Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s new book, You and Your Profile: Identity After Authenticity, argues that we are leaving all of this behind. “Today,” they write, “people are increasingly speaking, dressing, and acting as if a video of them might, at any moment, be uploaded for dozens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions to view.” Contemporary identity is concerned less with roles and masks; it takes as its archetype the “profile,” that public representation of ourselves that is searchable online, time-consuming to craft, and addressed differently to different audiences. Not only social media profiles, but also dating profiles and résumés are “carefully curated to appeal to the general peer.” The authors call this new identity regime “profilicity,” which, in contrast to sincerity and authenticity, takes the existence of “mass narcissism” and “concern with one’s self-image and profile” as a reflection of “the social proliferation of second-order observation.” The phrase “second-order observation” refers to our instinct to filter what we observe through the eyes of others. It comes from systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, who claimed second-order observation to be a distinguishing feature of the modern world. It seems that we can hardly avoid sustaining this double vision. “Nothing is posted without a concern for how one is seen as being seen,” the authors write. Second-order observation has become second nature.
Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s expertise as philosophers incline them toward questions of a timeless variety, about the kind of thing identity is, and the conditions of possibility for one identity regime versus another. Readers will appreciate the acuity of their thinking as they uncover identity’s new logic in everyday examples. An exegesis of Taylor Swift’s online behavior, an eye for the Socratic questions behind Jay-Z’s lyrics, explanations of memes and why websites are laid out as “feeds” — for these bits of analysis alone, the book is worth reading. Close readers will also admire the book’s overarching theory of identity, which, like many grand theories, is elegant and enticing. You and Your Profile brings together media theory, intellectual history, social systems theory, and select insights from Hegel and Luhmann for a lucid analysis of how we understand our identities. Luhmann supplies the concept of second-order observation foundational to profilicity’s identity dynamic, and Hegel provides identity’s historical structure. Sincerity, authenticity, and profilicity succeed one another when the internal contradictions of one identity regime give way to the development of another.
However, the authors’ adoption of a Hegelian theory of history comes at the expense of a precise history. Readers will not find the specifics of time and place beyond general remarks. Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s methodological constraints permit them, instead, to focus on profilicity’s critical potential. They regard second-order observation as both that which allows the prevalence of a profile-based way of identifying and that which harbors the potential for overcoming the anxiety, burnout, and depression that commonly accompany the labor of managing profiles. The authors convincingly argue for identity as an ever-evolving technology and profilicity as its latest, most complex iteration. Although we are left wondering when the age of profiles really began and how far-ranging its reach is, readers of You and Your Profile will encounter a nuanced and refreshing characterization of the way identity is thought about and practiced today — an explanation for the copious hours spent drafting tweets and editing Instagram photos and TikTok videos — that avoids diagnosing us as embodiments of consumer capitalism or with some kind of generational affliction.
Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s account of profilicity will appear familiar, and familiarly grim, to denizens of the internet, but their analysis is subtle and defamiliarizes actions that we perform every day. To live under conditions of profilicity, they state, is to live in a world of constant, interactive evaluation. One needn’t visit the usual platforms of online interaction to be privy to profilicity’s designs. We partake in an identity game even on Yelp, Airbnb, and eBay, where our reviews of the people we transact with must be written with consideration of what will be said of us in turn. What we post (nonanonymously) online is always more than what is said with words; our judgments of restaurants, of films, of ideas, of others — contained in posts, retweets, reviews, likes, and comments — are simultaneously presentations of who we are. To be “seen as being seen” is to have internalized the gaze of others for whom we are all the time performing, anticipating their applause or their disapproving hiss — or, worse, no attention at all. Profilicity engulfs anyone with a profile: politicians, protesters, academics, Airbnb hosts, corporations, and even locations, particularly those travel destinations whose revenues depend on tourism. It grows out of the two previous stages of identity, but it also subsumes them. By profilicity’s logic, I am free to be as sincere and authentic as I wish, but my sincerity and authenticity will be interpreted as a feature of my profile, as yet another strategy for garnering approval.
