November 15, 2019

How Social Media Makes Us Who We Are

“Last year, I had a strange dream. My father and I were wading in an industrial canal, reminiscent of a subway, as thousands of hatchery-raised fish were being released into it. The fish crowded, slimy, around our legs, and I knew (in the way that one knows in a dream) that they thought, as they hit the water, that they were drowning—that they had to experience death before entering adulthood. The next day, I told my father about the dream. He revealed that, when I was three, when we were living in Pittsburgh, he took me to see a truckful of catfish being pumped into an artificial pond. I was too young to remember this. But somewhere in my mind the vision of fish being spewed into water had lodged itself, resurfacing more than twenty-five years later.

These days, it’s common to find an image emerging, unbeckoned, from the reservoir of the past. We spend hours wading through streams of photos, many of which document, in unprecedented ways, our daily lives. Facebook was invented in 2004. By 2015, Kate Eichhorn writes in “The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media,” people were sharing thirty million images an hour on Snapchat, and British parents “posted, on average, nearly two hundred photographs of their child online each year.” For those who have grown up with social media—a group that includes pretty much everyone under twenty-five—childhood, an era that was fruitfully mysterious for the rest of us, is surprisingly accessible. According to Eichhorn, a media historian at the New School, this is certain to have some kind of profound effect on the development of identity. What that effect will be we’re not quite sure.

Eichhorn sees both sides of the coin. On the one hand, she says, children and teen-agers have gained a level of control that they didn’t have before. In the past, adults refused to acknowledge children’s agency, or imposed on them an idealized notion of innocence and purity. Adults were the ones writing books, taking photos with expensive cameras, and commissioning paintings, all of which tended to commemorate childhood—to look back at it—rather than participate in it. The arrival of cheaply made instant photos, in the nineteen-sixties, allowed children to seize a means of production, and the arrival of the Internet gave them an unprecedented degree of self-determination. “If childhood was once constructed and recorded by adults and mirrored back to children (e.g., in a carefully curated family photo album or a series of home video clips), this is no longer the case,” Eichhorn writes. “Today, young people create images and put them into circulation without the interference of adults.””

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