From at least the 19th century up to the present day, there’s been a dual theme running through a great deal of fiction and social commentary – how big cities could be alienating and lonely, but how they also offered a place for personal reinvention.
When you lived in a small village or town you knew most of the people around you, and they knew you. That could be good or bad – depending.
The world urbanized, and now more than half of all the people on the planet live in a city or large suburb.
Even before that transition was finished, however, we were undergoing a new transformation. We were becoming citizens of online worlds.
Earlier internet forums were digital incarnations of small communities.
Whether it was a Usenet group, a forum, or the comments section on a blog, frequent users got to know one another. They developed relationships. Communities were formed, more or less organically. The internet was big, too big to fathom, really, but its pieces could still feel small.
(Which didn’t mean they couldn’t be toxic or cruel or just plain hostile. But that’s the same thing with any small community.)
But social networks were to those early online communities as cities were to small towns.
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And just as cities offered an opportunity to reinvent yourself, so did the new social networks.
People launched new careers, from YouTube and Instagram makeup influencers, to snarky wits and writers on Twitter, to the kids dancing their way to fame in the early times of TikTok.
But the flip side of a big, all-encompassing social media site is that it’s like living in a big city, and you’re even more aware of just how many people are out there.
So people developed a peculiar dual craving. They want to be unique and to stand out, despite the fact that there are literally hundreds of millions of other users all clamouring for attention, and at the same time, they want to feel like they belong.
That’s made people hungry for identity in a way they weren’t before. What group can they join, to make themselves different, to make themselves fit in?
It’s led to a lot of strange phenomena.
People have re-written their Twitter bios over and over – Hogwart’s Houses, Meyers-Briggs types, and star signs have all come and gone. Over on TikTok and Instagram, micro fashion trends flourish and vanish in an eye blink – was “dark academia” actually a thing, or just a dozen kids who liked school blazers and Gothic revival architecture?
We try to make ourselves unique, but every trend is either quickly appropriated, or burns out under the glare of a hundred thousand onlookers.
Those are things I can point to as fairly definitive examples of the internet’s creation of identity-hunger.
But is it also driving other, larger trends?
The internet, more than living in a city, reminds us we are small, and insignificant. That weighs on people’s minds, invisible but always felt. And it pushes people to strange, sometimes desperate things, to feel like they have a real, distinct identity.
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