Saturday, March 28, 2009

Your (Typing) Hands are Tied: Lessig’s Constraints

For anyone who truly believes that cyberspace is well and truly free, I have four words for you: your hands are tied.

We all like to think that we can at any moment type in anything we want in a web browser and get some information on it. We can play games, watch movies, do research, and communicate with friends. From esoteric to illicit, most anything we could possibly want to know or do exists somewhere one the Web, just waiting for us to get off our butts and look it up.

But is it really so simple? Can we really do whatever we want online?

Noted American academic
Lawrence Lessig says no. In fact, he proposes four constraints on behaviour in cyberspace.
  1. Law—Despite problems in how to go about enforcing laws in cyberspace, they do exist. They treat topics as diverse as copyright and child pornography, software piracy and user privacy. While we don’t often think about them, cyber-laws often dictate what we can and cannot do online.
  2. Social norms—We all know that there are certain things you just don’t do online. Or if you do them, you don’t talk about them. For example, while pornography is technically not illegal, it is frowned upon by a large portion of society. Downloading music is not yet illegal in Canada, but it’s not exactly de rigeur nowadays, either. The force of society’s disapproval is often enough for people to avoid doing certain things online, even if they couldn’t technically get in trouble for them.
  3. Market—It’s a fact of life that money talks, and it has a large effect on what we can do online. If you can’t afford Internet access, it’s obvious that the market has prevented you from doing as you wish in cyberspace. But what if you have access, but not the means to pay for, say, your own domain name, or some upgraded service, or even for Internet access that has more bandwidth than dial-up? You obviously can’t do everything you want if you don’t have the money to pay for it.
  4. Architecture—Another thing people rarely think about is the architecture of the Internet. Lessig looks at computer code as a type of architecture that constrains behaviour. This is mostly to say that the way in which the Internet is designed limits what we can do. For example, you can’t read my email because you don’t know the password to my account.

Looks like cyberspace isn’t as free as we thought.

It’s my contention that these four constraints also apply to online identity. Laws regarding copyright and intellectual property ensure that we can’t pass of the work of others as our own. We must therefore build authority online through our own thoughts and ideas, and through careful citation of other people’s work. Social norms dictate that it is bad form to get caught passing online. Online friends may feel betrayed or uncomfortable to learn that you are not who you say you are. It’s also considered distasteful to look at illicit materials on the Internet, and to
do so creates a negative association with one’s online identity. The market may determine the formation of your online identity, such as with Second Life, where it costs real money to customize one’s avatar. The architecture of the Internet ensures that only certain identities are possible. Consider creating an online profile where you have to select your gender. You’re given the choice of “male” or “female” but what if you don’t identify with either one of those?

This is all to say that the Internet itself affects who we are and who we can become online.

Maybe all those science fiction films are right. Maybe computers really are taking over.

After all, they’re creating us just as much as we’re creating them.

Who Are You? Anonymity and Identity

If there’s one thing the Internet does better than other communications media, it’s making anonymous communication possible. But what effect does this anonymity have on our online identities?

The whole idea of identity on the Internet centres on anonymity—it almost presupposes it. Imagine firing up your web browser and having every site you visit know your name, address and phone number.

Hate to break it to you, but…We can do it. We have the technology!

But the key here is that most of us don’t know that. We usually feel pretty secure in our anonymity online, and that’s what allows us to feel like we can experiment with our identities. We have the (somewhat mistaken) impression that we can do what we want online with relative impunity.

Well, that sure explains the preponderance of porn sites online.

To some degree, online identity is anonymity. At least, that’s what we think. So what does it mean to have an identity of anonymity?

It means a decrease in inhibition and shyness. It allows many opportunities to experiment and play. It changes the way we interact with each other. It even changes the way we think about ourselves. If we look at our identities as being the result of our performance, then our performances online are no different than our performances in real-life. They all affect the way we think and act, it just depends on the medium we use to do so.

All this time we’ve been talking about how real-life identities affect our online ones, but what about the ways in which online identities affect real-life ones?

Maybe the lessons we learn online do have some real-life consequences.

The times, they are a changing. It used to be that the best conversations always occur when the lights are out. Now maybe the best conversations occur when the computer’s on.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Social Media Wrap-Up: Jumping on the Bandwagon for Change

We’ve looked at blogging and emails and surfing and chatting,
Gaming and YouTube and SecondLife and passing.
But do you recall…the most famous social medium of all?

Facebook the popular website
Had a very big fan club
And if you ever saw it
You would join it like a shlub…

Honestly, everyone, I think we’ve talked a lot about
Facebook. But a parting shot is necessary, I think, to bring the whole social media craze together.

That’s right, ladies and gents, it’s a social media wrap-up.

This is where I finally give Facebook credit for something—it’s ability to reinvent the social networking site all over again. Truth is, Facebook isn’t all that ground-breaking. You might recall its predecessor,
MySpace, or its forerunner, Friendster. I’m told no one ever uses these social networking sites anymore (usually in a slightly puzzled and often deprecatory tone of voice) because they’re just “like, so last week.” Not so with Facebook.

Or is it?

I stumbled across a
hilarious little video which seems to capture the spirit of the age of social media. It seems to suggest that Facebook, like MySpace and Friendster before it, is on its way out, soon to be ousted from online supremacy by SecondLife.

Whether this is true remains to be seen, but it brings up an interesting point when it comes to identity: mutability. Really, it’s just a fancy-shmancy word for change. Hey, Obama advocated it, David Bowie sang about it, and no one ever has it for a five dollar bill. Must be important, right?

Here’s the deal. As human beings, we’re always subject to change. Every experience we have, every choice we make, and every person we meet has some influence on the way we do things. The changes may be big or small, but the fact of the matter is, your identity is in a constant state of flux that can change at any given moment.
The same is true online. Our identities change with the times. The you represented yourself on friendster might not be the way you represented yourself on MySpace, or Facebook, or SecondLife. This not only reflects the differences in your chosen medium of social networking, but also the differences in you as a cyber-presence. You’ve grown and matured online just as you’ve grown and matured in real life. Your tastes have changed. You have new friends, new influences. You’re a new you.

