“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” – W.B. Yeats

Out there on the edge of identity?

Predictions about the impact of social media on culture and civil society abound.  Optimists see a future shaped by the democratization of information, globalization of culture, creation of community across physical boundaries, and transformation of human relations.  Oddly, pessimists see the exact same thing.  We’re a funny species like that.  We can occasionally agree on facts and where one sees a bright future, the other sees our ultimate doom.  Whether its ubiquity eventually leads civilization to the bright, shiny “City upon a Hill” or the Seventh Level of Hell, social media has changed our relationship with identity, both personal and public, and the most disturbing aspect of this is that we now exist in a state of permanent liminality.  Not you.  You’re perfect.  You smell nice, too. I mean the unwashed masses.

Anthropologists first started talking about the concept of liminality in the early 20th Century in reference to “rites of passage” and their relationship to how we construct our identity, more specifically about how initiation rituals (which are more or less universal in one form or another, such as traditions regarding the transition from youth to adult) play a central role in how one fits into society.  In 1909, folklorist Arnold van Gennep, the Godfather of Liminality, examining rituals of transition in small-scale societies noticed what looked like a culturally universal tri-partite sequence related to initiation rites surrounding passage through the cycle of life.  First, preliminal rites – a metaphorical “death” of one’s previous identity to open the way for something new.  Second, liminal rites – a passing through a “boundary” that signifies the transition to a new identity.  Third, post liminal rites – reintroduction into society with one’s new identity.

The salient mechanism of the liminal period has come to be understood by anthropologists as the point at which social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions, customs, and identities to form.  In short, you’ve got to dissolve your former relationship to society, in order to establish your new relationship to society.

Social media is all about identity.  We continuously invent and re-invent ourselves as online entities.  Everyone, from teenagers to social media marketers are developing deep expertise in “branding”, which is a far easier process in the infosphere than in the biosphere, as feedback is immediate, and adjustments can be made in real time.  Thus, the malleability of the liminal period of transition from yesterday’s identity to todays is persistent, and post liminal re-integration need never occur.  But existing in a state of liminality is not all bad.  The disorientation of the transitional state allows us to develop new perspectives, question values and beliefs, and scrutinize ourselves, our relationships, and our society, but as such it is an intense experience.  No wonder we’re all continuously stressed out.  That said, liminality is also where monsters lurk.  Heck, defining the liminal may very well be why we have monsters – to illustrate the danger of the uncategorizable, to establish the socially normative and emphasize the boundaries of social danger, and sometimes just to keep the kiddies from wandering off into the dark forest where they’ll be eaten by a bear.

With the acceptance and seemingly near universal adoption of social media as part of our lives, most of us exist with a fractured identity.  We live in the real world of face-to-face interaction (less so in these pandemic years) where identity takes one form, but simultaneously live a technological life, where our online identity is both more pliable, and more friable, in a constant state of transformation, precisely because it can be since the price of social transgression is low.  In short, because ordinary rules of human behavior require another human to actually be present, our online interaction turn us into what anthropologist Victor Tuner called “liminal personae”.  And like the initiate in a rite of passage we become threshold people and withdraw from normal modes of social interaction, replacing them with the transgressive, the anti-authoritarian, and the aggressively disoriented.  Ever wonder why people feel so free to be jerks online?  I guess I should have started with that.

The more time we spend online, crafting our electronic identities, the more time we spend in this liminal space, experiencing ourselves as liminal personae.  As one’s online identity merges into one’s actual identity, for how could it not, our lives and identities in the offline world increasingly take on the characteristics of the liminal personae.  Why do people seem so angry?  Why do facts and traditions seem to no longer matter?  Why has civil discourse taken on an aggressively hostile tone?  It’s because we are living in the Age of Permanent Liminality.  When we see the gap between our actual identity and online identity, we experience disillusionment and fear, and this feeds a certain modern nihilism, since we never get to experience the reintegration of our identity into society (or more frequently, form a fragile and ephemeral community around the liminal identity we have constructed). As Joan Didion observed, “Innocence ends when we are stripped of the delusion one likes oneself.”