We all know that we act differently based on the space that we’re in. I’m not going to use the same language around my family dinner table that I use around the boardroom table. When we enter new spaces, we look at the decor to signal to us how to act. But it’s not just that our space shapes our behavior: it shapes the very way we think about our own identity. Space doesn’t just change the image we project onto the world, but it also changes the self-image we conjure in our own minds. And this reality is something that we have to consider in light of the changes we have experienced with the pandemic.
When we move from an old city to a new one, we may still carry aspects of our hometown identity, but we take on the personality of our new home. We go to religious buildings every week to pray to reaffirm our identity as religious believers. Even when I go to a music festival, the overall space reminds me of my identity as a young artist and creative. My identity is shaped by those spaces and by the way other people use those spaces. Spaces allow us to develop shared or communal identities to hold many identities at once and belong to many communities.
And so, how are you to think about identity within the digital sphere? Between anonymous avatars and Twitter fingers, identities can be manipulated, fabricated, and distorted to no end. Whether you’re a keyboard warrior, an online troll, a lurker, or something else entirely, your identity can take on a whole new shape when you move from the physical world into the digital. It becomes more than a mere mental change; it becomes a totally distinct identity or group of identities.
Social media only amplifies feelings of confusion or frustration that we may feel when trying to understand our identity within the context of the digital world. When I log in to one of my accounts, I reflect an authentic sense of self. I want my friends and followers to see a version of me that feels as true and real as possible.
However, the Internet has a way of changing our inherent way of being in the same way that a smartphone camera does. When a camera turns on me, my identity shifts to that of a performer. I suddenly have an audience with particular desires, expectations, and opinions about me. The same principle applies when you log in to a website and start participating in a conversation. Your identity shifts to the person you want to be or the person you want others to think you are.
None of these points are new, but they are all worth thinking about again as we pursue normalcy after the pandemic. For so many of us, the group cohesion and social bonds that we gain from many spaces — from ballparks to church halls to festival venues — desperately need repair. But that also means that our relationship with those spaces themselves is also in need of repair.
We will need to rediscover old spaces that have been rearranged and reoriented in the wake of social distancing. We’ll have to see which our favorite bars survived: small businesses are out of the woods yet. We even have to reevaluate our workspaces, balancing remote co-workers and new requirements. But we are all aware that these changes to our spatial identity will need to be made.
So it’s worth questioning why we are not more actively discussing the ways that our digital spaces have changed over the pandemic. For so many of us, staying in touch through social media was our only connection to loved ones and friends. We embrace new ways of making everyday tasks seem exciting (I’m looking at you, TikTokers). But we also had a year of frustration, class division, and political upheaval during which many of us sat in our homes with the digital world as our main space for public discourse.
As with all democracies, our society is built on a foundation of civil discourse and the sharing of ideas. Now is the time to think about our digital spaces, one of our main forums of public debate, and how we want those spaces to look in a post-pandemic world. When we talk about censoring discourse, we are really talking about how we affect each other’s identities. We are talking about the ways that we choose to allow others to shape our own identity.
And so, as we spruce up our public spaces again and embrace all of the identities these spaces provide, we must also think about our digital spaces. If ever there was a time to reboot how we construct our identities and participate in civil discourse online, that time is now. One can only hope that we choose to use digital spaces for the betterment of us all.
Originally published on Medium.