Maybe we shouldn’t look at the constant mutability in social networking media as a bad thing. Maybe we should see it as progress. Maybe we should see it as a reflection of our growing maturity and sophistication online.

Or maybe, just maybe, we should see it for what it really is—change for the sake of change.

What do you think? Are social media reinventing themselves because of demand, or are they in pursuit of the Almighty dollar? Leave a comment and let me know.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Ethics of E-dentity: The Language of “Ought”

Ah, ethics. Those pesky things your mother tried to instil in you at a young age. Those things keeping our civilization from turning into a giant free-for-all. Those things keeping us from indulging in our basest desires at the expense of the rest of the world. Yeah, ethics.

In case you’ve forgotten, the language of ethics is basically one filled with “ought tos” and “should dos.” It concerns itself with determining how people ought to behave in a given society.

We can consider cyberspace to be one vast society in which people must negotiate acceptable behaviour. How we choose to present ourselves may have something to do with ethics, with a feeling that we should be a certain way online.

There are several different approaches to ethics that we can use to look at ethics in cyberspace. A few we can think about are:

  1. ethical egoism—this approach suggests that some behaviour is ethical as long as it results in some benefit for oneself. The ultimate “centre of the universe” mentality, it does not take into account the effect of one’s actions on others.
  2. utilitarian—this approach suggests that behaviour is ethical that results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This kind of ethicist uses “ethical calculus” to determine whether the ends justify the means.
  3. deontological—this approach suggests that behaviour is ethical if there is some logically implied moral duty to commit the action. This kind of ethicist doesn’t consider the consequences of one’s actions but rather the intentions behind them.

In terms of cyberspace, the ethical egoist rules. Due in large part to the amount of anonymity on the Internet, people can get away with presenting themselves in any way they want. This is one of the reasons why passing is so prevalent—Internet users see some immediate benefit to them, so they ignore the possible repercussions on others. They see an opportunity to try out a new identity, but don’t realize that the people they build relationships online trust in this online identity and feel betrayed when that identity turns out to be a sham. Ethical egoists are not unheard of online, but they are certainly not as common as utilitarians.

The utilitarian approach is the first one that comes to mind when thinking of ethics. Ihe Internet was largely build on utilitarian principles, such as the idea that information should be available to everyone so that everyone may benefit from it. While it is more obvious in real-life situations than in cyberspace, many still unconsciously adopt a utilitarian code of ethics when it comes to interacting with people online. Their identities tend to stay very close to real life, and they do not represent themselves as someone they are not. They avoid passing and misrepresentation in favour of the truth or the choice not to share some information.

Finally, deontologists are also quite rare online. They would consider actions to be ethical only if they can be logically maintained for everyone, which would be virtually impossible online. The Internet is such a vast, diverse community that no one could ever agree on what constitutes moral actions. Cyberspace incorporates many cultures with different values and beliefs—finding a way to determine ethical actions online using a deontological perspective would be very difficult.

The take home here is that there are several different ways of looking at what is “ethical.” Just because you don’t agree with some online behaviours doesn’t necessarily mean they are morally wrong.

Hey, with this system, you could even make a case for pornography! I’m just sayin’…

Friday, March 13, 2009

Get a (Second) Life! Part III: Avatar Identity Theft?

Type in “online identity theft” in Google, and you’ll get a slew of results geared toward people who want to protect their real-life identities during their online escapades. What you won’t find is a whole lot about people who want to prevent their online identities from being stolen.

This mostly just shows the syntactic pitfalls of the Google search engine, but it also provides another implicit conclusion: online identities are just not that important.

Even other bloggers, like Ben Yoskovitz in his Instigator Blog, treat avatar identity theft as a marketing matter, with the conclusion that stealing from another’s “brand” in just in bad taste.

That’s it? “In bad taste?” Anyone who has been following my blog can probably agree that his stance is akin to blasphemy!

Let’s look at the implications of avatar identity theft in virtual environments like Second Life.

According to Jeremy Duffy a “computer guy” with a citizen technology web site, avatar identity theft is a serious issue. He says:

If someone gets your SL password, they can log in as you, from any computer, and do all sorts of nasty things. Pay your L$ to someone else. Say bad things to or about your girlfriend. Ruin your reputation. Never, ever, ever give your SL password to anyone, not even those closest to you. Don’t use easy-to-guess passwords, and change them frequently. And don’t allow friends and family members access to your computer.
In the immortal words of The Joker, “Why so serious?”

Well, users spend quite a bit of time making their avatars look exactly the right way. They spend real money to buy their avatars clothing, jewellery, houses and property, and put a lot of work into creating a virtual personality with which to interact with other Second Life residents.

So what happens when someone gets a hold of your password and turns your avatar into a Second Life prostitute? What if someone creates a clone of your avatar and makes it dress in attack other avatars?

Aside from the requisite outrage, users can actually feel violated if their avatars are stolen and made to do naughty things. They feel as if they were the ones who were made to do those things. In part, this is because so much of one’s self is tied up with your avatar’s identity. You put in your time and energy, your dreams and your desires, your personality and your hobbies into your avatar, and when it’s stolen, it’s emotionally almost as devastating as if your real-life identity had been stolen.
But what about if it’s the Second Life team that’s doing the stealing. That’s right—like Facebook’s bedevilled privacy policy, the Linden Lab Terms of Service grant them the right to do with your avatar whatever they see fit.

According to a Second Life blogger, Linden Lab can hijack your avatar and force it to do anything from endorsing the virtual environment to hawking Pepsi.

What ever happened to games that were just plain fun and didn’t carry the risk of one's identity being roughed up, pimped out and emotionally scarred?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Get a (Second) Life! Part II: Identity as Escapism

It seems strange to articulate, but we use identity as an escapist tool. That is to say we use virtual identities as a tool to escape our real lives. But how is this possible? How can we escape ourselves by…being ourselves?

By now we’re all familiar with the idea of
multiple identities. Is it so difficult to believe, then, that we can use one identity to escape the constraints of another?

