Losing My Individuality

Zeitgsty
12 min readOct 4, 2023

--

Image made using Dall-E

Oh, come on, don’t we just adore the soothing lie of our own “unique” existence? A lie so comforting, it blankets our ego, whispering sweet nothings about how incomparably unique we are. But here’s a reality check from my fitness trainer, who between sets and scrolling through the tedium of Instagram realized — we’re all a bunch of unimaginative clones.

It’s a fact the TikTok community has embraced as of recently as well.

First, though, let’s rewind all the way back to those diaper days — where all, or at least most, of our behaviors originated. Memories awash with hearty applause from parents every time we belched out a word or took a wobbly step. Interestingly, they did so in the name of “‘independence training”, AKA the process of teaching skills and behaviors necessary to function independently in society.

Today we find ourselves in a different era. We’re goaded to think freely and act autonomously while paradoxically being strapped into a societal straitjacket. And that sure limits our range of motion.

Our collective mindset, perpetually magnified by our digital echo chambers, hardly seems to broaden our horizons. Instead, it artfully narrows them. It ensures we stay snugly within the well-defined borders of conformity.

Here’s the kicker: we bask in our private mental escapades, arrogantly assured that our thoughts are our secretive escape. Our dreams, fears, and midnight mental soirees are locked away in a vault, inaccessible to the probing minds of others, right? But how authentic are those internal murals when they’re littered with spray paint from external influences anyway?

I think it’s about time we rattled our own cages. So stick around to explore individuality in the hyper-digital age. Let’s get into it!

The hive’s allure

Image made using Dall-E

Tumbling into the cavernous rabbit hole of our communal consciousness, we see it — the eons-old instinct to huddle together, snuggling our individualities into the warm embrace of the collective. Evolutionarily, we were bred to lean on each other. And throughout history, we formed tapestries where support, learning, and the delegation of the essential grunt work were paramount to survival. It’s undeniably charming, in theory.

Examining the world’s Blue Zones (places where people live longest), from the serenity of Okinawa, Japan to the vibrant coasts of Sardinia, Italy, and you’ll discover a secret hidden in plain sight. “Staying socially connected is one of the most consistent habits seen across the board in Blue Zones,” mused Melissa Mitri, MS, RD to Clean Plates. Touché.

In contrast, there’s an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. Frighteningly, lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to an advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General.

Photo credit: Free Range Kids

The report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” found that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about ½ of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. So I’d venture to say yes, this is definitely a motivating factor for immersing in online communities!

Yet, could there be a fine line between beneficial community cohesion and a perilous descent into the chasm of mob mentality? I think you know where this is going…

We’ve coined a plethora of terms for it, be it herd mentality, groupthink, crowd psychology — take your pick. All succinctly illustrate a stark truth: individuals, whether in classrooms, neighborhoods, or entire nations, are mysteriously magnetized by the larger ensemble. Remember Solomon Asch from the 50s and his cheeky conformity experiments? Yeah, those unveiled our unnerving propensity to abandon reality, trading it for the snug comfort of collective falsehood.

It seems like a lot of work in the name of avoiding being the odd one out. However, that’s actually a hugely compelling motivator for us humans.

Everyday life is brimming with examples of this subtle compliance. Whether it’s loitering in certain coffee shops, binge-watching trending series, or munching on that viral snack. Admit it, our choices are meticulously choreographed by the invisible strings of communal approval. We sidestep the discomfort of decision-making, opting instead for the path of least resistance and synchronized belonging.

Why? For one, Mob mentalities can be pretty damn seductive. A tiny faction within the crowd, with a semblance of informed cognition, usually steers the ship, shaping the belief systems and actions of the amorphous mass. The bigger the crowd, the scarcer the rational minds. Thus the potential for chaos, or violence, inflates. Just think back to January 6, 2021.

Heralding from a myriad of backgrounds, we’re psychologically wired to seek acceptance and kindred spirits. Be it attributed to socioeconomic status, historical oppression, or simply the intrinsic human dread of loneliness. Our adaptive survival instinct urges us to blend rather than clash with our surroundings. We’re shaped by the winds of societal norms, even if it distorts our reflection in the mirror.

Interestingly, there are actually 3 psychological theories that address crowd behavior. First is Contagion Theory, which proposes that crowds exert a hypnotic influence on their members that results in irrational and emotionally charged behavior often referred to as crowd frenzy.

Second is Convergence Theory that argues the behavior of a crowd is not an emergent property of the crowd but is a result of like-minded individuals coming together. And if it becomes violent it’s not because the crowd encourages violence. Rather, it’s because people wanted it to be violent and came together in a crowd.

And the third is Emergent-Norm Theory that combines the 2 above arguing that a combination of like-minded individuals, anonymity, and shared emotions leads to crowd behavior. I tend to favor the most equitable, third theory myself.

