x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Your Twitter followers are waiting for the new improved you

Although anonymity is no longer the norm, your social media identity doesn't necessarily reveal the real you.

Almost everyone remembers the days, not so long ago, when online chat forums were a novelty. Members were almost embarrassed, hiding behind nicknames such as wonderboy72, astuteman92, anawenta00 or (for those who had a soft spot for You've Got Mail) shopgirl.

Everyone concealed their identity, but flaunted their personality. Maybe they saw chat rooms as a place to meet interesting people, or as a medium for expression. Some, certainly, were trying to find a significant other.

Regardless of the destination, chat rooms offered a place for people to show their "genuine" selves, paradoxically in anonymity, to talk freely about their likes and dislikes and to find people who shared the same interests, from video games to music and even gardening.

Nowadays, hiding your identity is totally passé in the new social media. In fact, most people flaunt their real names and photos of themselves, often including a biography of about 160 characters (a bit more generous than the Twitter policy) for our edification.

Everyone wants to be "followed" - regardless of how creepy that might have sounded just a few years ago. Everyone tries to find something to tweet about. These are not just celebrities, thinkers or famous personalities, often just ordinary people who believe that Twitter is their personal vehicle of cyber-fame.

In part, this is just following the trend. Celebrities and pop-culture figures do use Twitter to promote their books/perfumes/clothes/candidacies, etc. They offer their fans their "human" side when they tweet about buying ice cream, just to remind everyone that they, too, are people and seek emotional fulfilment through food.

Twitter in this sense has become an advertising platform, with the products being persons. But how many people actually have something to advertise? In an age of bankruptcy, social media have given everyone a bottomless credit card of self-promotion.

It has become a transnational beauty pageant where every contestant is required to simultaneously "care about the environment" and "save the children". Lip service to "world peace" won't cut it anymore - followers demand more. Either you become a philosopher in 140 characters or fewer, or ostentatiously flaunt your deep-seated sense of inner peace.

During the Arab "spring" there has been a new opportunity at self-promotion, or perhaps just a new manifestation of a cyber-protester personality disorder. People watch the news and regurgitate everything they see and hear, increasing their followers by the minute.

Academics and journalists are in this train, often following "ordinary" Twitter accounts and stealing their ideas to publish as their own. Who needs to do dangerous or boring field work when everything appears in cyberspace anyway? Suddenly we have "experts" - in the Gulf states, Lebanon and Syria, and now Egypt, Libya and Tunisia - who have never set foot in any of those countries.

People no longer have to hide, but they put on another mask over their real selves. The first symptom of these new inhibitions is the ubiquitous biography, which has become a mission statement of what people want to be, or perhaps imagine themselves to be.

This does not lend itself to consistency. People want to fit in, to not be an outsider, and some will change their bio as easily as their location.

Several of my friends and I have found it hard to recognise people we know on Twitter. Despite a photo that seems to fit, the ideas expressed match someone who is totally different from the person we had lunch with the other day. Is this the real them? More conservative? More philosophical? More liberal? More deep? More Arab than the Arabs?

We can all accept that our online selves are sometimes less than genuine. But does this affect a person's identity in the real world? Which reality rules when cyberspace has so many "followers" just waiting to be wooed?


Hissa Al Dhaheri is an Emirati cultural researcher based in Abu Dhabi