We depend on commercial entities to understand ourselves.

It may have always been the case that people crafted their identities by consuming — I don't know, but I do know that I did and probably still do. When I was a teenager, I thought of myself as someone who loved Starbucks, punk rock, and Gossip Girl. I took care to listen to the "right" music despite not understanding the meaning of the lyrics (Green Day's American Idiot went in one ear and out the other countless times), while being vitally aware of not listening to the "wrong" music. I don't mean right and wrong as judged by my friends, either: I mean as judged by what kind of person I thought I was. My inward identity was almost entirely a collage of the key brands and media I consumed or aspired to consume. What would have happened to how I understood myself if Starbucks had shut down at the time? I would have been seriously adrift.

Depending absolutely on consumption to create and exercise one's identity is not only for teenagers. In fact, it seems to be the standard way for people to construct themselves. To feel powerful and successful, many aim to buy luxury handbags or Teslas. To reinforce their deep commitment to a hobby or fandom, people buy neverending gear and merch. Minimalists and zero waste advocates are eager to buy their perfect monochromatic wardrobe, metal straws, or glass jars. Even most environmentalists think first to shop from carbon-neutral brands or thrift stores. (Any other action, like contacting a local politician, may or may not follow later.)

I don't just mean objects, though, when I say people seem to consume as their primary act of self-discovery and self-expression. Just as I saw myself as a screamo listener when I was a teenager, people attach themselves to specific TV shows, movies, games, or podcast genres. On NeoCities and Tumblr, I have seen many About Me pages with long lists of what the webmaster is watching, reading, and listening to (sometimes with little or nothing else). I had a list of favourite pokemon on this site's homepage myself for a long time.

So what?

My purpose of writing this essay is not to look down on anyone who conceptualises themselves mainly through their consumption. It's difficult to know otherwise, when it seems so common. I am concerned, however, at how we depend on companies and organised media for self-creation. I am concerned that a self defined by perpetual consumption may not be what people, once aware, would choose for themselves.

What's more, I find it's hard to replenish the self once the commercial crutches are gone. People understand themselves as an Apple or a DC fanboy for a reason. Each brand stands for a lifestyle, attitude, and sometimes even moral code. For example, Harry Potter fans value love, integrity, wonder, and whimsy. Gryffindors in particular are proud to tell you they seek courage. As someone once attached to Harry Potter to the point of acing Sporcle quizzes about obscure characters, I felt strangely hollow when She Who Must Not Be Named ruined her own series. It felt like I'd lost a part of myself. While only consuming can make an empty life, disengaging from consuming can feel empty at first too.

What remains of our identity when we forget about our possessions, stop consuming much media, and lose all the shortcuts to identity-building they come with? What happens when we are forced to personally cultivate, one by one, our personality traits and values? Building one's own thoughts and self is the most fundamental human practice. That it seems unnatural in today's world is a sign of how perversely important consumption has become.

Now what?

I've been struggling with the question of identity detached from consumption recently. Though I've been a minimalist in terms of physical goods for several years, I have always had a bad YouTube habit — or, more accurately, addiction. A sort of prickling ennui has finally pushed me to let it go after over a year of doing nothing but with my free time besides watch YouTube videos. But now, I wonder what I'm supposed to do otherwise. I wonder who I am otherwise.

I think the answer to both questions is to create art, in the loosest sense (drawing, painting, writing, playing music, making games...). I think, through being creative, we find and act ourselves out. Right now, I'm a little directionless, but I think that might be the way it's supposed to be. I'm comforted by all the NeoCities blogs I see full of art and personal projects. Let's imagine ourselves together anew, away from commercial consumption.

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