Second Life provides an excellent example of how Internet users can adopt identities as a form of escapism or fun in order to take a break from the daily grind. Let’s take a look at an example.

The irascible
Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) on NBC’s The Office is one of those characters you’d imagine is firmly grounded in physical reality. His obsession with beets and his refusal to show any kind of imagination in most circumstances cements his portrayal as a staid—albeit quirky—character.

A seeming contradiction is in his enjoyment of Second Life. He describes it like this:
Second Life is not a game. It’s a multi-user virtual environment. It doesn’t have points or scores. It doesn’t have winners or losers. […] I signed up for Second Life about a year ago. Back then my life was so great that I literally wanted a second one. In my second life, I was also a paper salesman, and I was also named Dwight. Absolutely everything was the same. Except I could fly.
As we can see, his lack of imagination extends to the virtual world, but having a Second Life avatar implies some degree of creativity. His ability to fly in Second Life is one example of this. Another example is in his ability to find amusement without competition.

His colleage,
Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), is another story. While he denies any enjoyment in Second Life at all, he obviously spent a lot of time on his avatar and gave it hobbies and employment that he would like to have in an ideal world. In Second Life, his imagination has fewer constraints, and he can explore (in a limited way) what it’s like to be the person he always wanted to be.

Let's take a look:

In a way, both remove themselves from reality by mediating their identities. While Dwight’s virtual identity is very similar to his real-life one, that doesn’t make it any less escapist. He can still escape consequences of certain actions, physical constraints such as the need for food and shelter, and to some extent the emotional complications inherent in physical interactions. Jim more obviously escapes his dead-end job by projecting his desires onto his virtual avatar.

In true Office fashion, Dwight invents a virtual environment within the virtual environment, which he calls "Second Second Life." Presumably for those people who want to be even further removed from reality.

It would be funny if it weren’t so damn true.

Images from:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Get a (Second) Life!: Too Free or Not Too Free? That is the Question...

Well, folks, there’s a new kid on the block when it comes to online interactivity. It’s called Second Life—because we all know that when it comes to chocolate and identities, why have one when you can have two?

Actually, Second Life seems to offer users things that their first lives don’t—freedom to represent themselves in any way they want through their
avatars or digital representations of themselves. And we’re not just talking gender or age or weight or race; we’re talking completely fantastical fabrications that cross boundaries regarding everything from cultures to species.

But does Second Life really offer so much freedom?

Second Life is the brainchild of
Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based Internet company founded in 1999. Developed in 2003, Second Life is a virtual world that allows users to relate to each other in ways that mimic—and enhance—real life interactions. It boasts everything from classroom environments in which professors from such hallowed universities as Harvard and Colombia conduct lectures, to trendy clubs, fashion outlets, and even a Reuters news bureau. Second Life even has its own currency, the Linden dollar, which users can exchange for actual U.S. dollars.

The effects on online identity are mind boggling. While proponents of the virtual environment would have you believe that you have virtually unlimited freedom in constructing the online identity represented by your avatar, there are several constraints that make this impossible.

1. Name—The most obvious limitation, and quite often the first you come across, is the ability to chose your own name. Oddly enough, Second Life only allows users to choose a name based on a set list of last names which can be combined with a first name to form your avatar’s full name. This constraint means that while you are technically “free” to choose your name, which you cannot typically do in real life, your choice is limited by the possible name combinations Second Life provides. In a way, this relates to Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s thoughts on ideology, namely that freedom to choose from that which is always the same is no freedom at all.

2. Appearance—While the possible appearances avatars can have seem virtually limitless, there are two very real constraints when it comes to matching your vision with (virtual) reality: online artistic ability and money. The simple fact is that, unless you’re an excellent graphic designer, you’ll probably have some difficulty trying to make your avatar look the way you want it to, especially if you’re going for a heavily customized avatar complete with wings and/or bunny ears. The other alternative is to buy “skins” which modify the appearance of your avatar from other Second Life users by way of Linden dollars. If you don’t have the cash, you’ll just have to be happy with what you’ve got.

3. Real-life constraints—As much as Second Life users like to keep their real lives separate from their second lives, to do so would really be impossible. Users are limited by the amount of time they are able to spend on their avatars based on real-life commitments such as jobs, education and families. Their personalities are also a factor, since it might be difficult for generally shy people to open up, even in a virtual environment. Finally, money is also a factor, since real U.S. dollars are used to buy the Second Life currency which allows users to shop, enter parties, buy real estate and so on.

We can see, then, that Second Life doesn’t offer the type of freedom that it suggests when it comes to identity formation. Rather, it offers only the illusion of freedom to people desperate to feel like they have some semblance of choice in their lives.

How a propos that there exists only an illusion of freedom in a place built as an illusion of reality.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Tube, You Tube, We all Tube for YouTube

At this point, I’m sure almost everyone between the ages of 13 and 35 has seen the insanely popular music video Here it Goes Again by OK Go. And the Crying Britney Fan. And Ninja Kitty. And countless other inane yet admittedly amusing videos that owe their fame—or infamy—to the ever-popular YouTube.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, YouTube is something of an Internet phenomenon. The video sharing website jumped into the cyber-scene in 2005 when three former
PayPal employees, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim founded the site. By 2006, with its popularity growing by leaps and bounds, Google acquired YouTube for US$1.65 billion.

The site’s popularity is hardly surprising when we consider two important facets of human nature:
  1. the desire for social interaction; and

  2. the desire to gain recognition by making an utter ass of oneself in front of an international audience.
But perhaps more important is what we can learn about ourselves as individuals through YouTube.

First, the site allows anyone anywhere to see playlists that you have made. The wackiest, most disturbing video you only added because someone dared you to is part of your online identity by virtue of the fact that your playlists are public knowledge. This not only tells others that you have interesting taste, but it also tells you that you have a propensity to be swayed by others. YouTube is sort of like
Facebook, then, since what you post can be affected by others’s perceptions and influences.

