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 No wonder the policy was revoked.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…