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Ego-media: The impact of new media on forms and practices of self-presentation

Final Report Summary - EGO-MEDIA (Ego-media: The impact of new media on forms and practices of self-presentation)

The central aim of Ego-Media was to study ‘The impact of new media on forms and practices of self-presentation’ from an interdisciplinary perspective, including life writing, sociolinguistics, medicine, media and cultural theory, and digital humanities.

We distinguished between two categories of research question for the project. ‘Analysis of the self-presentational forms and discursive practices in the new media’ on the one hand; and on the other: ‘The psychological, philosophical and social impact of the new ego-media on the human and the humanities’. We investigated this impact on subjectivity, self-understanding, creativity, privacy, sociability, situation, society, and politics.

We knew in 2012 that these new technologies had already massively transformed social interaction and self-presentation, and that our project would have to evolve to follow their further developments.

The speed and scale of transformation had been incredible. Within five or six years of the opening of Facebook to all adults, and the launch of the first iPhone, social media and smartphones had become the communication method of choice, and not just in the developed countries or the West.

This sudden expansion of online self-presentation meant we could not cover its full diversity exhaustively. Ego-Media was conceived as a suite of projects investigating forms and practices selected because we believed they could provide valuable insight. These have resulted in a multifaceted set of ‘probes’ revealing a variety of online practices, especially between 2014 and 2019.

We determined to survey which platforms had made most difference to people. Given the public debate about the mental health effects of social media, several of our chosen sub-projects focused on health and well-being. One striking development had been the shift from text to image, video, and animation; so again we included work on the forms self presentation was taking in these modes. Nevertheless, older technologies of self-presentation persist within new media affordances – especially in diarizing forms such as blogs or vlogs. Thus another main strand of Ego-Media considered the digital descendants of diary-writing.

‘Forms and practices’ were central to our work throughout. A distinctive feature of Ego-Media is its life writing approach to new media. As researchers expert in studying a variety of media – for example autobiography, letters, diaries, medical case histories, conversations, interviews, games, music – we saw these forms/practices changing. In the early years of the internet, blogs and chatrooms provided their new incarnations. With Web 2.0 they were transforming again to more multi-modal forms: the selfie, the status update, the video-log or vlog.
The other main feature of our methodology has been its historical approach. Where so much writing about the internet stresses its transformational power, we were also attending to the persistence of established forms and practices such as the portrait, the diary, the novel, the photograph, the log, or chat.

The experience of accelerating change generates concern for the future. Ego Media investigated how thinking about the internet involves futurist thinking; and also how the pre-history of the internet imagined a connected world. One major change is the shift from users passively receiving content (as in broadcast media) to actively producing it. Early utopian philosophies of the internet anticipated it would catalyse creativity. Another key thread of Ego-Media explores what we call ‘imaginative agency’, looking at how users become agents of change rather than just its objects. One especially interesting area – increasingly foregrounded over the course of the project with the rise of digital assistants and bots – has been human-computer interaction. As AI gets better at simulating humans, the nature of conversation, interaction, and self-presentation itself has come under increasing pressure. Yet one form creativity takes in these circumstances – rather than the Luddite negativity one might expect – is to embrace the synthesisation of the self and its expression, in the form of avatars, emojis, Gifs, and other ‘readymades’ from which subjectivity can be refabricated.