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December 30 2009

Being online: Conclusion--identity narratives

An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

(This is the final post in a series called
"Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")



After viewing in rotation the various facets of that gem that we call identity, it is time for us to polish and view them in one piece.
This series has explored what identity means in an online medium, the
most salient aspect of which is the digitization of information.
Consider what the word digitization denotes: the
fragmentation of a whole into infinitesimal, fungible, individually
uncommunicative pieces. The computer digitizes everything we post
about ourselves not only literally (by storing information in
computer-readable formats) but metaphorically, as the computer
scatters our information into a meaningless diaspora of data fields,
status updates, snapshots, and moments caught on camera or in
audio--as Shakespeare might say, signifying nothing.

No computer--only a person--can reassemble and breath life into these
dry bones, creating from them a narrative.

Anthony Giddens, whom I quoted earlier in the section on selves, says
that constructing a narrative for oneself is an obligatory part of
feeling one has an identity. Giddens does not seem to take the
Internet on in his writings. But it's a reasonable stretch to say that
we build up narratives online, and others do so for us, through the
digitized, disembodied (or to use Giddens's term, disembedded) bits of
information posted over time.

In place of the term narrative,
some psychologists, who would probably love to do an intake interview
on Hamlet, refer to the self as being established through a soliloquy.
However you look at
identity formation, taking it online extends its reach tremendously.
The soliloquies we engage in, and the narratives we create for
ourselves, reshape our memories and determine our futures. But these
self-interrogations that used to take place in our craniums while we
lay in bed at night now happen in full view of the world.

College development staff and others who search for information on us
are building up narratives haphazardly based on available data. On
blogs and social networks, however, we quite literally provide them
with the narrative. Perhaps that's why those media became popular so
quickly, and why so many people urge their friends to follow them:
social media take some of the anarchy out of our presentation of self.

The next step to gain more control over searches about yourself or
your business may be emotionally formidable as well as time-consuming:
when someone comments about you on any searchable forum, answer
him. The answer can be on the same forum as the original comment or on
some site more under your control, such as your blog--use whatever
setting is appropriate for what you have to say. You can then only
hope that your reply is picked up and treated as important by the
search engines.

One indication of Shakespeare's genius was the parallel, distinct
narratives he managed to create in Hamlet--or as Goffman
might put it, his ability to develop two sophisticated frames that are
totally at odds throughout the play. Similar stylistic devices have
been worked into thriller moves, spy novels, and thousands of other
settings since then.

Everyone except Hamlet himself (and a few sympathetic colleagues)
created a narrative as uncompromising as it was terrifying. Hamlet was
seen as irrational, brooding, provocative, ungrateful, impulsively
amoral, cruel, dangerously violent, and totally out of control.

Only we, the audience, see Hamlet the way he saw himself: brilliant,
sensitive, almost telepathically alert, courageous, unambiguously
righteous, gifted with a hidden power, blessed by a divine mission--in
short, a hero.

Upon all my readers I wish narratives unlike Hamlet's. I hope you
never feel the need to construct for yourself a narrative, online or
offline, as desperate as the ones he constructed. At the same time, I
hope that other people de-digitizing a narrative from your online
signals do not see you as Polonius or Laertes saw Hamlet.

But we have to accept that we are constrained in life by how others
see us, that many will formulate opinions from the digital trail we
are all building just by living in the modern world, and that we can't
control how others see this trail. There are just a few things we can
do to improve our prospects for surviving and thriving online.

We can assess the economic value of what we reveal: what we are
allowing others to do by revealing something, and what we may get back
of value. And like economists, we have to think long-term as well as
short-term, because the data we reveal is up there forever.

We can also develop tolerance for others, learning not to judge them
because we don't know the back story to what we see online, as I have
recommended in

an earlier article
.

Finally, we should accept that we can't bring other people's image of
us into conformity with what we feel is our true identity. But at
least we can resist bringing our identity into conformity with their
image.

