I like to think about identity. Not so much in the “Ship of Theseus” sense — but about how we relate to our own identity. How we go about getting others to see us the way we want to be seen. How we choose to behave such that we experience our deeds as an accurate exhibition of our self-understanding. All that sort of stuff.
I’ve been fixated on identity more than usual lately. That could be because quarantine has given me more time than I’ve ever needed to navel gaze. It could be because I recently rewatched Adam Curtis’ “The Century of the Self.” It’s hard to say what prompted it, but I now have availability bias in full swing when it comes to spotting cultural phenomena that seem like interesting instantiations for how our culture’s relationship to identity is twisting and turning.
My most recent essay about TikTok is a clear example of this. I have no intention of rehashing that essay here — you can just go read it, it’s probably a nice prelude to this one. These past few weeks, I’ve been fixating on the popularity of Spotify Wrapped and it’s prompting this follow up that took me to some unexpected places.
Anyways, let’s talk about me.
I neglected to save the screengrabs of my Spotify Wrapped Top 5s, though I did post them on social. They were mildly embarrassing in a strange way for me. My top artists were three contemporary hardcore bands (Knocked Loose, Harm’s Way, Turnstile) and two bands I was obsessed with in high school (Avail and Rancid). This is a great list if I want to be seen as a hardcore punk guy who is true til death. And I obviously did listen to these bands a ton in 2020. It’s not as if Spotify is lying.
So why does this bother me? It’s pretty simple, this is not the image I want to project into the world. It’s too one-note. It just highlights the music I listen to when I’m working out and makes me worry that people will only see me as a knucklehead jock. I wanted my Top 5 to be something like Knocked Loose, Steely Dan, Benny The Butcher, Eugene McDaniels, and Thou. A list that shows people I have diverse, somewhat eclectic taste. I wanted a list that tells people that I, Adam, am an interesting person.
I suspect my relationship with Wrapped may be a touch out of time. I still very much affix my sense of identity to the music I listen to and I have a desire to be seen as other-than-mainstream. Whatever that means. I suspect I’m out of time because the vast majority of the Wrapped’s I saw getting posted were nearly identical. It’s hard for me to draw any intentional identity positioning from someone whose top 5 artists of 2020 were Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Roddy Ricch, Drake, and Bad Bunny. Bear in mind, I’m not intending to knock any of these artists. It’s just that when your top 5 artists include 4 of the top 10 most popular artists in the world, I can’t make any meaningful inferences about who someone is by seeing them post this on social media.
Now maybe I’m just being simple here, but insofar as I still understand our activity on social media to fundamentally be a form of individual-as-brand building, there’s no differentiated brand being built by saying “I like popular things.” This leads me to wonder what exactly people are up to.
I think the answer is probably much more simple — and potentially obvious and potentially interesting — than my rambling is making it seem.
To be sure, we love looking in mirrors. And before I spent more time thinking about this phenomenon, I really did think this was all it was. After all, the power and allure of many of the core features of the modern internet are built as mirrors. They are built as ways for us to see ourselves but feel surprised by what we find — or even simply having the experience of being seen and understood.
TikTok’s algorithm is a mirror that plays your interests back to you.
Buzzfeed’s core business of listicles with titles like “17 Things Only Left-Handed People With Lactose Intolerance Will Understand” — not to mention quizzes that tell you what Fraggle Rock character you are — is intended to make you feel seen. They have the added benefit of making you feel like part of a group, or at least an instantiation of an identity. More on that in a minute.
Spotify Wrapped is a mirror that tells you what music you listen to as if your own choices over the past year were a mystery to you.
But there’s more at work in all of these cases than simply you seeing yourself — and I believe this is where the change in our cultural and identity struggles become more visible.
In the last two examples, there’s the added output of something shareable on social media at the end. An image for you to post or a link to share. Even TikTok, insofar as much of its power comes from people sharing its content off-platform, gives you swappable assets that you can use to tell others who you are. But as I said, in the case of Spotify this isn’t a sufficient explanation insofar as the things I saw people posting couldn’t really plant an identity flag like I had hoped mine would. There’s something else going on here.
Here’s my potentially obvious hypothesis it took me a few weeks to arrive at:
What all of these phenomena are doing is the same: Attempting to make us feel less isolated and alone.
Buzzfeed listicles let someone know they aren’t the only lactose intolerant left-handed person. The quizzes help you find other people who are also excited they got out in Ravenclaw. The moment when people on Twitter like or retweet the TikTok you posted in your feed, you experience a sense of affirmation of your taste and the self that TikTok’s algorithm reflects back to you. You know that at least someone else out there likes the stuff you like.
The experience of looking in the mirror when you see your Spotify wrapped might be fascinating if you legitimately have very eclectic taste and unpredictable listening habits, but I’m dubious that this the case for most people. In fact, I think the full meaning and experience of Wrapped doesn’t happen until you share it on social.
The difference between me and the majority of people I saw posting their Top 5s lies in intention, I believe. Whereas I was hoping to get an output that would help me signal my uniqueness to the world, I believe most people weren’t particularly surprised by what it had to say. They probably weren’t particularly excited about it on its own terms. What they were excited about was posting it in a moment where everyone else was doing the same. At this moment, the joy experienced isn’t about asserting individuality, though you still get a minor dopamine hit by checking that box. It’s about feeling like you’re participating in something larger than yourself. You are not alone. You are an agent of the Zeitgeist. Yes, I’m sure that there is pleasure in the moment of mirroring that Spotify Wrapped gives to you, but that misses out on the more important happening — the desire to feel like part of a community, to feel like you belong.
The belonging offered here isn’t one of a niche identity — and in a sense, that’s where its power lies. It’s not about the punk finding other punks. And it’s definitely not about asserting yourself as punk so others affirm you. Yes, you do get to tell people about yourself in your particularity — brands are about distinctiveness and not differentiation after all — but you get to do so through a gesture that feels simultaneously universal.
To sully the words of Emerson, for a moment you cease to be a mere poster and become Humanity posting.
This may not be the optimal way for us to feel like part and parcel of a larger human community, but it’s an expression of an intense longing exhibited through the tools we have at our disposal in consumer capital. Those tools are the most successful and compelling when you create a mechanism for people to simultaneously express themselves while participating in something bigger than themselves. This explains the success of everything from Buzzfeed quizzes to meme generators.
It turns out for all of my talk about the importance of moving beyond the American obsession with individuality, I’m the one truly trapped in it, still obsessing over my own uniqueness. We all have our blindspots.