Personal Transformations in the Internet Age

 Images Printcover 200906 Toc Guestblogger Marina Gorbis is executive director at Institute for the Future.

l find many things remarkable about psychiatrist George Vaillant's longitudinal studies of 268 Harvard men, not least of which is their time span -- 72 years! To see someone transformed from a teenager to an old man is usually the stuff of fiction, not academic research. It turns out though that real lives are not that different from fiction, what with so many unpredictable twists and turns. What struck me most was the depth of personal transformations many of Vaillant's subjects' lives take. For example, starting out as a promising well-adjusted student with a loving family and later coming to resent your kin, seeing them as cold and detached; veering from a happy marriage to an affair with a much younger woman and eventual divorce; finding God, abandoning God, all in the span of one life. These transformations are so stark, some of the study participants barely recognize themselves when presented with vignettes of their past selves. As Joshua Wolf Shenk writes in the June issue of Atlantic Monthly:
"One of the men in the study at age 50 declared, "God is dead and man is very much alive and has a wonderful future." He had stopped going to church, he said, when he arrived at Harvard. But as a sophomore, he had reported going to mass four times a week. When Vaillant sent this--and several similar vignettes--to the man for his approval to publish them, the man wrote back, "George, you must have sent these to the wrong person." Vaillant writes, "He could not believe that his college persona could have ever been him. Maturation makes liars of us all."
The stories reported in the study are complex yet familiar -- they are not so different from stories of our own lives or those of our parents, grandparents, or others we know. I have come to view my own life as a progression of different personas --- a young girl in Ukraine, a young professional in Silicon Valley, a mom of a teenager. At each stage, I was a different person with a different outlook on the world, different circumstances and sets of aspirations. Reminders of my past selves are contained in a few photographs tucked away in a shoe box that I occasionally bring out, a box of letters to my family in Odessa, and, more recently, increasingly growing compilations of videos, e-mails, online photos, etc.

Reinventing ourselves as we go through life is a natural part of human experience. It is what we do as we mature, encounter new circumstances, build new relationships.  It is an inherent part of the immigrant experience as one changes homes, learns new language, and internalizes new cultural norms. But such reinventions and transformations are not the exclusive domain of immigrants -- we are all subject to them to a greater or lesser degree as a part of living.

A key part of the process of reinvention of self is the acquisition of new reference points that serve to give us a sense of our new identity -- new friendships, new relationships, new places. An equally important part of this process is the shedding of old ones. This is what is so interesting about high school reunions.  We realize that the people in the room who were so important to us during our teenager years, whose acceptance and approval defined so much how we thought about ourselves, matter so little to us twenty years later. Indeed, it is hard to believe they once mattered so much at all. They simply no longer serve as reference points to who we are today.

Almost ten years ago when doing research on technology and identity, my colleague Kathi Vian wrote:  "We create our identity through reference points. We know who we are in reference to others... Identity is a conception of self that we create based on various reference points in our life."   Meaning that we know we are tall because there are people around us who are shorter, we know we are smart because someone tells us we are, and we know we are shy or outgoing by comparing ourselves to those around us.

What is interesting about the technology environment we live in is that for the first time in our human history we are able to create persistent and mirror-like references points of our lives that keep former identities in constant view. Videos and photographs taken from birth, snippets of life documented on Facebook, streams of thoughts on Twitter, inner wonderings revealed in blogs -- these are all new reference points for creating and shaping our identities, our senses of self. And unlike previous reminders, often tucked away in shoe boxes, desk drawers, and attics, these are much more sensory-rich, pervasive, and easily accessible, to us and others.

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni raises an alarm about existence of these persistent trails and reference points. In an article titled "Second Chances, Social Forgiveness, and the Internet"  he writes:
By computerizing local public records, the Internet casts the shadow of people's past far and fast; like a curse they cannot undo, their records now follow them wherever they go. True, even in the good old days, arrest records, criminal sentences, bankruptcy filings, and even divorce records were public. Some were listed in blotters kept in police stations, others in courthouses; anyone who wished to take the trouble could go there and read them. But most people did not. Above all, there was no way for people in distant communities to find these damning facts without going to inordinate lengths.
In the Internet era, in contrast, a person's conviction of graffiti vandalism at age 19 will still be there at age 29 when he is a solid citizen trying to get a job and raise a family, and the conviction will be there for anyone to see. Same is potentially true for a high school prank captured on someone else's Facebook page or Youtube channel. While this is of concern, I wonder if as a result of pervasiveness of such information we may actually see greater social forgiveness and tolerance. After all, the more people see that even those they admire do stupid things once in a while, particularly when they are young, wouldn't our tolerance level go up also? And hasn't it happened already? The more we find out about personal indiscretions of various politicians and celebrities, the more inured the public has become, it seems. We are finding out that many of our heroes are fallible. Maybe, along with everything else, the Internet is democratizing human fallibility.