The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:




  1. Introduction



  2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know


  3. Your identity online: getting down to basics


  4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you


  5. What you say about yourself, or selves


  6. Forged identities and non-identities


  7. Group identities and social network identities


  8. Conclusion: identity narratives (this post)
  9. December 24 2009

    Being online: What you say about yourself, or selves

    Which is the natural man,
    and which the spirit? who deciphers them?



    (This post is the fifth in a series called
    "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

    What we've seen so far in this series would be enough to shake
    anyone's sense of identity. We've found that the technology of the
    Internet itself fudges identity (but does not totally succeed in
    hiding it), that companies use fragmented and partial information to
    categorize you, and that your actual identity is perhaps less
    important to these companies than your role as snippet of a statistic
    within a larger group. This post demands an even
    greater mental stretch: we have to face that what we say about
    ourselves is also distorted and inconclusive.

    Sociological and psychologists tend to see our activities online as
    inherently artificial, referring to them as aspects of "the
    performative self." But the pundits haven't succeeded in getting their
    point of view across to the wider public. For instance, the millions
    of people who view personal video weblogs, or vlogs,
    fervently believe--according to a recent

    First Monday article by Jean Christian
    --in the
    importance of authenticity in people's video self-presentations. Viewers
    reject vlogs over such telltale signs as overediting or reading from
    scripts.

    The touchstone for discussions of people's appearances and what their
    appearances say about them is Erving Goffman's classic
    Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, whose lessons

    I applied to the Internet in a recent blog
    .
    The book suggested that we fashion our appearances not to
    hide our true selves, but to reveal them in a manner
    others find meaningful. My blog reinforced this insight, pointing out
    that, although we do prettify ourselves online as

    claimed in one newspaper article
    ,
    we can't compartmentalize aspects of ourselves. In other words,
    whatever presentation we make in one context or forum is likely to
    leak out elsewhere.

    In

    another blog about Goffman
    ,
    I focused on the signals we give out and pick up instinctively about
    each other in real life, indicating that they have to be specified
    explicitly in online media (although graphics and video now bring back
    some instinctive reactions).

    Goffman's career ended before the Internet became a topic of
    sociological analysis, so at this point it's appropriate to bring in
    the chief researcher in the area of identity and the Internet,
    psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle. She claims that we
    do maintain multiple online identities, and that this is no
    simple game but reflects a growing tendency for us to have multiple
    selves. The fragmentary and divided presentation of self online
    reflects the truth about ourselves, more than we usually acknowledge.

    Turkle's research, unfortunately, got channeled early in the
    Internet's history into landscapes that don't reflect its later use as
    a mass medium. She became fascinated, during the early years of
    popular computing and gaming in the 1980s, with the whims so many
    people indulged for portraying themselves as someone of a different
    age, gender, or profession, or just for hiding as much as they could
    in order to try out a different personality. This orientation colors
    both of her books on the subject, The Second Self (1984) and
    Life on the Screen (1995), and relegates her work to a study
    of psychological deviation.

    Still, Turkle's work can make us think about the vistas that the
    Internet opens up for the Self. Surveying the multiple identities we
    create online and the ways we represent or misrepresent ourselves, she
    finds that people don't do this just for play or to maliciously
    deceive other people. Many do it to don identities that are hard to
    try on in real life.

    A woman pretending to be a man might open up scenarios for practicing
    assertive behaviors that would produce a backlash if she rolled them
    out in real life. A shy person might learn, through an invented
    personality, how to flirt and even to practice mature love. Both of
    these forms of mimicry, which go back at least as far as Shakespeare's
    As You Like It, have proven useful to many people online.

    But beyond these simple sorts of play-acting (for which real life
    provides its settings: acting classes, long journeys, spiritual
    retreats, "What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas") we glimpse
    in online personas a contemporary view of the self that is
    multi-layered and multi-faceted--by no means integrated and
    consistent.

    Turkle also explores the psychological impact of computer
    interfaces. In particular, programs that act like independent,
    autonomous decision-makers push us to rethink our own human
    identities.