Evidently, the duality of individual emotions and group psychology is a concoction both potent and potentially lethal. In a collective, emotions are amplified, creating shared sentiments that validate and normalize behaviors — and those aren’t always 100% benevolent either.

Balancing on the razor’s edge, we find that the health of our internal worlds and the vitality of our external social spheres are equally valuable. The trick, perhaps, lies in caressing a delicate equilibrium. Meaning, ensuring neither swallows the other whole.

Joining the digital congregation

Image made using Dall-E

The Interwebs–our beloved realm where even your grandma’s knitting club conducts virtual séances. In the pulsating heart of digital, communities blossom, or perhaps more fittingly, pixelate into existence. While we’ve seemingly uploaded most of our lives into this boundless binary sea, it’s fascinating how these new-age digital communities are cultivating both comradeship and plenty of chaos.

Once upon a time, we shared stories around bonfires and basked in the shared warmth of our physical tribes. Today, as our traditional gatherings — those “third places” like churches, cafes, and stoops — dwindle in the face of remote work and weakening religious practices, our communal members have adopted a digital glow to help fill the void. Yet, amid this connectivity, a bizarre paradox emerges. We spend hours scrolling through artfully constructed realities while genuine, tangible connections fade into obsolescence.

Yup, there’s no ignoring the irony. As we plunge deeper into the individual way of life facilitated by the absence of robust, in-person communities, we gasp for connection in vast, digital oceans. Embedded in this system, however, is a dark little secret: the perpetuation of an insidious confirmation bias.

Social media sites foster confirmation bias due to their foundational function. Irrespective of the specific algorithm, platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube inherently serve one basic mission: to weave groups of like-minded users into tight-knit communities based on shared content preferences.

This mechanism of categorizing users, while seemingly innocent, becomes particularly perilous in the political realm. And while social media sites can theoretically mitigate the polarization birthed by echo chambers, its efficacy often boils down to two primary elements: 1. The specific platform, and 2. the prevailing conditions within. Some platforms, for instance, Instagram, exhibit algorithms that comparatively insulate their users less than others like Facebook and Reddit.

Moreover, according to a study showcased in the Scientific American, when groups of Democrats and Republicans were secluded into social media “bubbles” and instigated to discuss issues amongst themselves, intriguingly, their viewpoints veered closer to a centrist perspective rather than polarizing further. This suggests that the conditions within these echo chambers can significantly shape their trajectory — and eventual impact.

Significantly, TikTok’s “For You” page did what Facebook and Instagram had tiptoed around. Also worth noting that it came to claim in a fascinating time — COVID.

The “For You” page unabashedly tossed us into a whirlwind of strangers bound by shared interests or algorithms, presenting (an illusion of) diverse connectivity. We see content that tickles our preconceived notions and biases, feeding us the same dogmatic information, just from various mouths across the globe. The outcome? Growing more isolated and more homogenous in our beliefs.

Echo chambers also bring plenty of secondary effects as they continuously develop. They throb, pulsate, and grow, seeping into every tweet, share, and like. This is not merely a theory but a glaring reality when 73% of Democrats and Republicans barricade themselves behind diverging “facts”. This digital polarization, this voracious hunger to belong to a school of thought (or a trending hashtag) ultimately builds walls between our realities.

We end up trapped in a loop where our rising individualism clashes with a desperate urge for belonging. Our knowledge becomes our chains, conformity our creed, and impression management our survival tool. Funny, innit?

This virtual reality not only becomes a world where we conform to popular norms and narratives but also perpetuates a collective groupthink. In these, deviation equates to treachery.

So as we craft these idealized, digital versions of ourselves, playing into the hands of this seemingly benign collective cognition, a question teases the edge of our synapses: have we become mere avatars dictated by the gods of social media?

How influencers sold us dreams–and we bought the bedsheets

Image made using Dall-E

Years back to a simpler time, if such a thing ever really existed, the closest we got to the glamorous lives of celebrities was through glossy pages of InTouch or the somewhat shady alleys of Perez Hilton’s blog. A world where celebrities’ lifestyles were intriguingly distant. And if Perez Hilton draws a blank on your recognition radar, peep the image below to step into the nostalgic scandal of yesteryears. 👀

Image credit: Gawker

Before we venture deeper–yes, I’m shamelessly generalizing here. Let’s not dilly-dally into the nuances of mega vs micro, gaming vs fashion, and so on.

Social media gave us a sinister gift: proximity to semi-celebrity. And just like that influencers were born, bred, and thrust upon our screens. Now, our own zeal with these figures is being used against us. The social influencer field itself, mushrooming 28.7% annual growth since 2022, is a testament to our collective credulity and, dare I say, borderline desperation for vicarious living.

