“she/her; [insert college] ’22; knitter, lover, and professional funny guy”: Identity and Selfhood in the Twittersphere

On Twitter, identity gets a little funky. As a digital space with over 200 million users from almost every country, every gender identity, every ethnicity, every political orientation, every level of dis/ability, and countless reiterations of any bad take you can think of, sometimes it seems like anything goes. Twitter gives people the autonomy to continually reshape their identities and the way they present themselves to the world as long as it fits into the character count, making it a messy but often charmingly genuine portrait of our digital communities and the world as a whole. 

In my own Twittersphere, I’ve seen the most noticeable representation of this process in the Twitter bio, a mere 160 characters of whatever aspects of your identity and your digital presence as a whole you feel are most important for your followers (or any random person who stumbles upon your account) to know. Bios can be meta, they can be confusingly abstract, they can be as detailed as a concerningly public pedigree. They can be formal, they can attempt to blend the private, work, and social lives of the user into one big cohesive identity, they can be an entirely fictional persona (although this is admittedly somewhat frowned upon). They, like your feed, can be centered around one interest entirely (shoutout to Stan Twitter users, of course [see Figure 1]), or represent a confusing mesh of every interest you have ever mildly dabbled in. 

Figure 1

I’ve made an attempt to gather a representative sample of various Twitter bios from public accounts I myself follow, with an attempt to remove identifying information while still keeping the personality and specificity of their bios intact. Some of them are people I know in real life through organizing, shared identities and communities, some I simply found funny, and some share my interests, but the common denominator obviously is me. Because there are countless Twitterspheres, very unique to each person at the center of them, the only one I feel I can reasonably represent is my own.


If someone you knew in person but hadn’t ever interacted with online has ever shown you their Twitter account, you might have experienced a moment of shock. As represented, similarly, by the ways in which many of us have attempted to reconcile that one aunt’s aggressively hateful Facebook persona with her warm smiles and love of feeding any stranger she meets, it is often jarring to connect people’s online identities to their real-world identities. Sometimes, after reading a particularly strange tweet from one of my real-life friends, I wonder: Is this the real them? Is this their most genuine self, or a comical performance? I think, oftentimes, the person themselves might not even know the answer to that question, but I still find it interesting to ponder. The reality is, even with the ability to anonymize ourselves and disappear into the far reaches of Twitter with a blank slate of an account, there are countless factors that influence how we represent ourselves on social media, and even more ways of constructing the representation we desire. Many of these factors stem from our connections to the outside and online worlds—to the communities we wish to be a part of, the conversations we wish to take part in. Oftentimes, a user’s bio orients them within the Twittersphere, providing context for their engagement and legitimizing their place in (or their right to be within) a particular discourse or group identity. Furthermore, a user’s bio can serve to provide guidance on how they want to be interacted with, and how other users should understand their place in the Twittersphere. 

Figure 2 shows a bio with three key elements, all reflecting different aspects of the person’s identity. Through their inclusion of their pronouns, we can ascertain that they are likely non-binary. We also learn that they are a college junior, and that they are probably Iranian based on the quote in Farsi. The specific inclusion of these details—that they are a non-binary college student from Iran, living in Nashville—gives context and legitimacy to their tweets, which are often about becoming empowered in your identity and navigating college as a marginalized person. It makes it clear that these are serious issues for them, and helps anyone reading their tweets to understand why. Likewise, Figure 3 displays a mixture of public and private identities, where the user is both “just a guy with a spreadsheet” and an experienced political organizer. His feed reflects both identities, but his public identity is a little more important within his Twitter interactions because of the way it qualifies him to participate in speculation and theorizing on New York local politics. If someone falls upon a tweet of his on their feed and thinks a claim he makes about the upcoming election cycle is ridiculous, a visit to his profile might make the reader consider his points for a little longer. If he’s “just a guy,” it’s a little easier to dismiss him. 

Sometimes online identity gets more heated than that, though. The issue of who can say slurs and how you know that someone actually belongs to the marginalized group they said they do comes up a lot. After all, a Black woman finding out that the person she’s shared jokes and conversations about the realities of Black womanhood (just as an example) with is indeed a white man could definitely cause some trust issues, and not everyone can be trusted to represent themselves honestly. Twitter bios and self-identification can be helpful, though. For example, in Figure 4, the user talks about making homophobic jokes. Using context clues, we can infer that the user himself is not likely a straight man, but, just in case that doesn’t clear it up, his bio (Figure 5) adds context, protecting the user from being called a homophobe and other potential misunderstandings. 

In many ways, Twitter bios serve as preemptive justifications. They try to answer the questions people demand an answer for before they’re asked. For example, Why would you use the f-slur? Are you gay or a homophobe? Or Are you Black or are you racist? Are you mentally ill or ableist? The process of determining who is in your community is simultaneously easier (because all you have to do is check a bio) and far more difficult (because how could you possibly confirm it, and what kind of accountability could they even face if it’s a lie?). Does this make identity some sort of voucher we exchange for the right to say certain words or occupy certain spaces? In a capitalist world, I would argue the answer is yes, and it’s not hard to think of the ways in which this could be harmful for our communities. 

There’s a lot of good amidst the critique, though, too. Twitter offers a way to quietly but authoritatively shape and reshape your identity, to learn about yourself and grow with less of the watchful gaze of society bearing down on you as you do it. I’ve seen, again and again amongst my friends, where the first step of coming out as queer is changing your pronouns or placing a little Pride flag in your bio (even before they officially and loudly announce it). If they’re coming into a new stage of life, such as a new job or an internship or a big project, their Twitter bio might be the first to hear about it. You have a really funny joke you want to preserve for the generations? Congratulations, that can be the new way through which people first perceive you! (It’ll get old fast, though, and you might hear someone quote it back at you in the dining hall! But even that is a way of forming connections, however embarrassing.) And if you have nothing to say about yourself at all, a blank silence is profound, too. 

As we become more and more disembodied (best illustrated by the little snippets of our thoughts we call Tweets floating across random people’s Twitter feeds, all across the world), it’s important to consider how we’re reconstructing ourselves, and how these online spaces might help us articulate the way we want to exist in the world. How can we assign ourselves identities that speak to our moments of joy and lightness, or to our humor amidst the wildness of life? Sometimes, like in Figure 6, life, identities, and Twitter feeds just don’t work out the way we want them to. Sometimes the best ways to articulate ourselves are in the niche, funky little qualities we don’t think about as much. Sometimes all we are is a “Reaction Image Dealer” (Figure 5), or a Pisces sun, Capricorn rising, or a “recovering hot sauce addict” (Figure 7). And that’s okay. 

– A. Littlejohn-Bailey

One thought on ““she/her; [insert college] ’22; knitter, lover, and professional funny guy”: Identity and Selfhood in the Twittersphere

  1. I liked how this article brought up the playful, arguably harmless side of people’s social media portrayals of themselves, but also touched upon the more dubious aspects of being able to create your own online persona without outside accountability. This reminded me of the court case United States vs. Drew, where a mom disguised herself as a teenage boy on MySpace (in the days of the early internet, I know) to successfully encourage her daughter’s ex-best friend to commit suicide. Since then, there’s been an ongoing debate about whether about online/social media platforms should fact check users’ portrayals of themselves, which could include people’s harmless (or maybe not so harmless?) Twitter bios. Today, some social media sites provide ways for celebrities and other public figures to verify their accounts with a blue checkmark, but I think additional fact checking, particularly regarding potentially harmful disingenuous online portrayals could be beneficial.

    Like

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