    In the 1960s, people would spend hours typing confessions into the
    psychologist persona presented by Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA
    program. Trying out ELIZA now, it's hard to imagine anyone could be
    enticed into a serious conversation with it. But as we've grown more
    sophisticated, so have the deceits that programmers toss at us. Turkle
    reports an interaction with a robot at the MIT AI Lab that drew her in
    with a veracity that made her uncomfortable. "Despite myself and
    despite my continuing skepticism about this research project, I had
    behaved as though in the presence of another being."

    Affective technologies have leapt even further ahead since 1995.
    Someday, robots for the disabled and elderly will try to reflect their
    feelings in order to provide care that goes beyond washing and
    feeding. Turkle draws on many strands of psychology, sociology,
    neurological science, and philosophy to show how our intellectual
    substrate has been prepared throughout the twentieth century for the
    challenges to Self that sophisticated computer programs present. Had
    the field of synthetic biology existed when Turkle wrote her books, it
    would have provided even more grist for her thesis.

    This is one place where I part company with Turkle. I don't believe
    we're getting more and more confused about the dividing line between
    Computer Power and Human Reason (the title of a classic book by
    Weizenbaum, ELIZA's creator). I have more faith in our discernment.
    Just as we can see through ELIZA nowadays, we'll see through later
    deceptions as we become familiar with them. Simulated intelligences
    will not perennially pass the Turing test.

    Turkle's view of online behavior is more persuasive. I'm willing to
    grant that exploring identity on the Internet can help us develop
    neglected sides of our identity and integrate them into our real
    selves. She expects us to go even further--to develop these sides
    without integrating them. We can quite happily and (perhaps) healthily
    live multiple identities, facilitated by how we present ourselves
    online.

    Let's review the social setting in which Turkle inserts her
    arguments. Looking over the period during which the technologies and
    social phenomena Turkle researches have grown--the period from 1970 to
    the present, when MUDs and other online identity play developed--we
    see an astonishing expansion of possibilities for identity throughout
    real life. We have more choices than ever in career, geographic
    location, religious and spiritual practice, gender identification, and
    family status--let alone plastic surgery and drugs that alter our
    minds or muscles. People have reclaimed disappearing ethnic languages
    and turned vanishing crafts into viable careers. And people are
    experimenting with these things in countries characterized by
    repression as well as those considered more open.

    Changes in speech and clothing allow us to try out different
    identities in different real-life settings with relative safety. We
    can sample a novel spiritual rite without relinquishing our
    traditional church. But of course, doing all these things online is
    even safer than doing them in physical settings.

    Global information and movement lead to what sociologist Anthony
    Giddens, in his 1991 book Modernity and Self-Identity, calls
    reflexivity. I showed in the previous section how reflexivity
    works in the data collected by advertisers and corporate planners.
    Toward the cause of producing more of what we want and marketing it to
    us effectively, the corporations are constantly collecting information
    on us--purchases, web views and clicks, sentiment analysis-and feeding
    it back into activities that will, on the next phase, produce more
    such information. Reflexivity is a fundamental trait of modern
    institutions. But individuals, as Giddens points out, are also
    reflexive. We imitate what we see, online as well as offline. Online,
    it's even easier to try something and learn from the results. Goth
    clothing and body piercings we pick up online are cheaper and easier
    to discard than real ones when we have to clean up our image.

    However, we're becoming more circumspect over the past few years as we
    realize that people will be able to tie our online forays back to us
    in the future; this may cause the lamentable end to experimentation
    with the Self.

    Turkle refers to a story that was widely circulated and much discussed
    in an earlier decade, of a male psychiatrist who posed as a disabled
    but capable woman on CompuServe. He quickly entered supportive online
    relationships with a number of women. But as the relationships became
    too deep, he had to extricate himself from his virtual friends'
    dependencies, leaving a good deal of anger and numerous sociological
    questions.

    But the most interesting aspect of the story to me is that no one can
    verify it. It appears to be a conflation of various incidents
    involving different people. In a way, drawing any conclusions at all
    would be pointless, because we don't know what emotions were involved
    and can't investigate the participants' positive and negative
    reactions. Thus does an influential and highly significant case study
    about Internet identity take on a murky identity of its own.

