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The evolution of social identities The evolution of social identities
by Joseph Gatt
2020-08-04 09:50:52
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Identity before the internet and post-social media.

To me, identity is three things: it is your rank within society. It is your tribal/ethnic affiliation. And it is your individual quirks.

So very briefly, social identity before and after the advent of the Internet.

Identity before the Internet

Rank: rank before the Internet tended to be confined to the military, political organizations and a few big businesses.

soind001_400Rank was ambiguous in many places. In most places, people did not sit by order of rank. People did not greet each other by order of rank. And people did not try to clearly define their rank.

Rank in most societies was fluid, ambiguous, and in many societies no one was sure who exactly the leader was. No one was sure what the structure and chain of command was.

But there was a downside. The notion of rank did exist in the consciousness of many people. There were tons of wars and conflicts because of tribes and individuals trying to define their rank.

For example (a completely random example) in France you had people who would say things like “I was born in Paris, therefore I should be in charge” or people in some companies saying things like “I have the most total experience working for this company, I was hired before anyone else, therefore I should be the one deciding.” This often caused violent conflicts.

Tribal identities: before the Internet, no one was sure what clearly defined someone's belonging to a certain tribe or identity. A famous example was that of Communist Spaniards, who moved to Israel after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when they were not Jewish, yet they fit in and no one really asked them if they were Jewish. Some were registered as “Jews” after the State of Israel's first Census (I believe it was in 1950) while others registered as “Christians” or “Spaniards” or in some cases “Basques” or “Catalans.” Some tried to register as “Communists” but the label was not accepted.

So no one was sure was being Belgian meant or what being German meant or what being Ethiopian meant. Nation-states did survey their populations.

But, when it came to ethics or customs, no one was sure what the rules were. An educated elite did try to study what the “sacred texts” allowed and did not allow, but were often not listened to, or censored, or both.

So being Italian or Bolivian was a vague notion with vague stereotypes and no clear food, fashion, customs or etiquette rules to deal with those people.

Individual identities before the Internet

While TV did play a role in shaping individual identities, social circles tended to be fluid, and there was no social media to “confine” your individual identity.

So you could be gay in one circle and straight in another. You could go to work driving an old car but ride your bike over the weekend. You could play classical music in the presence of colleagues and switch to heavy metal when no one was looking.

Rumors and gossip about people also tended to be vague and fluid. I remember in the 1990s lying to a group of friends that I had been in Bosnia during the war. I did not provide one single detail about the whole thing, yet they completely bought the whole thing. Lying about that today would be complicated, unless I did my research on Google.

After the advent of the Internet and social media

Rank: now many organizations started having a clear chain of command and clearly ranking people.

In the old days rank tended to be ambiguous, and no one was ever sure who was in charge. Today, a lot of organizations place offices based on order of rank, and in some cases office supplies and chairs and computers are based on rank.

Pay is also based on rank at many organizations, so are titles.

Criteria to belong to certain ranks have also been clearly established. In some cases it's years spent working for the organization, in other cases it's more ambiguous factors.

Either way, the advantage of clearly defined ranks is that the chain of command is clear and you know who to ask to get permission for something or to chip an idea.

But there are many drawbacks. To many people (Koreans, Japanese, most East Asians and Middle Easterners and in many other places) “rank” means “full control” of people below the rank. To those assholes, people in inferior ranks can not move, talk or breathe without the authorization of the boss. And yet, the irony is those idiots think President Trump is too authoritarian. The hypocrisy.

When prior to the Internet people used to fight to determine who was in charge, post-Internet and computer era, people in lower ranks are suffering violent abuses from people in higher ranks.

Tribe: many tribes and nations have clearly, a bit too clearly for my taste, defined who belongs to the tribe, and how members of the tribe should behave.

Tribal rules have become more rigid in many places. I remember the 1990s when most devout Muslims in Europe and North America did not mind their beef or chicken not being Halal. Today, when there's a Muslim delegation, you have to run around looking for Halal or vegan restaurants. I remember the 1990s when many devout Muslims did not mind having a few beers or a couple of glasses of wine. Last time I was at a Muslim party, they didn't even have Coke, it was all Juice and this thing called “Halal Mecca Cola.”

Tribal affiliation has also become more pronounced in fashion and accessories, where people like to “show off” their tribal affiliation (or affection for a tribe) by wearing Berber jewelry or Peruvian ponchos or Afghan hats or Korean hanbok pants.

Those tribal symbols are often not just accidents. They are, in many cases, the rejection of “foreign ways.” When I studied the Korean language, I noticed that those teachers who loved foreign students and foreign ways tended to dress up “like Westerners” while those who despised foreign students and customs tended to choose a “Korean” dress code, and in some cases, a male hanbok (these were females).

Individual identity post-Internet and social media

Now everyone has a biography that contains a succession of “labels.”

The good thing is when people actually understand the labels. In the old days, if you were gay (I use the gay example a lot despite being straight) you were believed to be deviant. If you were shy, you were also considered to be deviant. If you had Asperger’s syndrome, you were believed to be a deviant. If you put a pornographic magazine in your backpack and got caught, you were in serious trouble.

Today scientific literature has helped us understand how people with Asperger’s or Autism or excessive shyness or other “strange behavior” work. A lot of shows (the Oprah Winfrey show, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and many others) help us understand and tolerate (and celebrate!) such people.

But, there are also a lot of individuals who don't understand that success comes with hard work, attention to detail, “clean” work, and connecting to an audience or clients.

Today, many kids believe success comes with labels. I'm a gay, Communist, Jew who was born in North Korea where my father worked for the Swedish embassy, therefore I can write or do any crap I want and money will just come flowing like a river.

I have a lot of trouble explaining those kids that you don't become successful for who you are, you become successful for what you do.

There is also a proliferation of labels that did not exist 20 years ago. I found out a couple of years ago that I'm an “ENFJ” personality type, which basically means that I'm very comfortable talking to crowds and forming relationships with crowds but have a lot of trouble forming relationships with individuals (they call it the “teacher personality type” and they say it's a very rare personality type and that less than 2% of the world population adhere to that personality type). I'm like OK, whatever. Back to reading and writing more stuff. 


   
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