In this post, we unpack the meaning and many works of creating and maintaining digital multiples, a term we coined in our recent ethnography, A Filtered Life, to explore the multiple, dynamic expressions of self across online contexts (Nichter and Taylor 2022). This concept emerged from our ethnographic research with more than 100 college students exploring sociality, emotional expression, and online identity work. Our methods for this study included in-depth interviews, focus groups, writing prompts, and long-term participant observation in students’ social media sites.
Colette, a college junior studying marketing at a large public university, prides herself in curating clever posts across her social media. After a difficult day, her Instagram post would feature an artsy photo of a glass of wine, using her signature colors as background. On Twitter, she would post a funny meme about getting drunk. Snapchat would show a video of her drinking the wine (since the post would disappear quickly). Colette’s Facebook post would include a short narrative about why her day was hard without any mention of wine (since her parents might see it).
Posts from one weekend include a filtered close up photo on Instagram of Colette dressed in fitted jeans and a tank top taken from a flattering birds-eye angle with the caption, “Getting ready for fun with my girls (heart emoji).” On Snapchat, her photo was a blurry image of a half-empty pizza box and several crumpled tissues on her cluttered bedside table with the caption, “Had better days.” Facebook featured a candid selfie of Colette snuggling with her golden lab on the couch with the caption, “Just a quiet night at home.”
One Thursday night, Colette posted a curated photo of herself laughing with friends in front of an iconic graffiti wall in Austin that reads, “I love you so much.” Snapchat featured her bare legs in bed with a bandage and scratch marks along with the caption, “I’m a fucking mess.” On Twitter, she retweeted a popular cartoon meme of a woman falling down stairs.
These examples from Collette’s social media illustrate the strategic presentation of self across social media contexts, a process guided by site-specific affordances, social norms, and perceived audience expectations. The term “polymedia” refers to a dynamic model which incorporates the proliferation of new social media that “each acquires its own niche in people’s communicative repertoires” (Madianou 2015, 1; see also Madianou and Miller 2013). The concept of polymedia underscores that today’s users rely on an assemblage of media to accomplish their online goals.
If we consider the multiple contexts that college students traverse without factoring in social media, impression management is complicated enough. We can imagine that a typical day for college students might include interacting with peers, co-workers and supervisors, and professors in a variety of contexts such as home, campus, parties and bars, and workplaces. Once we layer in social media contexts that overlap and integrate with those offline realms, the idea of managing one’s impression, performing appropriately for the particular platform, and segregating audiences becomes infinitely more complex. Additionally, the digital multiples that one presents on various online platforms reach diverse audiences, a factor requiring consideration in the creation of a post.
Engagement with multiple online contexts is not a new area of study. Tom Boellstorff has highlighted the interconnected nature of interactional contexts, arguing that digital worlds are as real as offline worlds (Boellstorff 2016). He illustrates that what we do online affects life offline, challenging a pervasive assumption in research on technology and sociality that understands “digital” and “real” as binary opposites. We found that digital multiples necessitated fluid identities—that is, being flexible in one’s presentation of self in relation to specific contexts and social spaces. Yet, the mandate to remain consistent with online and offline presentations of self further complicated the creation of digital multiples.
Here we explore the many works involved in creating and maintaining digital multiples alongside the impossible imperative of authenticity. Maintaining digital multiples required intensive labor as college students competed for likes amidst an attention economy where the half-life of a single post was short. On the one hand, site affordances, social norms, and perceived audience expectations constrained self-presentation; on the other hand, engaging across multiple sites, each with its own unique set of cultural mandates, provided an opportunity to cultivate digital multiples.
Daniel Miller and colleagues point out that since most people now engage across multiple sites, social media has become an ecology that offers many choices for sociality, ranging from small, private exchanges to public broadcasts (Miller et al. 2016). Miller and his colleagues refer to this as scalable sociality, a term they coin to describe the interconnected nature of social media, where individuals have a range of platform choices, degrees of privacy and size of audience that they want to reach. Interactive dynamics between social media users and their audience are key for understanding digital multiples.
Sociologist Erving Goffman described social life as a theater with interactions representing the interplay between actors and their audience (Goffman 1959). Goffman contends that we are always performing to create an impression for an audience. We need an audience to see our performance and a backstage area where we can both relax and do much of the work necessary to keep up appearances (Hogan 2010). Importantly, the self is not “a fixed, organic thing but a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance” (Tolentino 2019, 14). In our study, we observed that students portrayed themselves differently across social media platforms, depending on site affordances, audience expectations, and aspects of their identity they wanted to highlight.
Authenticity: An Impossible Imperative
We found that the process of constructing and maintaining digital multiples not only requires strategic tailoring by site, but also needs to be sufficiently aligned with one’s offline self and appearance to maintain an “authentic” identity. The concept of “authenticity”—revealing one’s true self—emerged as an important theme in our study. Students emphasized the importance of “being real” online as a marker of honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity. They scrutinized social media posts for signs of over-editing, a faux pau that signaled inauthenticity and elicited derision.
Among young women, authentic expression online translated into beauty practices that highlight physical appearance. The name of the game was to present both an authentic and an edited self that appeared effortlessly attractive. Successfully navigating this contradictory imperative required great skill, attention to detail, and vigilant monitoring of editing norms and feedback on posts. Men felt less pressure to post a flawlessly edited image, making it easier to achieve an appearance of authenticity. However, some still struggled with their online image and sense of self.