    Today's digital trails are more persistent than those ones that
    created the legend of the CompuServe psychiatrist. Anyone engaging
    with strangers today would probably carry on through social networks,
    blogs, or wikis that do a better job of preserving the trail of logins
    and postings.

    Thus, I return to my assertion that identity is becoming more unified
    online, not more fragmented. We may not be exactly as we appear
    online, but for the purposes of public discourse, what we appear to be
    is adequate.

    When college student Jennifer Ringley began her famous webcam of daily
    life in 1996, it was seen either as a bold experiment in conceptual
    art or a pathetic bid for attention. Soon, though, the inclusion of
    cheap cameras in cell phones fostered a youth culture that captured
    and distributed every trivial moment of their lives, a trend driven
    further by ease of using Twitter from a cell phone.

    Handy access to networks by cameras and video devices made it
    inevitable that people would impulsively send sexually suggestive
    photos of themselves to people with whom they were having intimate
    relationships, or with whom they wanted such relationships.
    A rather unscientific

    survey

    by

    The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

    found that 20% of teenager send nude or semi-nude photos
    of themselves to other people.
    A less sensationalistic

    report from the Pew Research Center

    finds only 4%, but raises the mystique-shattering admonition that the
    trust shown by the senders of the photos is routinely violated by
    their recipients, either right away or later when the relationship is
    ruptured.

    Addressing the safety issue in an

    earlier article
    ,
    I suggest that "along the spectrum of risky behaviors young people
    engage in (eating disorders, piercings in dangerous locations, etc.)
    to deal with body image problems that are universal at that age, a
    nude photo isn't so bad."
    But I would love to see a deeper psychological inquiry into why young
    (and not always young) people perform deal such blows to their own
    privacy. I think such counter-intuitive behavior embodies the very
    contradictions in image and reality that run through this series of
    articles.

    Perhaps the eroticism of releasing intimate photos over the network
    reflects the core contradiction people sense in online identity. The
    nude photo is a unique token of one's deepest identity, without
    actually being that identity. Like
    René Magritte's famous pipe painting
    ,
    the photo of you is not you. But by sending it to someone with whom
    you want a sexual relationship, you're saying, "Hey bud, this could be
    me if you follow through in the flesh."

    For a long time the Internet was praised as a place to shed the
    baggage of race and other defining traits ("nobody knows you're a
    dog"). But as researchers such as Lisa Nakamura point out, postings
    that brim over with images and videos reintroduce race, gender, and
    other artifacts of daily life with a vengeance. And research by
    anthropologist danah michele boyd shows that people self-segregate in
    social forums, reinforcing rather than breaking down the social
    divisions that frustrate the prospects for mutual understanding among
    different races and groups.

    One could throw in, as another consequence of the growth of identity,
    the oft-observed tendency to read only political articles that
    reinforce one's existing views. Unlike other observers, who look back
    wistfully at an age where we all got our information from a few
    official media sources, I

    have applauded the proliferation of views
    ,
    but agree that we need to find ways to encourage everyone to read the
    most cogent arguments of their opponents. Censorship--even
    self-censorship--does not contribute to identity formation in a
    healthy manner.

    There's also more than a hint of the trend toward asserting identity
    in the participatory culture chronicled and analyzed by Henry Jenkins:
    the fan fiction, the commentary sites for X Files and The
    Matrix
    , the games and consumer polls held by movie studios, and
    so forth. This participatory culture is mostly a community affair,
    which creates a group identity out of many unconnected
    individuals. But surely, creating an unauthorized sequel or
    re-interpreting a scene in a movie is also an act of personal
    expression. I would call it placing a stake in the cultural ground,
    except that the metaphor would be far too static for an ever-changing
    media stream. It would be more apt to call the personal contributions
    a way of inserting a marker with one's identity into the ongoing reel
    of unfolding culture.

    It's a lot easier nowadays to be real when you're on the Internet. But
    some people still, for many reasons, adopt forged identities or
    non-identities. We'll explore that phenomenon next.

    The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:


    1. Introduction



    2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know


    3. Your identity online: getting down to basics


    4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you

    5. What you say about yourself, or selves (this post)


    6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)


    7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)


    8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

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