But alas, an influx of blatant advertising fatigue, particularly amidst the sprightly youths, rings the death knell for traditional advertising strategies. Or so a gal can dream. Their excited scrolls are morphing into perpetual dissatisfaction with inauthentic brand shoving.

Such is growing up. 🤷‍♀️

Significantly, in a head-to-head, influencer whitelisting casually obliterates traditional social media ads, outperforming them by a saucy 20–50%. The rationale? Humans hawking goods just feels more… human. Even if they’re peddling the same stale microtrends, urging us towards an abyss of homogenized consumerism and lack of sartorial (and moral) individuality.

I kid, I kid.

But truth be told, who could resist the siren call of influencer cash — posts that rake in anywhere from a crisp $5 bill to a hefty $25k?! Amidst economic chaos, the charm is almost too enchanting to rebuff. As these digital celebrities blossom, most (not all, let’s be fair) morph from individual to brand. And that reshapes how they function. Eventually, their authenticity dissolves in a bitter concoction of sponsorship and subterfuge. Blech.

On a more serious note, it’s worth acknowledging the weighty influence these beings wield over our impressionable minors. Remarkably, 70% of teens confess that they trust influencers more than conventional celebrities. As we all huddle more with screens and less with beings, particularly amongst the youths (15–24) who are spending less time with each other in person than 2 decades ago, we knowingly question: Where are they communing instead?

Online.

Our younglings, maturing in the shadow of influencers, now accept this digital Pantheon as an everyday deity. Normalized? Certainly. Unsettling? Profoundly. At their core, influencers have arguably devolved into mere marionettes of consumerism, soulless adverts masked as genuine comrades.

However, light glimmers rebelliously at the end of this pixelated tunnel. A fatigue is festering amidst the lack of authenticity. Add to that a mounting weariness towards the puppeteers (or should I say, puppeted?) of the digital world.

The skeptics among us grow weary of identical titans pushing identical products with identical, purchase-prompting goals. And don’t even get me started on the performative activism — I’ll let Qy’Darrius McEachern eloquently dissect that beast.

Enter, TikTok’s “deinfluencers”, the rebellious offspring in this digital drama. With more than 150 million views on #deinfluencing, these crusaders are urging their fellow netizens to resist the allure of trends and be judicious in their consumptive habits. From critiques on over-hyped beauty products to a vocal resistance against indulgent consumerism, it’s a striking contrast to the hashtag’s predecessor, #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt. Thank god for that–TikTok doesn’t need us advertising for them!

As the pendulum swings towards this audacious transparency, is there hope for a monumental shift in the influencer landscape? Perhaps. But the cynical seer within me suggests we brace ourselves for a familiar pattern, albeit in a slightly altered guise. An influencer pig in lipstick, if you will. Now, isn’t that a glamorous thought to ponder upon till our next tête-à-tête?

A final nod to the unapologetic version of YOU

Image made using Dall-E

Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness,” nudged Allen Ginsberg, poking us to wear our wild, weird, and wonderful on our sleeves.

Look, it’s an absolute circus out there in the digital world. Everyone’s trying to sell you the “perfect” life, body, or burger. Still, they manage to disregard how “perfect” may vary amongst individuals.

The reality is that we all want the freedom to pick our paths, right? To read that cheesy romance novel without the “guilty” in “guilty pleasure,” to pick a career that doesn’t prompt an eyebrow raise from Aunt Roberta, and to follow whatever spiritual (or not) path feels right. Some folks even shout about individually being an ethical virtue. It’s hard to argue that, as my personal belief is that individuality equates to freedom in this world.

But let’s get practical. How do you keep your self-ness in a world that’s constantly trying to mold you? Take a hard look at your habits, the books on your shelf, the posts you “like.” Are they you, or are they what you think you should be? And hey, it’s okay to step back, to spend some time away from the digital buzz, to reevaluate the stuff that lights your fire. It’s not about shunning the digital or social world. It’s about making sure it doesn’t drown out your own inner voice.

Keeping your you-ness isn’t a one-time deal. It’s a bunch of choices, every day. It’s choosing to be okay with standing alone sometimes, choosing to embrace counter viewpoints, and choosing to lean into the unsureness of it all.

And in that pursuit of you, prioritize stuff that simply lights you up. Whether it’s getting your hands dirty in a community garden, learning a dance (yes, you still can post it!), writing about your local diner’s legendary pie, or belting out those affirmations in the shower. Or, if you’re like me it’s resting in bed like a Victorian child.

So long as you’re frequently challenging, creating, and redefining your values. In this hustle of fitting in, maybe carving out an identity truly true to ourselves is the most audacious thing we can do.

--

--

Zeitgsty

Zeitgeisty = your compass to the culture cosmos. 🔭 Ideal for the marketer's muse, the journalist’s journal, or if you just love being culturally in the know.