“I feel like I invited two friend groups to the same party.” 

The slowly spiralling mess that is Twitter received another beating last year in the form of a rival platform announcement: Threads. And although this was a potentially exciting development for all the scorned tweeters out there, amid the hype, noise and hubbub of this new platform I noticed something interesting. 

Some people weren’t sure how to act. 

Twitter has long been associated with performative behaviour of many kinds (as well as genuine activism and journalism of many kinds). Influencers, comedians, politicians and every aspiring Joe Schmoe adopt personas that often amount to some combination of sarcastic, cynical, snarky and bluntly relatable. 

Now, you would think that people migrating to a rival app with ostensibly the same function would just port these personas over. And you would be right, except for the hiccup of Threads being tied directly to Instagram accounts.  

Why does this matter? As many users have pointed out, the kinds of things people say and do on Twitter and Instagram are markedly different, partially because of the different audiences and partially because of the different medium focus (visual versus textual). As a result, some people are struggling with the concept of having family and friends viewing their Twitter-selves, so to speak. 

These posts can of course be taken with a grain of salt. Most people aren’t truly uncomfortable with recreating their Twitter identities on Threads. In fact, somewhat ironically, reinforcing their group identity as “(ex-)Twitter users” is the underlying function of these posts – signalling to other tweeters that “Hey, I’m one of you”.  

The incongruity between Instagram and Twitter personas or expression has been pointed out by some others in varying depth and is something you might have noticed yourself if you spend much of your free time on either platform. In short, Instagram is mostly a polished, curated, image-first representation of ourselves, whereas Twitter is mostly a stream-of-consciousness conversation mill (which lends itself to more polarising debate). There are plenty of overlapping users, but the way they appear on each platform is often vastly different. 

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking: How do our online identities reflect on us? How do these identities shape how we use other platforms? Do social media personas reflect a type of code-switching or self-monitoring, or are they just another way of pandering to the masses? 

What does it say about us when we don’t share certain aspects of ourselves with certain people?

This apparent segmentation of our personality isn’t new or unique to social media. I’m sure you can recall a moment of hesitation or confusion when introducing family to friends, or childhood friends to hobby friends, or work friends to close friends. It’s a feeling that normally stems from having to confront the (sometimes subtle) ways that we change the way we speak and act and are around different groups of people.  

Maybe you’re a bit more reserved around colleagues, or more comical around acquaintances, or riskier with old friends. Whatever it is, having these worlds collide can get you questioning which “you” is really you. 

There isn’t usually an easy answer to that, either. Identity is a slippery thing that philosophers and psychologists and sociologists have been wrangling for a long time. One basic idea is that humans are complex, and we can’t be expected to be able to communicate or display all the elements of our psyche to every person in our lives in the same ways. While that’s a tempting narrative, it’s important to be aware of the difference between adapting and pandering. 

Adapting is something we all do to various degrees.

In psychology, it’s called self-monitoring – modifying our behaviours in response to our environment or company. This can be as simple as not swearing in front of family or speaking more formally at work. Sometimes adapting can even feel like a necessity. People on the autism spectrum often “mask” their symptoms and behaviours by supressing them and/or mimicking neurotypical behaviours to fit in or avoid confrontation. 

In lots of ways, social media has enhanced our ability to adapt. The way we appear online can be something highly crafted, but this is where we can sometimes run into the issue of pandering. In this context, by pandering I mean inauthentically expressing ourselves for some kind of personal gain. The key issue here is authenticity. 

As Dr Tim Dean said in an earlier article in this series, “you can’t truly understand who someone is without also understanding all the groups to which they belong”. In many ways, social media platforms constitute (and indicate further) groups to which we belong, each with their own styles, tones, audiences, expectations and subcultures. But it is this very scaffolding that can cause people to pander to their in-groups, whether it simply be to fit in, or in search of power, fame or money. 

I want to stress that even pandering in and of itself isn’t necessarily unethical. Sometimes pandering is something we need to do; sometimes it’s meaningless or harmless. However, sometimes it amounts to a violation of our own values. Do we really want to be the kinds of people who go against our principles for the sake of fitting in?  

That’s what struck me when I read all of the confused messaging on the release of Threads. It’s one thing to not value authenticity very highly; it’s another to disvalue it completely by acting in ways that oppose our core values and principles. Sometimes social media can blur these lines. When we engage in things like mindless dogpiling or reposting uncited/unchecked information, we’re often acting in ways we wouldn’t act elsewhere without realising it, and that’s worth reflecting on. 

It’s certainly something that I’ve noticed myself reflecting on since then. For some, our online personas can be an outlet for aspects of our personality that we don’t feel welcome expressing elsewhere. But for others, the ease with which social media allows us to craft the way we present poses a challenge to our sense of identity.  

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