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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 17 2009

    Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between

    To be or not to be: that is the question.

    Hamlet's famous utterance plays a trick on theater-goers, a mind
    game of the same type he inflicted constantly on his family and his
    court. While diverting his audience's attention with a
    seemingly simple choice between being and non-being, Hamlet of all
    people would know very well how these extremes bracket infinite
    gradations.

    Our fascination with Hamlet is precisely his instinct for presenting a
    different self to almost everyone he met. Scholars have been arguing
    for four hundred years about Hamlet's moral compass, whether his
    feigned insanity masked a true mental illness, whether the suffering
    and death he inflicted on those around him was a deliberate strategy,
    what psychological complexes fueled his cruel excoriation of Ophelia,
    and other dilemmas that come down to questions about his identity.

    We can appreciate, therefore, why actors up to the present day have to
    memorize Hamlet's "Speak the speech" passage. As a thespian, Hamlet
    outshown all the Players.

    We can bring this critical perspective on identity into our own
    21st-century lives as we populate social networks and join online
    forums. When people ask who we are, questions multiply far beyond the
    capacity of a binary "to be" digit.


    No matter how candidly we flesh out our digital representations
    online, they remain skin-deep. They can never reflect how we are known
    to our families, neighbors, and workmates. Even if we stole a vision
    from science fiction and preserved a complete scan of our brains, the
    resulting representations would not be able to demonstrate the
    dexterity we've built by playing basketball every Saturday, or show
    the struggles we have to control Tourette's syndrome.

    I don't believe anybody has tied down the meaning of online presence,
    and I don't presume to do so here. But we may find better resolutions
    to some of the everyday dilemmas we face by exploring, over the course
    of this article, facets of self that have been discovered and debated
    in the age of computers.

    Before widespread participation in Web 2.0-style forums, the question
    of online identity was framed as an issue of privacy under assault by
    large institutions. Only governments and major corporations could
    install and program the mainframe computers that stored the digital
    evidence of our identities. Within that framework, starting in the
    1970s, European countries that were still shadowed by the history of
    Nazi round-ups started to limit the sharing of personal information
    gathered during commerce and other transactions.

    But at the same time that these laws, enshrined in a 1995 Data
    Protection Directive and further extended to transactions that the EU
    carries out with other countries, set a standard for the regulation of
    commercial data collection, these same European governments have also,
    ironically, unleashed surveillance in response to the terror that hit
    them during this decade. Internet providers are required to retain
    information about the connections made by their customers for periods
    of time ranging from six months to many years. London has led the
    world in putting up more than one million surveillance cameras--which
    helped to identify the 2005 Underground bombings--and yet, according
    to the BBC,

    has fewer cameras per capita than many other cities
    .

    To faceless spies and intrepid marketers, our identity is defined by
    the web site we just visited about surveillance cameras, the tube of
    spermicidal jelly we bought on vacation in Florida, or other odds and
    ends that allow them to differentiate us from other people with
    similar ordinary profiles. The result may be a knock on the door from
    Interpol or just a targeted ad for romantic getaways.

    But in the age of social networks and Web 2.0, we become the agents of
    our own undoing. And therefore, discussions about identity must be
    fashioned with a subtler clay. At every juncture--morning, noon and
    night--we redefine our own identities.

    Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile
    private or public? Should we reveal that we're gay? (Data-crawling
    programs can make a pretty good guess about it even if we don't.)
    Should we boast on Twitter that we applied for a grant? Should we talk
    about the ravages of chronic Crohn's disease? This article will lead
    its readers, hopefully, to a fruitful way of thinking about these
    choices.

    Next, what about the elements of our identity that are controlled less
    by us than by other random individuals? Should we ask that freshman to
    take down the photo he posted where we lay passed out at a party?
    Should we respond to the blogger who mangled the facts during a
    blustering attack on our latest political activity?

    And the ultimate arbiter of identity: what turns up when people search
    for us? Yes, our selves are all in the hands of Google (and for the
    most wretched of all--the famous--Wikipedia). Admitting its
    hegemony over identity, Google now lets us store our own

    profiles

    to be served up when people search for us.
    They also reveal (at least some of) how they're tracking us at a
    service called

    Dashboard
    .
    As we'll see, social networking allows us more control over the image
    we present--at the cost of entering discussions that are not of our
    choosing.


    Truly, social networking is the Internet phenomenon of the year and deserves an end-of-the-year profile (this post is the first in a series of eight). In a recent 19-month period, Facebook rose from 75 million to 300 million members, and Twitter has gone from perhaps 1.3 million users (depending on how you count them) to an estimated 18 million.

    Not only have the sites dedicated to social networking swollen
    voluminously, but their techniques have been watched carefully by
    others. Analysts advise corporations that, to maintain their customer
    bases, it's not enough to offer a good product, not enough to market
    it adeptly and back it up with good service, not enough even to invite
    comments and customer reviews on popular web sites--no, the
    corporation must build community. They have to entice
    customers to socialize and come to feel that they're part of a common
    mission--a mission centered on the corporation.

    Increasingly, the forward march of social networking can be seen on
    site for other services and organizations. It inspires things as
    trivial as visitor pictures and profiles, or as complex as mechanisms
    for encouraging visitors to sign up more recruits, mark other members
    of the site as friends, form affinity groups, post content, and
    compete for points that harbor some promise of future value.

    Although I'd like to drop in to buy a cup of coffee or a shirt without
    social networking, and many of the ground-breaking techniques for
    building community turn into gimmicks when reduced too crassly to
    attention-getting techniques, I think this trend is beneficial. People
    are more effective when they know each other better. And the basis for
    knowing each other will be found in personal and group identity.

    Before the end of the year, I'll post eight related entries that add up to a treatise titled "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between:"

    1. Introduction


    2. Your identity in real life: what people know (to be posted December 18)


    3. Your identity online: getting down to basics (to be posted December 20)


    4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (to be posted December 22)


    5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)


    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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