There is no way to write this article without sounding like a killjoy. If the reader will forgive me, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about self-identification and social media. Specifically, BuzzFeed quizzes, “tag yourself” memes, astrological signs, and all the other things pop culture offers to help us fill in the blanks about our identities. We consume these things for fun, but to what extent do they illustrate a real search for self-knowledge?
First, a disclaimer: I am not under the impression that anyone truly believes BuzzFeed quizzes to be accurate. We would be deluded to imagine that our favorite pizza toppings could determine whether or not we survive the apocalypse. The absurdity is part of what makes the quizzes so popular—a wild leap from one conclusion to another is entertaining. It’s fun to be illogical. A equals B, B equals C, ergo A equals fifty green zebras.
I doubt, too, whether many people believe that the movements of planets and the positions of stars determine someone’s basic personality. This kind of thinking seems to belong in the same file cabinet with “flat Earth” theory. And yet, many read their horoscopes or sincerely claim identify with Zodiac signs—so much so that I’ve heard people casually use astrology to dismiss others’ behavior. Are Zodiac signs, like BuzzFeed quizzes, embraced purely for entertainment? Even if it is, doesn’t it speak to the fact that many of us lack a way of explaining events and emotions?
We’re hungry to decipher our identities. Looking into ourselves, we find endless questions and mysteries—often problematic mysteries. We ask, “Why do I have the fears I have? Why do I do bad things even when I’m trying to be good?” Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly searching for explanations. It would make sense if, in some way, social media’s amusing self-definitions appealed to us for this reason. We can allow ourselves to believe for a moment that we’re irritable because we’re Sagittariuses, or because our spirit animal is a tiger, and perhaps in that moment, we find a taste of comfort in the ease of explanation we usually lack.
These definitions also allow us the privilege of categorizing others. The popular (and often very funny) “tag yourself” memes invite us to place our friends in neat boxes. As with Zodiac signs, we recognize ourselves and others in character descriptions just enough to give them credibility. Walker Percy wrote a book titled Lost in the Cosmos, where he theorized that horoscopes seem so relatable because there’s just enough ambiguity to make their pronouncements applicable to anyone. The same idea could easily be applied to other pop-culture prophecies.
In other words, when we read something and say, “That’s just like me,” it’s likely because it’s just like everyone. On reading further, would we deny that we recognize some small part of ourselves in the other options as well?
Our entertainments can tell us a great deal about our culture, our personal vices, and our virtues, too. If we don’t define ourselves primarily by quiz results or Zodiac signs—and I expect many of us say we don’t—we might ask ourselves where our sense of identity does come from. Is that source a strong one? Where are the gaps in that identity, and what do we catch ourselves trying to fill them with?
Finally, to point out the obvious, this nonstop labeling seems to put ourselves and our egos on center stage. In our downtime, one of our favorite habits is to remind the rest of the world of our personalities and how unique we are—how outgoing, how kind, how moody, how sarcastic. As we continually reaffirm this character, who has all of these humorous qualities attached to him/her, doesn’t the character seem to become a separate entity? The “me” becomes almost a different person whose identity we must reiterate to ourselves and others. Are we trying to convince those around us of something? And if so, what?
Let’s end with a quiz—“What does your favorite ice cream flavor say about your fears?”
Pick a flavor:
c. Cookie dough
d. Mint chip
If you answered a… You fear being left without a purpose, a talent, or anything to call your own.
If you answered b... You fear being a carbon copy of everyone else (a “stock” character).
If you answered c... You fear finding out why you really behave the way you do, or what you would have to do to change it.
If you answered d... You are just like all of us, and before we become sincerely good and unique people, we will all try in vain to find those answers in transient things.