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June 3, 2023

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Mirror mirror on the billboard:An identity crisis and the powerful ties that bind us

“THAT’S MY HAIR!!” were the words I choked out when a friend showed me a picture of the latest iPhone advert. A billboard no less, smack bang in the middle of Shanghai.

Billboards tower above us like modern-day monoliths. They command our attention, projecting images of aspiration and success. But what happens when one reflects back a suspiciously accurate version of ourselves?

This week I found myself face-to-face with an Apple advertisement featuring a model resembling me. First, there was a moment of smuggish affirmation that my appearance and character were worthy of representing a big brand. Then a swift wave of introspection washed over me. I hadn’t made the billboard. Though the resemblance was striking — pose and all — it was someone else’s face and moment. That cocktail of jubilation tinged with bittersweet reflection reminded me that the edges of personal identity can blur, leaving us to question the things that supposedly make us unique.

We all like to think we’re special. And we strive to craft an identity that resonates with who we are and how we want to be perceived. This quest for individuality comes with a laundry list of tasks: carefully curated Instagram feeds, polished LinkedIn profiles and a constant pursuit of the extraordinary. It’s knackering when you stop to think of it. And here, despite all my efforts, was someone who looked exactly like me in a selfie I’d taken months before. On social media, that post gained 48 likes, six comments and one retweet. Compare that with the number of phones this woman will sell, and tell me you wouldn’t want to walk into the ocean.

Adding another layer of irony to this encounter is the fact that the advertisement is part of a campaign promoting personal information protection and privacy — an elusive guardian of our digital lives. It’s a concept we hold dear, valuing our ability to shield and safeguard ourselves. Yet, there was a billboard in the center of a megacity, featuring an image resembling me. The universe has a mischievous sense of humor, knitting the heart of privacy with my own likeness. What does it signify when the face on a billboard promising privacy mirrors our own? Is it a message about the perils of our digital footprint? A towering reminder of the balance between sharing ourselves online and safeguarding personal boundaries? Or does it underscore the contradiction of our digital lives, where our need for connection clashes with the want for anonymity?

Either way, the doppelgänger brought forth a humble truth. No matter how curated our online presence may be, it’s a sliver of the complex tapestry that makes up who we are. Beneath the facade of perfection lie the rich and very real experiences emotions, and stories that shape us. A complexity that can never be captured by a single image or status update. There’s something liberating about realizing there’s no one else quite like us and our mess, even if a billboard briefly suggests otherwise. While the model resembles me, she is not me. This image captures someone else’s journey, someone else’s story. She’s a reminder that personal identity covers more than physical attributes; it extends beyond appearances to the experiences, passions and values that shape us.

As I think about the billboard, a profound and somewhat paradoxical truth emerges about humanity. While we are undeniably distinct, it’s our own happiness and heartaches that unite us. It’s through the sharing of commonalities, experiences and vulnerabilities that we find empathy. This advert is less an advert for a phone, and more an advert for opportunity. The opportunity to reframe the conversation around who we are.

Instead of emphasizing external attributes, we can focus on the threads that bind us. It invites us to embrace the idea that what truly makes us sparkle are our unique selling points and the constellations we collectively form. In this digital age, where surface-level impressions overshadow deeper truths, acknowledging the vastness of our social universe becomes increasingly important. Behind the filters and carefully fashioned personas, a world of stories awaits to be heard. Through genuine and unguarded exchanges, we forge authentic connections and togetherness. It’s a valuable lesson in an increasingly divided world; don’t be you, be us.

Here stands an invitation to celebrate our commonalities, revel in the joys and sorrows of life and cherish the collective wisdom that emerges when we let go of preconceived ideas of individuality. The billboard leaves a ringing message: In a world where identities are crafted and privacy is valued, power lies in the profound unity of our shared experience.

And in the face of an image resembling my own, I’m reminded that we are not alone on life’s journey.


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