Second, YouTube taps into the desire for social interaction by allowing comments and giving users the ability to have “friends”—other YouTube users with profiles on the site. The number and type of these friends may indicate a friendly disposition, low self-esteem, the tendency to associate only with a certain type and many other aspects of identity. The ability to comment on videos adds an aspect of interactivity to the site as well as allowing users to create a persona through the choice of which videos they comment on and how they construct these comments. In this way, YouTube is like a chat room where the language you use says as much about your identity as the topic discussed.

YouTube also brings up issues of popularity. The number of views and favourites that a video receives goes a long way in manufacturing popularity. People are simply more likely to watch a video that many other people have watched, since the number of views seems to translate to an increased popularity. We can say that YouTube profiles are a bit like blogs, since the authority of the user often depends on others’ perception of what you say and what you like.
YouTube boasts many other features with diverse effects on cyber identities. While these are only a few, it gives us a good place to start when it comes to analysing such a complex medium. If YouTube is like Facebook, a chat room and a blog, all rolled into one, perhaps its success lies in its ability to combine aspects of other popular media and bring them all together in one friendly, easy to use service.

Or maybe it’s the appeal of sitting back and enjoying the show. With 200,000 of your closest friends.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Get My Face Outta Your Book! Part III: Privacy? It’s About Damn Time

Facebook has recently come under fire by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) for a new privacy policy, which effectively grants Facebook Inc. control over any content users post.

February 4th change allowed the company to retain the right to any information users post on the site as well as the ability to retain archived copies of the content even if it has been removed. referred to the policy as "We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever."

Pretty drastic, if you ask me. So drastic, in fact, that Facebook Inc. revised the policy on February 16th, reverting back to the old privacy policy until a new one could be agreed upon.

Now, why do I bring this up in the context of identity? Elementary, my dear reader.

Facebook’s attempt to own user content is more than just an intellectual property issue. While some acknowledge intellectual property rights are a factor in their righteous hatred of the new policy, for the most part, their objections centre around an indefinable sense that the new policy is just plain wrong.

I think that this “wrongness” revolves around the feeling that Facebook Inc.’s policy results not just in owning user content, but also in owning user identity.

Think about it. Facebook users pour so much of themselves and who they want to be into their Facebook profile and usage habits. Every post tells readers something about the user, whether it be information transmitted consciously, or implicit information the user has no idea he or she is imparting.

In a sense, Facebook’s policy wanted people to “sell their souls” to Facebook Inc. for the privilege of interaction which could be as easily achieved face-to-face or by phone.

No wonder there was such a public outcry. No wonder the policy was revoked. No wonder I stand by my decision to resist peer pressure to succumb to the all-powerful Facebook.

After all, even though they didn’t get away with it this time, that doesn’t guarantee that the whole mess can’t happen again.

What do you think about the Facebook fiasco? Leave a comment and let me know!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Style Matters: Chat Rooms and Identity

You’ve probably grown up with at least one person scolding you, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” You’ve also probably dismissed it as ridiculous, if you haven’t outright ignored it. But it bears thinking about this old adage when it comes to analysing the effect that chat rooms have on identity.

Nowadays it’s more important than ever to pay attention to the language we use and the messages we convey in electronic forms such as chat rooms. Your sarcastic but harmless comment might just end up starting an Internet feud, and, hate to break it to you, but that joke is just not funny—I guess you had to be there.

This demonstrates the importance of language when it comes to identity formation online. Chat rooms are unique because they make it necessary for users to identify with a specific group and “act” accordingly. I emphasize the word act because of its two meanings in this context: first, as a conscious action, and second as a performance. In chat rooms, both of these aspects of meaning appear through written language. This is because users must choose which room to enter, and then, how to present themselves to the other users.

Internet users already construct some form of identity by choosing to enter a given chat room. Their choice can reveal hobbies, hidden talents, secret desires, professional skills and many other aspects of identity. In this way, the effects of choosing a chat room are like the effects of surfing the web—every decision tells something about you, whether you want it to or not.

Chat rooms also force users to construct identity through the way they communicate. This is largely contingent on the choice of chat room rather than the content of the communications themselves.

Consider this message:

I have been reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and I am finding the prevalence of certain motifs to greatly enhance my enjoyment of the book.

A message like this would not be out of place in a chat room discussing literature seriously and maturely. We would expect the author of the statement to be an adult with a great deal of abiding interest in literature.

Now look at this one.

i hav 2 read kate chopin’s the awakening, and i’m findin lots of motifs which make it cool 4 me to read!

This kind of message is more likely to be found on a general discussion board. The author of this message would seem to be a teenager reading a book for class and discussing his or her homework. It does not diverge in content from the previous example, but the style is vastly different. While one level of meaning remains unchanged, a second implied level of meaning—one which constructs identity in the eyes of others—is completely different.

In this way, people can have multiple identities depending on the chat rooms they frequent, and these identities are evident through the way users express themselves. The adoption of these different identities is almost unconscious. It takes little or no effort on our part to switch codes or ways of performing and communicate in a different way.

We can see, then, that the choices we make even before we enter a chat room form an online identity that defines our interactions with others depending on the context.

Well, darn. Guess that means I should start capitalizing spell-checking my messages so I don’t sound like a thirteen-year-old girl…

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Get Your Face Outta My Book Part II: Facebook and Hegemony

Talk to most Facebook users and they will defend it to the bitter end. Many of the arguments I’ve heard for the wildly popular social networking site centre around the perception of freedom and the ability that the medium gives people to express themselves in any way they want to.

Now, I’m not going to say that that’s not the case (and risk hordes of angry teenagers pelting me with tomatoes) but I will bring up the idea that there isn’t exactly as much freedom on Facebook as you might think. My argument centres around
Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s definition of hegemony.

Basically, hegemony refers to the ability of the dominant class to impose their way of seeing the world onto the subordinate classes. To bring this idea a little closer to home, we can look at an example.

Since we live in a capitalist western society, the dominant class tends to consist of rich people, and who could be richer than the huge multi-national conglomerates orchestrating financial domination?