What propels identity’s history are the contradictions within each identity regime. In the age of sincerity, roles and expectations were thought to be inscribed in natural or divine law. But since it was possible to take on multiple roles — to be, for instance, both a son and a priest — different roles performed by the same individual could come into conflict, as when the son’s duty to carry forth the family line came into conflict with his celibacy vows as a priest. Society, for the sake of keeping itself intact, blamed individuals for failing to make their roles cohere. Eventually, the regime of sincerity as a whole began to fracture when we started to doubt and reject the identities we were given. We sought a truer identity after what was thought natural appeared contrived. As would become manifest, the pursuit of authenticity itself contained a paradox. It turned out that finding one’s true self, more often than not, entailed a process of imitating others — of identifying models and trying on different styles. Authenticity was rather inauthentic, an aporia that prepared a clearing for the present regime of identity to emerge.
The locomotives for profilicity are two feedback loops: a social validation feedback loop and a moral validation feedback loop. In the first, profiles are adjusted in response to positive or negative reactions. A positively received profile “generates validation promises.” The profile needs to confirm that it is who it said it was, and “the addressee” needs to affirm their acceptance of the profile’s confirmation, breeding an ecology where all profiles need “constant curation and updates.” In the second, just as individuals present versions of themselves that they think will be liked and promoted, so too must they display virtue in accordance with what others will find virtuous: “Today, merely passing the salt to someone is not as good as posting a video of passing the salt in addition to it.” This somewhat extreme case is meant to exemplify how the prevalence of second-order observation has occasioned the rise of “virtue signaling.” Where it has become predominant to present ourselves through our opinions and observations, demonstrated moral judgments — especially our moral speech — become particularly telling of who we are.
How exhausting to live in this world! It is no wonder that figures in the spotlight (so-called “high profiles”), especially those children of the internet, the Charli D’Amelios and Bo Burnhams, speak of the stress they endure to keep their audiences engaged. (“Mental health” has become a predominant theme of both D’Amelio and Burnham’s profiles.) Watching The D’Amelio Show or any of Bo Burnham’s comedy specials, one wonders why they keep at it. But we know intimately how much rides on our profiles, how risky it would be to admit that relevance, riches, and influence are at stake. Moeller and D’Ambrosio write: “Profilicity encourages highly vigilant self-presentation and identity formulation — vigilant both regarding how we show ourselves and how we watch ourselves.” I can’t help but think that what they call “highly vigilant” is a form of hypervigilance — an elevated state of alertness to potential and imminent threats in one’s surroundings that is usually a symptom of PTSD. So, when the authors posit a difference between identifying and “overidentifying,” between caring for our profiles and obsessing over them, it is a distinction that is tricky to sustain. Who but the person presenting would know just how much anxiety they’re experiencing? How much anxiety should we tolerate as normal?
Is it true that moral acts are “not as good” unless they are recorded, disseminated, and watched? This would depend on what kind of value and reality is conferred to the world beyond profilicity’s identity game, on how unwatched moral acts are received in a world of mostly second-order observations. Their silence on these questions is why I have preferred to think of profilicity’s “regime” as less an “age” than an identity logic or game, played in certain places under certain conditions.
The inclusion of more historical markers would help delineate profilicity’s scope. The authors claim profilicity is global, and the examples they choose come mostly from Europe, China, and the United States. Explaining why profilicity superseded authenticity, they refer to the latter’s reliance “on personal interaction between people,” which has become less important as our lives have become more virtual. At points, they claim the authentic age is “fading away” and the age of profilicity is on the rise. At another moment, they write, “A first surge of profilicity was made possible by early forms of the mass media, like books, newspapers, and journals. These media relied on the copying technology of print.” This first “surge” supposedly took place in the 200 years of the European 18th and 19th centuries, notwithstanding the fact that books with illustrations have circulated throughout Europe even before Johannes Gutenberg’s fortuitous technical advancement in the printing press in the 1440s. When to date the “early forms of the mass media”? By linking profilicity’s beginning with the advent of second-order observation and modernity (notoriously difficult to date), the authors dodge the task of providing clear answers. By their own admission, a more empirical history of profilicity remains to be written.
