You’ve probably heard of caddisflies or bagworms. The larvae of these two groups always carry around encasements (“bags”) which they build up with found objects. If you supply caddisflies with cool jewelry pieces like this guy did, you get cool bejeweled cases.
Here’s one from nature:
Caddisfly larvae live at the bottom of rivers, so you’re more likely to have come across bagworms in the wild. This is one way they can look like in Florida. You can see they tile the bag in a log cabin fashion.
I see a parallel between these encased larvae and online identity. While I was on Facebook (my social media drug of choice), throughout the day I always had a scavenger program running in my mind, and everything was screened for how it might look as part of my online identity. There were times when I wasn’t able to read an article or watch a show without scheming the entire time how I would add my spin when I posted about it on Facebook. Everything I took in was filtered through the lens of how it would look on me, as part of my exterior bag found art collage.
I think the bulk of online identities are bloated outer bags decorated with chunks of lightly processed recycled images, sounds, and ideas. Even though I’m sure we’d all agree that people are much more than their interests and affiliations, I think it’s common to lose sight of that in an online world that increasingly occupies our social lives.
I don’t have any hate for highly culturally referential identities or personae. I think it’s beautiful that our thinking and creativity are so interconnected through culture. It would be tragic not to swim sometimes in our shared cultural soup (if it were even possible). I freely credit the people and works that have influenced me on a deep level. But those things aren’t the superficial merit badges of identity I wish to leave behind. Ideas and works that affect our deepest selves penetrate the bag and mark the fly. I just want to be the fly now, the living thing inside the flashy wrapper. Let my beauty come from my deepest nature– not the bag I festoon in recycled ideologies and shibboleths.
I don’t think there’s any way to avoid signaling, and I’m not putting down the bag because its a patchwork of signals. I’m putting down the bag because its a patchwork of borrowed signals that don’t feel authentic to me. I had no hand in the authoring of Harry Potter, for example, but it truly affected who I am. Sharing hot takes from centrist internet commentator #17, however, feels more like wallpapering myself in discarded advertisements. Cheap identity bluster. The more that I’m drawn to that kind of identity, the more that the living being in me is just the legs dragging around a bloated, undigested pastiche identity bag.
A caddisfly larva or bagworm can’t actually shed the bag*, and I’m sure I never will, either. But I can keep it from obscuring or crushing my real self. That’s why it’s worth restricting my access to garish materials, such as contentious thinkpieces, and arenas, such as social media, to show off my reactions. It’s the hygiene of the identity for me. If it’s too easy to pick up pieces of other people and incorporate them into your outer self, it’s too hard to be your inner self.