Gen Y and Gen X, this social identity is not a particularly important part of my social experience. That's why I gave it 5%.
Finally, one of the social identities that society likes to focus on is that I am a divorced parent. I don't wear this on a T-Shirt or anything, is simply something that comes out in conversation, in almost any context, within the first few moments of meeting someone. Why? Because humans are not as evolved as we like to believe we are and relationship status, parental status and fertility are such interesting topics that Employment Lawyers literally needed to create legislation to make it illegal for hiring managers to ask about such things during job interviews. (Because, spoiler alert, they were.)
My Identity: My Private Story, Partially Hidden From Society
Internally, I don't associate too much with being a "white woman". Of course, this is because I have the privilege of not really having to. As such, I break those elements apart. As you can see from the chart, I think about my "white" identity about 5% of the time and don't define myself as a woman at all. Instead, I identify as both "AFAB" (assigned female at birth) and "Non-Binary", specifically "Agender". (I use she/her pronouns, thanks for asking ;) What does that mean? Well, I have a vagina, so I was assigned the sex of female at birth. After that, I spent most of my life identifying with that gender because, well, it didn't seem to give me any problems to do so. Because of this gender identity and the fact that I am far more sexually attracted to men than I am to women, I was also classified as "straight" (not homosexual or bisexual). After I had my first son, I underwent multiple surgical sterility procedures (tubal ligation and endometrial ablation) which, after a few years, led me to no longer "feel" like a woman and to lose touch with my physical self. Dressing like a woman now feels a bit like a costume, but, in many ways, so does having a body. Dressing like a man would feel like a costume, one that I would feel rather uncomfortable and silly wearing. All that said, I know that I am still viewed and treated like a basic white woman, so I enjoy the privileges associated with that category. However, I just don't not feel like it is an accurate description of my internal self.
Being a divorced parent is a much bigger part of my internal identity than what I share with publicly. When you're divorced, "being a parent" is perceived similar to "having a hobby" to employers. Being a divorced parent means that your parenting schedule, and consequently your entire life schedule, is irregular. I don't go home to the same life every night; sometimes I'm a parent, other times I'm not. But, employers don't have a category for this. As such, I get the micro-discrimination of both: whenever fun new opportunities pop up at work, I am often passed over (like a "real parent" often is) because my leadership team assumes I don't have the capacity to take on more work. Paradoxically, there there are times when I'm expected to work late to finish something because "real parents" need to go home to their families. Work is always determined by my employer's schedule, not my parenting schedule.
Finally, as the prevailing component of my internal self is being mad. The word "mad" is an all encompassing term which includes, not only, the fact that I have received a psychiatric diagnosis at some point in my life but also the fact that my mind is, in fact, rather exceptional. I am extremely creative, fast-paced, divergent, emotional, spiritual and existential. My ideas disrupt and I adeptly inspire others to harness their energy to achieve goals and make change. This "madness" is a central part of my internal identity but not something that is typically discussed at work in such a metaphysical sort of way. Madness is a large part of my internal identity but I keep it mostly private, in order to be more accessible to the general public.
Which one of these identity stories is "true"? The answer is simple: both.
So, what is Project Entrope?
Entropy is the state of a system in smaller, more variable components. This state is less stable and predictable than simpler, cohesive systems. A Trope, in pop culture, is a common literary or rhetorical devices, a motif or cliché used in in creative works. Project Entrope is an extension of my work from ASH + BURN. With it, I've decided to try something that sounds like a paradox: to use fiction to tell a more authentic story about myself and connect more meaningfully with others on social media. So, leveraging my background as a storyteller and a performer, I've developed four different characters ("tropes"), each based on different parts of my internal social identity. Each character has been provided with own portfolio of social media platforms and each have different ways of expressing their true "selves" and interacting with the world.
Since individual humans are are components of a larger human system, aren't we simply the the embodiment of entropy? Taking it one step further, although the word "individual" implies that we cannot be divided, is that actually true? Humans are made up of a variety of smaller components, including organs, organelles and cells. Wouldn't it stand to reason that our identities would operate in a similar manner? Considering the self-expressive limitations of social media platforms, is it possible to patchwork together various tropes, archetypal personalities, that together make up an authentic personal brand? Do I have some degree control over my internal and social identity? Or, am I just cast in a bleak theatrical production of natural selection, playing the roles I was born to play?
Let's find out.
Each week I will post an update about my experience with Project Entrope, subscribe to this blog (or interact with my characters!) to write yourself into my world.