The book’s philosophical register serves their ultimate ambition: to present identity as infused with contingency. Identity’s historical trajectory represents the three stages by which the sociopsychological aspects of identity have been pried from the determinations of body and biology. Once we can see that our bodies, our mental lives, and our social personas are not causally coordinated — and have always operated independently of one another — we are freer to experiment with our identities.
For as narcissistic, self-reflexive, and paranoid as the constant attention to profiles seems to make us, the authors assert that we can separate our profiles from what we actually feel or think. Paradoxically — and this is profilicity’s internal contradiction — profilicity doesn’t care about who you really are. Just when it seems that the algorithms collecting our profiles’ data have realized our worst dystopian fantasies, now that algorithms “nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions” (Shoshana Zuboff), the authors insist that these practices are only a threat if we remain committed to the ideal of an authentic identity. Worries that we have become commodities are worries about who we are as though we were only our profiles. Predictive algorithms are pernicious if we believe that we have unsoiled, totally autonomous selves that need protecting in the first place. Many will disagree with the authors on this point, but what Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s analysis promises is a new way of conceptualizing privacy and agency as a space entirely exterior, perhaps ulterior, to our profiles. To deliver on this promise, the authors would have to offer a more robust account of profilicity’s limits. (Are we free from profilicity if we can pause the game but cannot stop playing?) For now, they claim that our agency was never fully ours to begin with. If digital life has enabled a greater encroachment into our privacy and agency, this is because we remain beholden to a view of identity that belongs to a bygone era.
For Moeller and D’Ambrosio, identity is a “technology” — in my reading, a tool for managing uncertainty. What they have found to be true over identity’s historical dialectic is that “[h]uman existence is helplessly multifarious.” The purpose of identity has been to coagulate our fluidity, providing stability to our beliefs, commitments, loyalties, and actions: “Identity enables us to accept the face we see in the mirror as our own.” In other words, we need identity to be identical with ourselves — a word which shares with identity the Latin root (idem) for sameness and which was identity’s more prominent logical meaning before the word itself entered social scientific and popular parlance in the 1950s, as the historian Gerald Izenberg has showed.
By the author’s assessment, the real risk comes from “overidentifying” with our profiles. This happens when we take our public personas to be a true estimation of our worth. Moeller and D’Ambrosio are poetic when describing why we need identities: our need to bridge the gaps in our being gives rise to psychology, philosophy, literature, creativity, and love. They fail to explain, however, why we overidentify. More history would help us here as well, at the very least in explaining how it has become so attractive to orient our character around those qualities most likely to sell. It would come as no surprise if the history of capitalism were a part of that answer.
Moeller and D’Ambrosio direct our attention to “genuine pretending” as a remedy for overidentifying. In their previous co-authored book, Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi, they identify in the classical Daoist text the Zhuangzi a unifying message encouraging the balance of identity commitments with a more humorous and playful way of living. You and Your Profile takes the recommendation of the Zhuangzi a step further; “genuine pretending” is considered a natural mode of being. “Everyone is genuinely pretending all the time,” they write. The book functions in the end as an invitation to appreciate identity as simultaneously real and artificial, and as an exercise in living with the uncertainty and paradoxes of our own being.
In seeing our behavior and masks more clearly, You and Your Profile itself becomes an actualization of the critical potential latent in second-order observation. As the effects of overinvesting in our social personas have become more individually and socially crippling and have seemed to start at ever younger ages, we would do well to recognize when we are doing something normal and necessary and when we are identifying too much. Toward that, the authors have helped us make an invaluable distinction.
Gloria B. Yu received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied the history of science and European cultural and intellectual history.