Take a company like Wal-Mart. It’s the world’s largest private employer, with many different subsidiaries selling just about everything from car parts to cookies. Can’t get much more dominant than that.

The subordinate class would of course be you and me. We’re the peons who shop there because we can’t afford to buy a solid oak desk when a particle board one will do. We’re all subject to the will of the Wal-Mart board of governors, hoping that they’ll see fit to grant the masses a few new, cheap designs to choose from.

This dominance means that what we deem to be cool is a direct result of the ideology that companies like Wal-Mart propagate. They put value on the easy, fast, and cheap mentality, encouraging us to “buy a new one” whenever possible.

In terms of Facebook, the effect of hegemony is quite noticeable. That we value this impersonal communication speaks to the growing desire perpetuated by corporations to “sit at home with all our stuff.” The built-in games, news feeds, gifts, marketplace and videos all contribute to the capitalist mentality by encouraging people to stay in and act as passive consumers.

Think about it—why do you need to send virtual gifts to your friends? So you can practice buying them real ones of course! What about the games? Well, don’t you want to buy other software to feed your gaming addiction? And videos, well! The movies are a short drive away. After all, with this economic downturn, Hollywood’s hurting…

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Get My Face Outta Your Book! Part I: Identity and the Inexorable Facebook

Ah, Facebook. The social networking site that will single-handedly make mutual physical presence obsolete. The behemoth that is quickly becoming the poster child for media convergence. The online presence that is quickly replacing email, instant messaging, phone calls and face-to-face conversation among my peers.

With that in mind, I must confess. I am a freak of nature. Forgive me, Oh Internet Powers That Be, for I have sinned. I have shunned Facebook.

I am currently the only person I know existing—not only existing, but thriving!—without a Facebook account. Wonder of wonders, I have survived. I don't know all the inside jokes, I had no idea where we were meeting that one time, and no, I haven't seen that amazing picture of the thing with the guy at the place. Sorry. Maybe next time.

My choice to maroon myself on a veritable uninhabited island of unconnectedness is not exactly unprecedented nowadays. We’ve all heard that
employers regularly screen job applicants by looking at their Facebook profiles, and that a few too many images of drunken debauchery may just cost you a job. But more than a method of self-destruction, torpedoing any and all hope at gainful employment for those who like a few too many Jell-O shots, Facebook is a now a method of self-production.

Every picture you post is carefully selected to show a specific aspect of yourself. Whether it depicts you and your friends during a wild evening out, a family event, or your cat Snickers dressed up like a pumpkin for Halloween, they all create a sort of composite image of you. They communicate what you enjoy doing, who you enjoy doing it with, even something so simple as what you like to wear. All of these aspects of yourself are seemingly just candidly shared from your real life.

I say seemingly, because when it comes to e-dentity, nothing is so simple. The interesting thing about Facebook is that it allows you to mediate your reality for others. This is to say that you censor your life, displaying what you want everyone to see, and forgetting about the less desirable aspects of yourself that you would rather hide.

For example, say you have a hidden passion for polka and have been playing the accordion for five years. You’ve won a few contests and even have a polka band. Of course, being a university student, you don’t want this rep as Polka King to get around. Instead, you decide to go to a bar with some friends one night and take a lot of pictures. You post all of these pictures on your Facebook page the next day, but neglect to mention your royal status in the world of polka. Essentially, you’re censoring your life, so that people can only see the “socially acceptable” you.

Seems like Facebook is more than just another way to talk to our friends online. We can use Facebook as a tool to make us seem like the one thing we all want to be—a cool kid.

Tune in next time for more riveting discussion on Facebook, this time centred around the force that keeps the world going ‘round…

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Game On: RPGs and Types of Identity

We’ve talked about multiplicity and the way in which we all don different identities for different purposes. Now we’re going to further complicate the subject by adding a new dimension.

Let’s start with a simple statement: Online video games allow us not only to take on multiple identities, but take them on simultaneously.

Okay, truth time. You probably wouldn’t know it, but I’m not exactly an online gaming nut. In fact, until a few months ago, I thought
RPG stood for “really powerful gun”—a holdover from my misspent youth playing Doom and other violent computer games. Turns out, an RPG is actually a Role Playing Game—a type of video game usually played online in which people take on the role of a specific character in order to achieve some sort of goal.

In his book
What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee sets out three different identities that RPG players may embody at any time.
    • Virtual identity—this is the identity of the character you play in a virtual world. An example of a virtual identity is a healer character in a video game. This virtual identity is the character you “become” when you play online.

    • Real-world identity—this is quite simply you. This is who you are in the non-virtual world, for example a poor student spending time playing a video game.

    • Projective identity—this is your identity as the virtual character. It exists somewhere between your virtual identity and your real-world identity. The key here is that both of these identities interact in order to create a projective identity. This is you creating a character of a healer, whom you want to emulate.

So that’s all well and good, but what does it mean?

We want to focus on the projective identity as a site of conflict between what we are (real-world identity) and what we want to be (virtual identity). Since the virtual world allows us to create our own persona based on the ideals, beliefs, aspirations we hold, the projective identity provides a way for us to try out our identities in a place with few or no real-world consequences. This is what psychologist
Eric Erikson calls a “psychosocial moratorium” which Gee considers a valuable tool in the learning process. This goes back to the idea that the Internet is anonymous, therefore allowing experimentation without punishment.

This type of multiplicity of identities is more than just a conscious decision to change behaviour based on the company you keep. It is a subconscious way of shaping identity and testing out the values and beliefs we’ve grown up to consider common sense.

Who would have thought that the oft-maligned video game could have such an impact on these profound formative questions?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Disposable Identity: Mailinator Sticks it to the Spam!

Well everyone, it’s finally happened. Identities have joined the ranks of diapers, cameras, razors, and other sundry items to become disposable. That’s right, folks, identities are now like tissues—use them once then throw them away.

A recent comment on my previous post, “Me, Myself and My Screen: Muliplicity, Identity and Email,” from Pierre brought up the existence of email addresses existing specifically for subscribing to websites that might send spam emails. While the number and type of spam messages send to such an email account can say a lot about your identity, a new type of email address has given us a new angle from which to examine identity. It’s called…Mailinator.

