Besides everything else, the internet is a procrastinator’s theme park. At every juncture there’s something shinier and more inane to get distracted by until you realise you started out googling a train timetable and ended up sifting through Wikipedia pages of sole survivors of plane crashes. It’s so good at this – taking you away from what you should be doing – that people install software to artificially keep them offline, or block social media websites. Of course none of that really works, and if you have to use it you’ve already lost.
Since we spend so much time online, the internet gradually learns who we are: algorithms for more specifically targeted ads skimming through the information in our messages and emails and searches and browse history. Eventually a picture of you as a hunched little human over a laptop emerges. The filter bubble encases you in feedback loops of news you’d like to read, or things you’d like to buy, or how something that one friend says is prioritised for your information over another.
In this increasingly creepy world where your digital tracks are everywhere, it’s sometimes nice to see the internet occasionally show its rudimentary understanding of human personalities.
I absentmindedly did one of those multiple choice quizzes the other night called something like “Can the internet tell who you are?” I know, it was a particular procrastination-heavy few minutes. The quiz claimed that just by asking you a list of questions about your personal habits, it could nail down your demographic.
My results card came in: Male, mid-50s. “You are currently in your mid-50s, still working hard and enjoying every minute of it. You are starting to go bald, but you don’t care about it as much as you thought you would when you were younger.”
So no, despite all of its efforts, the internet cannot tell who you are, no matter how much it wants to. When my single friends talk about Tinder and other dating apps, the goal seems to be to pull any connections made into real life as quickly as possible. The sooner a real life date happens, the sooner you know what someone is like. You just can’t tell with pictures or interests or snappy text conversations. Instead, we are drawn to people who look a certain way that is instantly appealing, or have very specific interests. Everyone else is swiped left, disregarded.
How crazy to live in a society where accidental meetings of people who aren’t immediately what you think they are, or who you’d like them to be, can’t happen.
And what about your profile? What are you going for? How do you want to be perceived? Because it is all about perception, not reality.
Allowing people to project what they feel is their definitive aspect on to social media often reveals how misguided people are about their own personalities and their own positive characteristics.
Isn’t it funny how, given the opportunity to project – and in some ways invent – the most appealing personality you can think of for others to digest online, people still seem to go out of their way to presenting an annoying version of themselves?
The internet cannot know who we are simply because the versions of ourselves we choose to inhabit the online world are so warped. No wonder it’s hard to tell what people are really like when we’re adjusting our personalities to some strange emboldened version of ourselves, taking one characteristic or element of the self – fitness, music, family, inspirational, angry, infantilised – and reinventing that as a dominant characteristic.
You see people online you know well acting nothing like what they are in real life, or exaggerating what they subconsciously view as their most saleable asset: coyness, motherhood, wryness, sarcasm.
Inevitably these quirks flatten a person into a two-dimensional caricature of themselves. How can the internet tell who we are when we’re lying? But while it’s comforting that the internet can’t tell us exactly who we are because our true realness will always be offline, the damage is being done when we start to mimic our online selves in real life.
A teenage actor recently told me she felt the so-called popular cliques in schools are now made up of people who have successful online profiles; that a specific number of likes were seen as validation and anything under that caused stress or social anxiety; that people mimic fun for Snapchat videos as opposed to actually have it.
Maybe the ultimate “disruption” online is of our own personalities. From curating a phoney visual story about our lives on
, to manufacturing opinions on Twitter, to documenting your relationship on
, many people have ensured their online lives are no longer ancillary things, but central to their personality.
And at some point, many have confused the personality they sought to project and the real truth to them as a person. It’s weird, it feels wrong, but the reality is that more people will digest the version of your personality online than will know your real one offline. So the internet may not be able to tell you who you are, but what story are you telling it about yourself?