What I do wonder about, however, is how will personal transformations be achieved in this era of persistent and vivid reference points from the past? I see these transformations as an integral and necessary part of going through life, a part of creating new selves as one matures, learns, and acquires new life experiences. What tools and practices will we develop to shed the old reference points as a part of such transformations? In other words, what is the new equivalent of the old shoebox or cobwebbed attic in the Internet era?


  1. Barring dastardly deeds, people should be able to reinvent themselves.

    Imagine the poor farmer who has a bad year and his crops aren’t productive; he has to declare bankruptcy. He can’t really stay where he is because of his ‘rep’, so he pulls up roots, so to speak, and goes elsewhere for a fresh start.

    That used to be possible; now, the fresh start is very stale with the lingering ‘net odor of what he is trying to put behind him.

    Or imagine the guy who is minding his own business in a bar and gets roughed up by some belligerent drunk; the guy defends himself but gets slapped with some bogus criminal charge. It wasn’t his fault — but what do we know in this internet age? And it doesn’t even matter if charges are dropped. All we think is ‘police record’. Trapdoor swings open, and down he goes.

    Expungement and sealing records are useless, because one has to wait X amount of time before petitioning for this remedy, and by then all the data have been sucked up by some faceless cyborg entity and spread all over databases, forever to stay.

    There’s very little room for reinvention these days. Pity. Our society is worse off for it.

    An argument could be made that human fallacy is being democratized — the fallacy that just because someone does something silly they can’t later be good people. Or the converse: That someone who does something silly is always going to do so later on.

  2. It’s going to take a great deal more forgiveness to overcome these unforgettable acts. Forgiveness of other people’s stupid mistakes when they were immature and forgiveness of ourselves for our own immaturity. Even if that immaturity happened yesterday or 20 years ago.
    Thankfully *I’ve* never done anything stupid. In the past hour.

  3. “What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”

    – George Orwell, England Your England

  4. Interesting article! “What tools and practices will we develop to shed the old reference points as a part of such transformations?” Two things occur. One, that we still [must :)] live our offline lives, most opaquely and individually; and two, that the “persistent and vivid reference points from the past,” which /can/ amount to what the author calls a “curse we cannot undo,” might actually serve us, in some wise. People will allllways nurture difference, to better and worse ends, likely, y’know? (We have a right to our labors but not to the fruits of our labors.) But I hope and see, along with Gorbis, that, “maybe, along with everything else, the Internet is democratizing human fallibility.”

    I love the internet.

    Yeah; the one you know. :)

  5. The internet never forgets, it’s true – consider the ordeal that Libby Hoeller has endured.

  6. You can see the rules changing even now, as we watch.

    You see waves of new disclosure in new media, then a series of scare stories promising you’ll never get hired again due to your embarrassing pics on facespacester. The benefits of increased social interaction seem to drive people to participate more, and maybe they evolve new norms about what is ok to document.

    Already, people are creating multiple personas on Facebook – 1 to friend everyone you work with, and 1 to share dirty jokes with your friends.

  7. “What I do wonder about, however, is how will personal transformations be achieved in this era of persistent and vivid reference points from the past?”

    These transformations are achieved when you stop talking to the people from your past. Unfriend them on facebook, don’t call them as often, don’t visit, and don’t run into them while you’re out. If you don’t maintain the relationship to the past there is no relationship to the past. A picture or a facebook friend you never talk to is nothing but a dim reminder of who you once were.

    I regularly prune my facebook of anyone I haven’t had face to face contact with in the past year. I enjoy facebook much more now that the status updates are more relevant.

  8. Fascinating piece.

    I recently had to give a speech at a high school friend’s wedding and in preparation I spent an afternoon reading notes that were written between the bride and me over a span of six years and had been kept in an old shoe box. Most of the notes were humorous from a teenage point of view, but I was rather embarrassed by a few and tore them up because I didn’t want to be reminded of my formal self. Will today’s youth really have a clear record of their past. Will they really be able to view text messages they sent 10 or 20 years ago?

    Deena Crawley

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