Mailinator is supposedly one way to protect anonymity online. According to its website:
“Mailinator was the first (and still the best!) disposable email service for people who want to protect their online identity. It is a tool that allows users to create an on-the-spot email identity that provides anonymity and fights web inertia in one easy step.”
Looks like Mailinator purports to take the identity out of online identity. By removing the need to register for their service, the Mailinator team creates a semblance of anonymity for Internet users as well as virtually doing away with the hassle of spam. You’re not responsible for emptying your inbox, and there is no limit to the amount of emails sent to you. In addition, no passwords are required to access the inbox to which your mail is sent. This means that you could potentially share an inbox, or someone could stumble across the email address you are using and check your messages.
It’s a pretty wild idea, and best of all, it’s free. Next time you need to register for something online, try Mailinator. Sometimes disposable’s the way to go. After all, it works for tissues.

For more technical information about Mailinator, check out Mailinator creator Paul Tyma’s blog.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Are Mac Users Snobs? Your OS and Your Identity

A Mindset Media study published in US stock market news site The Street asserts that Mac users tend to be snobs. Calm down, Mac users. Put down the projectiles, please. If it makes you feel any better, PC users are supposedly cheapskates. But seriously, the whole idea behind this poll is a great example of how identity is tied up with our online—and offline—activities.

So what does your choice of operating system say about your identity? It really depends. Let’s do a little analysis of a television ad by Novell in order to explore this.

(NOTE: Novell is a software corporation that produces a Linux distribution called SUSE Linux for profit. Portrayals of competing companies Microsoft and Apple may not be accurate.)

This is a rather convenient way of looking at the prevalent stereotypes regarding not only the operating systems themselves, but the people who use them.

We’ll start with Mac. He’s a pretty young, hip guy; attractive, amusing and generally likable. He’s a casual and somewhat sloppy leopard-print shirt in honour of his operating system, Mac OSX Leopard. He’s pretty much a yuppie, but he’s harmless and fun.

PC is an older, slightly harried man with a somewhat peevish attitude. He is portrayed as staid, conventional, and a little dorky. He’s wearing an almost ridiculous-looking leather jacket in honour of his flashy new operating system, Windows Vista. Beneath the jacket, however is a suit. He’s obviously geared more toward business.

But wait, there’s a new kid in town. It’s Linux. A young, pretty female trots into the picture. She’s smart and slightly mocking of her counterparts. She definitely feels superior. She’s wearing simple, business casual clothes, stylish as well as professional and fun. While we watch, she’s given a leather jacket and sunglasses, taking the best aspects of Mac’s look and PC’s look.

These are nice character sketches, but what do they tell us about identity?

Mac’s portrayal plays right into the supposed “snob” characterization of his users. His yuppie style mirrors his users’ propensity toward coffee shops and, for some reason, buying at least five pairs of sneakers per year. Macs (and their users) are traditionally seen as being more intuitive and better with creative applications. They’re expensive for what you get, but people are willing to pay for the certain cachet that comes with having a Mac.

PC’s portrayal carries with it the manifold and highly publicized prejudices against Windows Vista. He’s a bit of a dork, with outdated glasses and a tragic haircut, but he can obviously get a job done, especially one with numbers. We tend to consider PCs as business machines—after all, Windows is the business standard, even if Microsoft was off the mark with Vista. Users appreciate it because of its wide-ranging applications and its familiarity.

Linux’s portrayal demonstrates the superiority many Linux users feel when they consider Mac and PC users. They see themselves as the cognoscenti of the computing world. Not only are most of the distributions free, appealing to the stick-it-to-the-man type, but installing and using the Linux operating system implies some knowledge about computers and programming. This also means that Linux users are likely to become Linux producers, stealing and modifying bits of code or ideas from other operating systems and incorporating them into customized Linux distributions.

You can see, then, that your choice of operating system just might say something about your identity as a computer user.

So what are you? A businesslike dork or a fun-loving snob? Or a Linux user…

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Me, Myself and My Screen: Multiplicity, Identity and Email

We live in a world of “more is better”. Let’s face it, we like collecting stuff. More food, more cars, more electronic gadgets—more…email addresses?

Be honest folks. You probably have at least two email addresses.
A 2007 poll suggests that 94% of American email users have at least two email accounts, and many have significantly more. Look at me--I have four.

The interesting thing about this is not so much its ability to reflect our culture of
conspicuous consumption (although I think it does that) but as a clear indication of the multiplicity of our identities.

Postmodern cultural theorists like
Jean Baudrillard subscribe to the idea that our identities are multiple and changeable. This is to say that we don’t each have one fixed, stable identity, but rather many, fluid identities, which we don to relate to different people, places, things and even times. It’s difficult to conceptualize when it comes to our physical, real-life identities, but becomes clearer when we consider our online identities.

Think about your different email accounts. You probably have one account that you use just for family and friends. Your address is probably casual, clever, or silly, something like “”or “” In addition, you might have another email address that you use for professional purposes, for example for business-related correspondence. This address is probably more sedate, consisting or your name or initials, such as “” or “” If you’re a university student, you probably have an account for contacting your professors or fellow students. You might have even more if you work for a large corporation, have your own business, or communicate with different social groups.

You can see that each of these email addresses has a distinct purpose. They each represent a facet of your identity, or, according to Baudrillard one of multiple identities. Think about what each address says about you. Does one imply an identity as a student? As a businessperson? As a somewhat kooky yet lovable friend or family member? What do all of these things taken together say about you as a person?

It's a lot to think about, but it's helpful when it comes to determining how the choices we make online contribute to identity formation.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pulled Over on the Information Superhighway: Pit Stop to Analyse our Surfing

Now that we’ve got a bit of theory under our belts, it’s time to take a pit stop on this tour of the information superhighway and think about how our online habits reflect and shape our identities.

