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Credits artwork: Ken Nakajima, credits animation: Matteo Rizzuto

(Digital) souls

Everyone has access to social media, this is not new information. Are we sure we’ve reflected enough on the implications this has on our sense of self?  While access to various platforms means there is a multitude of ways for people to create new bonds and discover new things “about the worlds around and within us” at any time, it also means people have access to us, at all times, in all our different personas. 

In “real life”, we have control over who sees and listens to a specific version of us in a certain environment, the version of you who socializes while sitting and chatting in a university library is different from your persona on a night out clubbing with friends, and it differs in clothing, topics of conversations and behaviours. In spite of there being different platforms for the different parts of your life (LinkedIn is your workspace, Facebook should be for keeping in touch with childhood friends and family, Instagram for friends, Twitter is to scream your endless opinions, Instagram is a showcase of pictures of us and Tiktok is an immersive video platform… I’m still figuring it out), online however the environmental aspect of who perceives you is out of your control: your boss can have your Linkedin on one tab and your Instagram in the one next to it, the two spaces are together simultaneously as well as your representation of yourself (personas). My concern here isn’t privacy (although that is also extremely important) but how one feels with the knowledge of being perceived by potentially everyone at all times, though we know that people are only seeing the curated version of us. “How do people see me?”, “if I post this what will people think?”, “If I don’t post this?”, “what can people say if they scroll down to my old post? How do they compare to now?”. 

Apparently, as for a couple of months ago, my Digital soul, my online persona in artform, was a blueish-purple sphere with notes of red and a dash of green. The mesmerizing work that depicted both my digital soul as well as several other individual’s that is collected on @anim.adesign’s Instagram (the works can also be found on Soul collection)  is created by Ken Nakajima. He is a multidisciplinary artist working in dance, theatre, and visual arts with the State of the Art collective and the National Theater in Rome. During my conversations with Ken, I was able to ask him more about his process in creating his work – that goes from observing the social media presence to transforming it into a spherical aura – and I discovered how simple and non-time consuming it is. While sitting in front of his computer, with a bright weirdly aesthetically pleasing white room, Ken confessed to me that “it actually only takes 10 minutes to draw a soul, and it’s something I don’t normally tell people“, and considering the amount of time people spend looking at their Instagram feed and worrying about how the photos look I find it quite ironic. We would like to believe that the time and energy we put into elaborating our online persona is proportionate to how mysterious or cool or likable people view us, but this is simply not the case. Our identity and our digital identity do not coincide even though we might feel like they should, and as the social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson argues in “The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media”: “Social media also make obvious how identity is to some degree performed rather than revealed in uncalculated bursts of authenticity”. In his Soul Collection project, Ken tries to keep alive the non-online part of the subjects by having a small conversation with them and by asking them simple questions and trying to insert it in his work, but my question is: which part of the non-online?

Clinical psychologist Clare Watson told VICE that “creating a digital persona allows us to construct an ‘ideal’ version of ourselves, projecting not who we are but what we want to be into the world. This can be a fun, creative, and freeing process, unhindered by our everyday insecurities and self-judgment.”. However, keeping up with this version, often subdivided into other ones depending on the platform as well as the in-person ones, can be tiring, time-consuming, and detrimental to our mental health. Scientific research has highlighted the portability of our analog selves to the digital world, where the common theme of these studies is that, although the internet may have provided escapism from everyday life, it is mostly mimicking it. Even considering that screens can only communicate so much compared to real-life situations, guaranteeing us the possibility only of reaching more people or to scream in a giant virtual hole while trying. Maybe it is better to think of our digital personas as tiny mesmerizing spheres then? So that we can better grasp the idea of their unreality as well as the level of unimportance and time we should dedicate to them (little secret, it’s a lot less than what your screen time app says).

In “The Social Photo,” Nathan Jurgenson puts forth the useful proposition that most online photos are about sharing experiences, not creating memories. Sharing experiences, positive and negative ones, is a desire we all have as humans, it means getting in contact with people because, in the end, we want to be around others. Especially after almost two years of the Covid-19 pandemic the desire for human interaction and connection is huge, but let’s try not to get lost in the blue lights of our screen while looking for them, but rather step outside. Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman believed that different social interactions require different performances depending on roles, rules, social occasions,s and institutions that are dictated by spaces and people. But theoretically, there are no walls online, everything can be found easily, and the people who can do that still follow Goffman’s interaction idea. So what happens when our digital souls meet our non-digital roles, rules, institutions, and people? Maybe it’s best to discuss it face to face. 

-Chiara Migliari