“I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of ‘Frederick.’ I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity.”
Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
You write something, you attach a picture, and the system attaches your name to it. It is filed away in a database.
You have an image in your mind: that database entry, somewhere out there in a server farm you’ve never visited, is you. People respond to your writings and your pictures, so they confirm your existence. You exist in cyberspace.
Except that you don’t.
The persona illusion, a kind of mass delusion, is the belief that a database entry constitutes one’s existence.
Usually, one’s existence is confirmed by autonomy, or the lack of it. You know you exist not just because of the use of the pronoun “I,” and your remembered, lived experience. You also know you exist because you either can make choices, say, whether to walk down a street, or because you know when you are being restricted from making those choices; you know when you are under duress.
On social media such as Facebook, Snap, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Twitter, Telegram, etc., you have no autonomy. You have no freedom to make choices. You have instead a menu to pick from of a few functions, defined entirely by the platform owner, such as post/tweet, like, retweet, follow/unfollow; and you have a couple settings, if you’re lucky, for who sees you, the entire world, or just “friends.”
That small set of options, that menu of buttons you can push, are your sole means of action. Beyond those few buttons, you have no control over how your name and your likeness is circulated, endlessly, throughout the social realm. The database controls everything, and the database is owned and operated by the platform owner, be it Meta Properties or Twitter or Bytedance, etc.
Unless you’re superstitious, and you believe that your name appearing on a profile page constitutes “existence,” there really is no “You” just as there is no “I” because there is no autonomy. What appears to constitute an “I” or a “You” is the illusion of the database constantly regurgitating text and images that you typed.
Some will say that the ability to use the same profile name in many places, across many sites, constitutes identity. You have a “linktr.ee” — “everything you are in one place” as the saying goes — and that lets you be a persona across multiple instances.
Except that yet another database not belonging to you where you store pointers to all the other databases that have your name that don’t belong to you, is not autonomy, it is just a layering of databases.
Frederick Douglass, the great American philosopher and public intellectual, observed in his memoir that to choose one’s name freely is necessary as part of one’s identity. But it is not sufficient for identity, as Douglass knew all too well. To take one’s name is a culmination of freedom hard won, not the means to freedom. To believe otherwise is to dwell in an illusion, or in state of extravagant luxury, or both.
For, what lurks under social media, or linktr.ee, and the persona illusion, is a downward spiral into an existence completely without agency.
The lack of autonomy means several things. Your data, the items that constitute who you are, to the extent you have an existence, doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the database. Though Facebook and other venues make promises about not selling personal information, it is merely a vendor product pledge. That means your personal information, and, in a sense, your identity, is not protected by law, it is only potentially assured via contract, and that’s probably shaky at best.
And you have no right on social media not to be exiled, even though that is a human right according to the United Nations. Exile is a strong word for what seems like a shopping mall, in the case of social media. After all, Bytedance and Meta and Twitter run the equivalent of an online shopping mall. You’ll probably think to yourself, If you have an identity in the shopping mall, it stands to reason that the shopping mall owner, or the real estate owner who leases to the mall, should be able to have mall security remove you from the premises.
But consider that because your information is not your own, as mentioned above, if you are banned from a social media site, you lose all of that information, and thus, a good chunk of what you would consider your existence online. Because you don’t own your information, being escorted out by mall security, in this case, is asking for some portion of what you consider to be your life and your identity to be stripped from you.
And you can most definitely be banned, and people have been. As the Facebook Terms of Service state, “If we determine, in our discretion, that you have clearly, seriously or repeatedly breached our Terms or Policies, including in particular the Community Standards, we may suspend or permanently disable your access to Meta Company Products, and we may permanently disable or delete your account.”
A lot of people probably can think of one or two people they would like to exile. However, exile is a measure that is not to be taken lightly, and something that should be the province of a sovereign people deciding amongst themselves what to do, rather than a single product vendor.
The lack of autonomy with respect to one’s data thus leads directly to a lack of autonomy in the more deeply concerning matter of digital existence, which is a threat to fundamental human rights.
You also have no right to free speech in the social media realm, even though it is a right in several countries including the U.S. — and, again, a right upheld by the United Nations. Lack of autonomy means that the platform owner, such as Meta, decides what is admissible. All that falls within what is generally referred to as “content guidelines.” All speech, in fact, is being replaced by “content.”
Again, it may be hard, at first, to see what might be wrong with that. If your utterances are strictly a product of a database re-circulating your posts and tweets, it seems odd to claim free speech. A property owner should be able to manage their property, including a database of utterances, as they see fit.
Except that by increasingly turning all speech into content, the vendor of a social media platform, such as Twitter, claims authority to both make and exclude your speech. You don’t have any “speech” in the social media realm at all until the social network in question accepts your text and images for publication. What would have been speech, in other words, becomes nothing more than a creation of, and the property of, a social media owner.
For a property owner to enlist your work as their content, and then hold unquestioned authority over your work, including the ability to restrict your speech, is a violation of autonomy. It is an over-reach that seeks to limit the most precious of human cognitive faculties.
Worse, for the platform owner to privilege the content of “creators” — the most desirable and popular name brands on the platform — as platform owners increasingly do, creates a forever tiered society, where everyone is ranked and rated and privileged in their speech by the platform owner.
That ranking and rating of certain identities as better than others, what is these days referred to as the “creator economy,” is bitterly ironic. For, another potential violation of human and civil rights on social media is the lack of a right to property, something that, again, the United Nations has declared a fundamental human right.
Nothing on social media is really yours, it all belongs to the platform owner, as specified in the terms of service. You type things into the database, your name is attached to those things, and you’re a creator, but not an owner.
Behind that facade, the Terms of Service mean there are no real rights to what is basically an unpaid “work-for-hire” on the part of creators. It’s like the old debate in the world of pro sports: Who creates more of the value, the players or the team owner? Except, on social media, the players, the creators, don’t even exist as far as having a stake because of their efforts. They are merely a creation of the owners.
Thus, creators, as the most privileged among social media participants, are still just a name that is used by the platform for its own purpose. Their utterances are content that is the highly ranked property of the platform. Creators sit a level or two above those who have no privilege, but the creators still belong to the exploited. Exploitation on social media, it turns out, has levels of misery.
Increasingly, then, the persona illusion that makes you think you have an identity and an existence is merely a facade to cover up a narrow set of user capabilities” that have been provided under a very restrictive commercial license.
The more you exist in the world of that persona illusion, the more you get sucked in to a world where you have no rights at all, and therefore, no autonomy, and therefore no existence.