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.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Born E-dentity: Ludlum the Cultural Theorist?

I just finished re-reading Robert Ludlum's best-selling novel The Bourne Identity, the story of an amnesiac government agent who runs up against enemies from all sides in an attempt to regain his memory. It was pure escapist reading for me, a holiday treat to congratulate myself for getting through dry, literary behemoths like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Dickens’ Hard Times in my Victorian Literature class. But I should know better--I’m an English major. If my professors have drilled anything into my head, it’s that there’s no such thing as escapist reading anymore. Everything has meaning, if only you would look.

Turns out, looking has become almost second nature. While immersing myself into the tortured mind, dazzling intellect and completely improbable yet nonetheless scintillating adventures of the book’s protagonist Jason Bourne, what struck me most was that his search for his identity focused solely on finding identity from without rather than from within. He wanted to know his name, what he did for a living, the company he worked for, whether he had a family. In short, he wanted to know where he came from, what shaped him and influenced him and made him who he was. He didn't look inside himself for the answers--in fact, he ignored his instincts about who he was at every turn. He preferred to believe he was a notorious assassin rather than face the possibility of creating his own identity, valuing the testimony of others over what he knew to be true. He fell into the trap of assuming that identity is "born" rather than created.

This got me thinking about the Internet and its ability to strip away our real life identities and allow us to replace them with our own creations. We all do this, whether it is through social networking sites like
MySpace and Facebook, through online games, chat rooms, even email. Everything we do online constitutes a part of our online identities. Sometimes we form these identities consciously, choosing representative characteristics that may or may not belong to us in real life. Sometimes, the process is unconscious, revealing details of our real-life identities that we never before considered. Regardless, online identities are a legitimate but often overlooked aspect of ourselves.

When Ludlum published this book in 1980, he couldn’t have dreamed of the amazing and wonderful opportunities for identity creation that we have today. He wrote in a time before the Internet, before most individuals even had regular access to a computer. While we can’t excuse him for ignoring the impact of technology on his characters’ identities (they did have telephones and
cablegrams and computer systems after all) we can certainly see how he might have overlooked it. The implications of technology on our identities weren’t so clear when we didn’t consciously create (or re-create) ourselves online.

The same cannot be said of today’s theorists, which is why it is so surprising that more of them have not delved into the consequences of our new cyber world. Those who do, such as
Rheingold, Turkle and Nakamura, tend to focus solely on online role playing games and the processes they provide for identity creation while ignoring the broader spectrum of opportunities the Internet has to offer. In a way, Ludlum was before his time, bringing up the issue of technology’s impact on identity without explicitly exploring it. After all, isn’t the novelist’s job to ask questions, leaving us readers to look within ourselves for the answers?