There’s a running joke in my family that if a black helicopter is circling, it’s the government come to collect me. This concern for my inevitable apprehension is mostly due to my admittedly odd surfing habits. I’ve googled everything from hotwiring a car to the chemical composition of C-4. (Hey, I was curious.) Anyway, JTF-2 has yet to break down my front door, lay siege to my house and confiscate my laptop, but at this point, it’s only a matter of time.

But before you write me off as a psychopath, think about what you look for when you surf the web. Here’s an interesting exercise—go through your browsing history sometime. Look at where you started and compare it to where you ended up. Are they on the same topic or are they vastly different? What about the middle of your surfing session? Can you pinpoint a place where your interest veered into something else?

If you’re like me, chances are, your browsing history is pretty predictable. There are some sites that you go to every time you go online. Some sites may be new if you heard about them from a friend or followed a link from a regularly visited page or have a new research project you need to get started on, but by and large, the sites you visit—especially those you go to immediately upon opening your browser—are those you’ve looked at time and time again.

Let me give you an example. Every time I open my browser, the first thing I do is check my university webmail. After that, I usually check my hotmail. Then, with those things out of the way, I get down to doing whatever it is I need to do—usually involving Google and research for school papers.

“But what does this have to do with identity?” you cry. Plenty.

You might have gathered from the first paragraph that I’m interested in a wide variety of semi-criminal topics. Also, you might have gathered that I’m a pretty nutty person. Some of you may now fear me because of my dubious sanity. Really, it’s all a matter of opinion.

If you consider my habit of checking webmail and hotmail every time I open a browser, you might calm down a little. My compulsive need to check my webmail all the time (due largely in part to the insane volume of emails I get from group projects in practicum courses) shows that I’m a generally studious person terrified of missing a deadline or learning some important bit of information too late. My visiting hotmail, while not noteworthy, shows that I am generally a sociable person who likes to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family.

All this from a throwaway comment about googling and a list of my top two most visited web sites.

But these surfing habits shape me as much as they reflect my interests and values. I’ve noticed that my constant need to be connected and current when it comes to my studies and my friends has morphed into a mild paranoia about missing something important. Now, more than ever before, I feel the need to write things down so I don’t forget, making lists and lists of everything from homework, to chores, to when I’m meeting friends to see a movie.

If I looked at my browsing history every day for a month, I could give you a more comprehensive picture of who I am and what I’m like, and how my surfing has shaped my identity. Of course, I’m not sure I want anyone to know that much about me.

There are some things that just shouldn’t be shared.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Online Identity? I’ll Pass, Thank You…Part II: Race

Last time, we talked about the phenomenon of “passing” for a different gender online. Today, we’re going to talk about another form of “identity tourism”—racial passing.

If you’ve ever wondered how people of a different ethnicity are treated, it’s sometimes difficult to walk a mile in their shoes. After all, we can’t all be like Robert Downey Jr.’s character Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder, nonchalantly donning an elaborate new racial identity as one would a new coat. The only viable resource we have as ordinary citizens is the Internet. Online, we can assume any identity we want, presenting ourselves as members of a different race through our habits, our words, and through the information we choose to distribute about ourselves.

I stumbled across a
recent blog post concerned with whether racial identity is a product of ourselves or those around us. My first thought was that this idea misses the point. Our identities do not define how we act—our actions define our identities. This is an important point to consider, especially regarding online identities, because in order to “pass” for another race, we have to avoid falling into stereotypes that may or may not have any basis in truth.

In her book Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, Lisa Nakamura examines the impact that telecommunications technologies like the Internet can have on identity. She writes:

“While telecommunications and medical technologies can challenge some gender and racial stereotypes, they can produce and reflect them as well.” (Nakamura 4)
So not only does the Internet allow us to challenge stereotypes by providing a medium in which to express ourselves, it also reflects the stereotypes we already have by allowing us to perform the kind of actions we think those of another race would perform. But there is a downside to this kind of freedom. Nakamura notes that:

“Rather than ‘honouring diversity’…performances online used race and gender as amusing prostheses to be donned and shed without ‘real life’ consequences.” (Nakamura 13-14)
Racial passing online can be seen as a kind of social experiment that we can try on our own, when we feel like it, without affecting our day-to-day lives. The anonymity of the Internet ensures that any slip-ups or embarrassments cannot be attributed to us, making it easier and more appealing for ‘identity tourists’ to poke a toe into the swimming pool of another racial identity without having to jump right in. But Nakamura also points out that such glimpses into the lives of others may not be valuable as learning experiences since those who pass are unlikely to experience any quantifiable discrimination, leading to a potentially false impression that minority groups may not have it all that bad.

For these minority groups, passing may be an escape. Another aspect of racial passing has to do with a feeling of deep-seated inequity, a feeling that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

“…passing is often driven by harsh structural cultural inequities, a sense that it really would be safer, more powerful, and better to be of another race and gender.” (Nakamura 31)

But is passing really necessary on the part of these minority groups? After all, when we think of the stereotypical computer-user, we usually think of the geeky, socially awkward computer nerd. The white boy with copious amounts of facial hair, glasses, and pasty skin. As Nakamura notes, our ability to choose our own online identities is often an illusion, because:
“…in the absence of racial description, all players are assumed to be white.” (Nakamura 38)
Maybe that blog post I mentioned earlier is right. Maybe racial identity is more of a product of those around us. It’s a rather bleak thought, isn’t it?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Online Identity? I'll Pass, Thank You…Part I: Gender

The Internet is largely anonymous, allowing users to communicate and interact with each other usually without having to account for these actions in real life. This means that the Web is a place where many people feel that they may experiment with identities in cyberspace that they would never consider in real life.

Let’s look at, for example, the controversial 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. The film explores the struggle of Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena, a biological female who identified as male. She decided to dress and “act” like a man, presenting herself in such a manner despite the extreme difficulties she faced. Her story ultimately ended in tragedy, but for a short while she was able to be herself, or rather, act in a way that fit in with her desired identity.

The real-life implications of living a trans-gendered lifestyle are often frightening. We are not beyond bigotry and condemnation in this day and age, especially when it comes to alternative lifestyles which have not yet gained a degree of tolerance in the mainstream.