Both women and men were cognizant of the superficial nature of their editing practices. Students who did not edit risked critique for visible flaws and imperfections; those who did edit risked critique for being inauthentic. Successfully striking a balance between real and fake in social media was a highly valued skill and getting it right was important. This pressure underscores the importance of impressing an imagined audience, one that appears to value both perfection and authenticity, an impossible contradictory imperative.
The Many Works of Digital Multiples
Throughout A Filtered Life, we highlight the many works involved in creating and maintaining digital multiples, which include the following: editing work, the work of identity and gender performance, beauty work, emotional work, the work of remaining visible, and the work of managing social relationships. This is mostly invisible labor. Editing work, for example, is an intricate process for perfecting social media content, involving taking multiple photos, attending to angles, lighting, posture, spacing, and background, as well as editing out perceived flaws and strategically posting during peak times to attract maximum attention.
Another important work is that of identity and gender performance, shedding light on cultural prescriptions for self-presentation, which remain equally robust online as they do offline. Physical appearance, emotional expression, and lifestyle must be carefully surveilled and curated differently across contexts, yet it is important for a unifying thread of authenticity to remain intact. Under the constant surveillance of multiple imagined audiences, some were able to maintain the appearance of a seemingly “natural” aesthetic despite the tremendous effort required to produce content so that the “look” of their posts was eye-catching.
Beauty work describes the imperative to post your most attractive self and the production process required to achieve such perfection, including the work of micro-targeting each body part to discover and then conceal one’s flaws. In this process, social media practices are shaped by viewer expectations and site-specific conventions, as they converge with an online social milieu that values maximum visibility, adherence to cultural and gendered beauty norms, and promotion of the self as a recognizable brand image.
Students engaged in the emotional work of anticipating audience desires and developing tailored content across sites designed to get as many likes and positive comments as possible, vigilantly monitoring feedback on posts, and the emotional vicissitudes of counting likes and reading comments. Emotional work also included the imperative to always portray a happy, upbeat self and package one’s sad or angry emotions in socially acceptable ways, which differed by site. In this way, students needed to carefully produce and manage their emotional state.
The work of remaining visible by posting regularly was also important. Posting infrequently suggested a lack of social life. Students worried that if they did not post frequently friends would forget them. Being online constantly and seeing other people’s posts of how they were living their best life often resulted in frustration and jealousy, especially when comparing your own life to that of people in your friend network who seemed to “have it all.”
Finally, the work of managing social relationships involved scrolling through sites and liking others’ posts. Students said it was especially important to like the posts of friends who regularly liked their posts. It was common for a student to call out their closest friends for failing to reciprocate in this way. The timing of a like was important as well. Being the first to like a post signaled a sense of desperation; conversely, students said it was strange to get a like on an old post, explaining that it could signal a sudden and intense focus on them. Through the lens of these various works, we can see how the creation and maintenance of digital multiples becomes infinitely more complex and labor intensive.
The Filtered Self
The title of our ethnography, A Filtered Life, is multi-layered in meaning. On the most obvious level, it refers to the use of filters available on many platforms to alter and enhance one’s physical appearance and the background of an image. Beyond this interpretation, filters are a metaphor for strategically repackaging the self on different sites. Filtering the self is about every aspect of self-presentation, from the aesthetic of a person’s feed and their physical appearance to the personality characteristics and lifestyle they want to convey. Yet, all of this is bounded by a generational desire to remain authentic, meaning that there are limits to strategic self-expression online. Collette, like others in our study, carefully walked the fine line of achieving the impossible imperative of maintaining both filtered and authentic digital multiples.
The maintenance of digital multiples across online spaces—each with their own set of rules, editorial mandates, and audience expectations—intensified identity work. Everyone knew images they saw online were heavily cultivated, yet many students worked hard to perfect the ability to mask their editorial efforts in an image that appeared natural and effortless. While this editorial tight rope was stressful to navigate, students took pride in cultivating their skills and enjoyed the positive feedback from others when they got it right.
On the one hand, students expressed cynicism and frustration with social media—they struggled with the seeming inauthenticity of editing and self-presentation imperatives. On the other hand, students enjoyed the creative freedom to play with their identities, from the more superficial elements of fashion and physical appearance to deeper aspects of emotional expression and authentic self-presentation. As we look toward the future, it will be important for research to explore how the production of digital multiples shifts after college as young adults take on different roles and responsibilities.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2016. “For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real.” Current Anthropology 57(4): 387-407.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.
Hogan, Bernie. 2010. “The presentation of self in the age of social media: Distinguishing performances and exhibitions online.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 30(6): 377-386.
Madianou, Mirca. 2015. “Polymedia and Ethnography: Understanding the Social in Social Media.” Social Media + Society, (April – June): 1-3.
Madianou, Mirca and Daniel Miller. 2013. “Polymedia: Towards a New Theory of Digital Media in Interpersonal Communication.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 16(2): 169-187.
Miller, Daniel, Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang. 2016. How the World Changed Social Media. Vol. 1. London: UCL Press.
Taylor, Nicole and Mimi Nichter. 2022. A Filtered Life: Social Media on a College Campus. New York: Routledge.
Tolentino, Jia. 2019. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. New York: Random House.