The looking glass self in the age of social media


Dr Matiur Rahman :

In the early 20th century, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley introduced a seminal concept in social psychology: the “Looking Glass Self.”

This theory posits that our self-concept is shaped by our perceptions of how others view us.

Cooley’s idea rests on three principal components: imagining how we appear to others, imagining the judgment of that appearance, and developing self-feelings, such as pride or shame, based on this perceived judgment.

Despite its origins in a pre-digital era, Cooley’s Looking Glass Self remains profoundly relevant today, particularly within social media.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok have fundamentally altered the dynamics of social interaction.

These digital arenas offer unprecedented opportunities for self-presentation and social feedback, thereby amplifying the processes described by Cooley.

In the past, the Looking Glass Self was constructed mainly through face-to-face interactions within limited social circles.

Today, social media enables individuals to present themselves to a vast, often anonymous audience, receiving instantaneous feedback in the form of likes, comments, shares, and follows.

This evolution has significant implications for our understanding of identity formation and self-perception.

One of the most striking aspects of social media is the degree to which it allows for curate self-presentation.

Users have control over what aspects of their lives they share, often highlighting positive or desirable traits while concealing flaws or negative experiences.

This selective self-presentation aligns with Cooley’s notion of imagining how we appear to others.

On social media, however, this imagination is not solely an internal process; it is manifested in the images, videos, and posts users create.

The curate nature of social media profiles can lead to a heightened awareness of one’s public image, as users constantly evaluate and re-evaluate their online personas based on the reactions they receive.

The second element of Cooley’s theory—the perceived judgment of others—is also magnified in the social media context. Feedback mechanisms are built into the architecture of social media platforms.

The number of likes, comments, shares, and followers are quantifiable indicators of social approval or disapproval.

These metrics provide users with immediate and tangible feedback, which can significantly influence their self-perception. For instance, a post that receives numerous likes and positive comments can boost an individual’s self-esteem.

At the same time, a lack of engagement or negative feedback can lead to feelings of inadequacy or rejection.

The public nature of this feedback can also exacerbate these effects, as users are acutely aware that their social network is observing the reception of their posts.

The third component of Cooley’s Looking Glass self—self-feelings of pride or shame—takes on new dimensions in the age of social media.

The emotional responses elicited by social media feedback can be intense and far-reaching.


Positive reinforcement from a broad audience can lead to a sense of validation and increased self-worth. Conversely, negative feedback or cyberbullying can result in significant emotional distress.

The constant exposure to others’ curated lives can also lead to social comparison, where individuals measure their own lives against the often idealized representations of others. This comparison can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and diminish self-esteem.

The influence of social media on the Looking Glass Self also raises important questions about authenticity and the potential for a fragmented self-concept.

Social media’s curated and performative nature can create a disconnection between one’s online persona and offline identity.

This disjunction can create internal conflict and stress, as individuals may feel pressure to maintain their online image even when it does not reflect their true self.

The constant negotiation between these identities can impact mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression, and a sense of inauthenticity.

Furthermore, social media content’s public and permanent nature adds complexity to identity formation.

Unlike face-to-face interactions, which are transient, social media posts can persist indefinitely, subject to reinterpretation by different audiences over time.

This permanence can affect how individuals manage their online identities, knowing that their digital footprint can be accessed and scrutinized long after the initial interaction.

This awareness can lead to a more cautious and calculated approach to self-presentation, influencing how individuals see themselves and navigate their social environments.

Despite these challenges, social media also offers opportunities for positive identity development.

It provides platforms for self-expression, creativity, and community building. Social media can offer many individuals a sense of belonging and support, especially those who feel marginalized or isolated offline.

Online communities can provide validation and encouragement, helping individuals to explore and affirm their identities. These positive interactions can enhance self-esteem and contribute to a more cohesive self-concept.

The intersection of Cooley’s Looking Glass Self and social media also highlights the importance of digital literacy and critical self-reflection.

As users navigate the complex social landscapes of digital platforms, developing an awareness of the psychological dynamics at play can foster healthier interactions and self-perceptions.

Understanding the impact of social media feedback on one’s self-concept can encourage more mindful and intentional use of these platforms.

This awareness can also promote empathy and support within online communities, mitigating some of the adverse effects of social comparison and cyberbullying.

Charles Horton Cooley’s Looking Glass Self remains a vital framework for understanding identity formation in the digital age.

Social media has transformed how we present ourselves and perceive others’ judgments, amplifying the processes Cooley described.

While social media’s curated and performative nature challenges authentic self-concept development, it also offers opportunities for positive identity exploration and community building.

By critically engaging with these platforms and fostering digital literacy, individuals can navigate the complexities of their online and offline selves, contributing to a healthier and more cohesive sense of identity in an increasingly connected world.

(The writer is a researcher and
development worker.)