In her book Life on the Screen (for an online summary of her chapter on gender passing, click here), Sherry Turkle comments that:
“In the physically embodied world, we have no choice but to assume responsibility for our body’s action.” (Turkle 254)
This is to say that in real life, our bodies and the biological sex they imply dictate how we interact with others. We are expected to act in accordance with the social norms associated with our sex, acting in such a way as to reflect the gender role of our sex. The anonymous nature of the Internet, however, allows users to don the trappings of another gender without the real-world consequences.

This type of trans-gendered activity online is called “passing”. The Internet offers countless opportunities to pass. Anything that requires a user profile could potentially be used as a forum for exploration into another gender, however, to do so requires more than just setting gender to “male” or “female” (or in some cases “other”). Turkle notes that:
“To pass as a woman for any length of time requires understanding how gender inflects speech, manner, the interpretation of experience. Women attempting to pass as men face the same kind of challenge.” (Turkle 212)
But passing is more than just understanding and applying the differences between men and woman. While Turkle acknowledges that passing can result in self-discovery, she does not delve into the motivations of those who choose to pass online, nor does she talk about what their decision to pass may mean.

But is passing just a form of online fraud? It really depends. For example, the desire to pass may stem from curiosity about the opposite sex, an attempt to be funny or impress your friends or play a trick, or to try out a new identity without facing the condemnation or unwelcome curiosity of others. This is especially true during adolescence, when any deviation from the norm is seen as shocking and taboo.

Looking at these motives, we can see that while many may try to pass for a while, any sustained attempt at gender passing online may imply an identification with the opposite sex that may speak more to suppressed desires or gender identities than mere curiosity. This is not a bad thing. Exploration is one of the ways we learn and grow, and may have the effect of establishing sympathy or a shared understanding between the genders, increasing tolerance and cooperation.
Theorists today need to open up more of a conversation regarding online passing and talk about the implications—both positive and negative—it may have on Internet users. Perhaps by taking away the stigma of online passing, we can also make it easier for trans-gendered people to find acceptance in real life.

Tune in next time for the second part of the passing phenomenon—race.

Also, don’t forget to participate in the poll on the sidebar, and as always, leave a comment and tell me what you think.

For further reference, see:

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995.

Formatting fixed 20/01/08.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Blog Whisperer: What Blogs Say When We're Not Listening

Since I’m new to trying my hand at blogging, it seems fitting that I talk about the implications of blogging on identity formation. I stumbled across a particularly interesting and somewhat surprising article that asserts that 92% of bloggers choose to reveal real-life information on their personal blogs. I have a hard time believing this, especially considering the degree of technological savvy expected of today’s adolescents. Teenagers know the dangers inherent in revealing too much information, whether it be cyber-bullying or stalking or identity theft. Call me an optimist if you want to, but I think we need to give young people a little more credit.

All of this had me wondering about what blogs reveal implicitly, what the choices we make regarding our blogs say about us. The interesting part of this line of thought consists of considering how what bloggers don’t say about themselves combines with what they do say to help from a new online identity that exists somewhere between fact and fantasy.

I’ll start with a statement that will blow your mind.

Though you may not know it, I have already shaped your perception of me.

Queue X-Files music. Kinda creepy, huh? No, it’s not some alien mind trick. There’s a reasonable explanation for all of this. So how did I do it you ask?

Some of you may have seen me in class, or around campus, but don't know anything about me. To many of you, I am no more than a name. Still, you have formed an impression, a feeling, if you will, for who I am and what I'm like. All of this, from a single blog page.

Just by changing the template of my blog, I can change your opinion of what I'm like. You might have ascertained that I'm a serious individual from my current template. It is simple and sparse, containing only necessary elements. The colours are sober and traditional, indicating that I am calm and reserved. The sans-serif font is simple and easy-to-read, demonstrating that I value function over form. If you know a bit about Blogger and how it works, you might also be aware of the fact that this template is built-in and requires no programming knowledge to set up. This is an identity I have built through my blog in order to reflect not only my subject matter, but also my desire to present myself in a reasoned academic matter.

A few clicks, and I can erase this identity. Were I to change the template of my blog to include bright polka dots, a fussy, feminine font and vibrant colours, your perception of me might change. You might consider me a girlie-girl, someone who pays more attention to superficial, physical characteristics than putting any substance into my posts.

I am conscious of the way the choices I make when constructing my blog shape the perception of myself and my message. My choice of template reflects who I want to be online, but doesn’t necessarily give you the whole story. For example, while I am using a default template, I have considerable experience in coding HTML and CSS and building websites both with web authoring tools and by hand. Those who know me well can attest to the fact that I’m generally a quirky individual and tend not to be boring and staid (except on my bad days). While we’re at it, my favourite colour is a bright, vibrant orange, not a calm but admittedly predictable shade of blue. For the most part, you can glean some information from my blog. I am pretty reserved, and I’m serious about my studies. I found the layout attractive, after all, so that says something.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, it means I had you duped until I opened my big fat mouth (or flexed my clumsy typing fingers) and told you.

But a blog reveals more than the choices I make in constructing it. I have to consider what the subject matter of the blog reveals about me and my interests. This is harder to fake. While I could conceivably start a blog about something that holds no interest to me (like, say,
Thomas Carlyle) it’s pretty darn unlikely that I’ll ever get up the gumption to post much of note.

Incidentally, creating a blog is, in a way, an implicit construction of ourselves as experts on some subject. Even I the blog is just a personal diary, it conveys the idea that you are an expert about yourself. Not glamorous, but it’s still something.

The gadgets on my blog also reveal a bit about me. One could conceivable gain insight into my psyche by analyzing my blogroll, (to see which blogs I like to read) or my choice to allow people to subscribe to my blog.

As you can see, almost every detail of a blog has meaning. Even if I choose to give out real-life personal information, any information about my real-life identity is tempered by the impressions that my blog imparts. There’s more to blogging than just posting a few messages and hoping for replies. You really have to think about exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. After all, in this day and age, you never know how the information you provide can be used against you.