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Facebook personality disorder


One of Ellena Savage's 'comic selfies'Since leaving my hometown alone a month ago to knuckle down and work on some difficult writing projects, I noticed my social media habits increase.

Sure, I am in Asia right now and most of my friends are not, so the social contact helps with my solitude. But because of the nature of the work I am attempting here — looking inward, finding the vestiges of my culture in the ways I behave and see my world — I have started using social media in a more overtly self-imagining way, expressing what I think are funny or interesting visions of myself. As in, my Facebook profile has become a shrine to comic selfies. Part narcissism, part self-critique. At least that's what I tell myself.

In his poem 'The Leopard Muses on His Spots', Texan poet Paul Ruffin wrote in the voice of a leopard, 'We are given what we have/and left with what we've got.' This is a complex statement about identity: the leopard is talking about his spots, unchangeable, but in a sense produced by his human keepers.

It refers to markers of social identity, which are blindly produced within a culture, a time and place that is nearly invisible to us because it is impossible to remove ourselves from it. And then they are reproduced within our culture by the people around us in order to differentiate and relate. The leopard is produced by the fact of his spots and reproduced by his human keepers in order to interact with him based on his leopardhood.

This a roundabout way of approaching the nature of a personality, and what it means to behaviours in a social system we all belong to.

Social media requires us to produce 'profiles' of ourselves that represent our cultural aspirations; not only who we are, but who we imagine we would like to be, and how we comment on our conditions of being. This exercise is often liberating and creative. But as it is, the digital sphere is not as innocent as mere self-expression.

The first consideration is the extent to which ingratiating ourselves in mainstream digital cultures turns us not only into consumers, but commercial products. And the second consideration is what this continuous assertion of our individuated identity — defining our positions though taste, image, consumption habits — might do for our political cultures. As in, the more we believe that we are inherently self-made, essential beings, our capacity to recognise the cultural and economic forces greater than us suffers.

The Myers Briggs personality test is still a widely-used tool in the human resources sector for matching candidates to corporate positions. There are still certain parts of town where you can't go very far without being asked your 'sign'. Personalities are powerful forces, but they do not exist in a vacuum. A simple focus on the individuated self — this is who I am, this is what I am made of (Lisa Simpson, Sagittarius, ENFP, emotional age 13) — which does not take into account the social and political conditions of a person's existence, is dangerous.

Even looking at the questions that comprise a Myers Briggs test shows how limited its assessment of personhood really is. Respondents are asked to respond to statements such as: 'You trust reason rather than feelings' (which is totally inane — how can you extract the two?); 'You feel at ease in a crowd' (what crowd? What situation, on what day?); 'You find it difficult to talk about your feelings' (In which register? There are so many levels of discourse people communicate through: absence, actions, speaking to, through or about).

These responses depend on how a person sees themselves, rather than how they might really behave in a situation. And how they see themselves is determined by their values, which are cultural and not at all static.

We are obsessed with the typology of people. There are scientific and psudo-scientific and outright magical and commercial ways of viewing the typology of humans, but there is something worrying to me about the fixation on it, particularly the celebration of personality types. They are ways of saying you exist, and that you are essential. Not, that you are produced by a number of cultural and political factors that are beyond your control, which you will have to work hard to recognise, and even harder to escape.

Perhaps it is more useful to look to the conditions which require us to be individuated and essential in the first place: a market culture in which you are defined by your consumption habits, not your quirky journey towards self-knowledge. And then we can go back to asking ourselves the serious questions, such as which Game of Thrones character are you? (Daenerys Targaryen.)

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, The Lifted Brow, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Facebook, Twitter, Myers Briggs, Paul Ruffin



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Facebook Q&A: Q: Who would you most like to sit next to on a plane? A: A Facebook friend; Q: Any ambitions? A: To make a Facebook friend in every country on earth (secondary ambition: to join as many Google+ circles as possible); Q: Weaknesses/Fears? A: Being de-friended on Facebook; Q: Strengths? A: On Facebook my relationship status never changes. (Thanks to Leunig's "Interview with Mt. Everest" for inspiration).

Pam | 19 December 2013  

Ellena, every time I see your name on an article my spirits lift, as I know I will read an article with smatterings of humour, provocative ideas, and diversions down interesting by-ways. If I was young enough to have a facebook page I would 'friend' you forever. Keep writing - you make the world a better place. ps - You're right about the Myer Briggs test - and others of that ilk. The best way to treat them is to lie!

Vincenzo Vittoria | 19 December 2013  

Thanks Elena for (yet another) a humorous and insightful piece that critiques the modern myth of self-made person. The social and cultural forces that shape each one of us from the beginning are both subtle and powerful - we are far more porous creatures than we'd like to think! This is not a 'bad' thing, it is just the way we are. The gradual and arduous journey into recognition that we (our desires, beliefs, norms and so on) are in fact run by a social and cultural 'other' is a significant experience of conversion. Then follows discernment about who I allow to run me - without being dominated, obliterated or overrun! Someone who who is totally for me and wants the best for me. With acknowledgement to René Girard, I suspect that this is what St Paul was on about in Galatians when he says: 'it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me'.

Christopher Cotter | 19 December 2013  

Great piece, Ellena, and something important to reflect on over the holiday period. I've stopped thinking of myself as an INFJ, Enneagram 4, Adult Child of an Alcoholic etc, useful as they once were. NowI'm thinking of myself as a Baby Boomer - hope that's taking into account my formation by the cultural and political factors you mention. Otherwise I'd be Daenerys Targaryen too - I wish...! Thanks again.

Joan Seymour | 19 December 2013  

Hi Ellena, I really liked this piece. It reminded me of something that I saw on Snapchat's blog, of all places, that pointed out that social media creates the impression that we have one true and authentic "self" that is unchangeable. I find that idea problematic because I'm changing all the time. (Maybe that's just me.) But the real problem arises if (or when) we start believing in the restrictive social media profile versions of ourselves, rather than embracing the fact that we don't need to have a consistent identity.

Pat | 19 December 2013  

I am still refusing to open a Facebook account or to tweet, due to this notion of producing (or projecting) myself as a marketable commodity. For some reason I feel more comfortable about blogging, though. Thanks for this article.

Penelope | 19 December 2013  

Thanks, Ellena, for a little bit of silly sanity. You have made my day.

Bob Myers | 19 December 2013  

Facebook is quickly loosing favour with many individuals especially social movement 'groups'. As Facebook becomes more corporatised it has inevitably compromised any integrity it once had by essentially becoming another arm of the NSA.. There is notable sentiment abound regarding the desire for a new decentrelised,egalitarian form of social media to take its place...which will no doubt happen (as has already in countries like Greece). The first version of the internet will become a place for those content with the increasing Orwellian nature of Government and a new Internet 2.0 would be a subvert network for those wishing to spread ideas, inspire change and challenge the status quo...not merely take 'selfies' and post photos of their cats.

Jef Baker | 22 December 2013