After my marathon of reading these past few months in preparation for school, I have begun to narrow down what it is I want to focus on for my thesis: digital identity. As a kick off to this, I have started to frame my thinking on the topic, using a paper for school as an impetus to start pulling it all together. I am not completely happy with this paper, but it is a start, and I thought I'd share it with you. I am, of course, always interested in what you have to say!
Thinking About Digital Identity
One of the more intriguing aspects of participating in cyberspace is how it leads one to question identity, specifically identity as technologically mediated. Certainly identity has been mediated before (and continues to be so) via telephones, photographs, home movies and videotapes, and so on. But now, with the growth of online social media (blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networks, forums, discussion boards, chat, photo and video sharing, social bookmarking, tagging, etc.) more and more people are actively creating digital identities (whether they realize it or not). And these identities are persistent slices of personality that others interact with and react to, which then can feed back into self. Managing identity therefore becomes a serious task and there are increasing numbers of tools for one to do so. So questioning identity in this environment becomes more critical.
There are a number of commonalities to be found among people who have been thinking about how the concept of identity has been changing as increasing numbers of people participate in the digital world (if not cyberspace itself). Paul Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid), Allucquere (Sandy) Rosanne Stone, Bruce Sterling, Adam Greenfield, Peter Morville and Sherry Turkle offer examples of new kinds of thinking about identity, all of which move away from a centralized, autonomous, singular self to something quite different. In their presentations, identity becomes about negotiation, performance and role. It takes place at the surface, the interface and a point of rupture. It is distributed and dispersed, and yet convergence plays an important role as well. It is multiple, multiplex, a multiplicity. It involves exchange, contagion and symbiosis. Translation, transformation and mediation are all important across new boundaries that are unstable, fluid, constructed, collapsing and/or intertwingling. Replication, repetition and mashups reign and action and volition are important. Bricolage, wandering and play are methods for constructing these new identities. And always, one must keep in mind that others are also receiving the identities so constructed and, increasingly, feeding them back to the original source in altered form, and in different contexts, via other tools. This can have a significant impact on one's own sense of self.
In an age of digital identity, we are all cyborgs. In an interview, Sandy Stone stated, “And that's a sense in which we're all cyborgs, really, in that we all have to negotiate our parts, our own internal boundaries...to continually learn to live on the borders in order to be the creatures that we are, and we find sometimes that when we're dealing with other people, there are chunks of us that are stuck in them. And when we look at our own road maps, there are chunks of them that are stuck in us, and that's part of being a cyborg. It's not just machinery, it's that other people are collapsing into us, they're already there, we're already, in a sense, collapsed into each other.” (Speed, n. pag.) How do we manage this situation? Are we, in the words of Bruce Sterling, “wrangling” our own identities? Sterling uses this term as his description of the action people take with spimes: “Spimes are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. Spimes begin and end as data...People within an infrastructure of spimes are Wranglers.” (11)
This definition, as it is concerned primarily with objects, does not fit perfectly with the concept of identity. But in my own personal experience, wrangling is exactly what I do to manage my online identity. Sterling writes that, “The spime is a set of relationships first and always, and an object now and then.” (77) Additionally, he writes, “The key to the spime is identity.” (77) In fact, if we view ourselves as cyborgs, can we not view identity as a constructed object? Doesn't identity in some ways reflect the sum of our relationships? And, if we think of identity as distributed, pieces of it can sometimes be an object, for example when expressions of it can be found that are, in a sense, material: blog posts, comments, emails, wiki pages and so forth. Therefore it may indeed be fruitful for thinking about identity as a spime-like, at the least.
There exists today a very useful tool for monitoring online identity, which helps to clarify some of the complexities that participants in the digital world face where, “It's an uncanny situation; the creative act becomes a dispersion of self.” (Miller 29) That tool is an RSS newsreader, also known as a feed aggregator. In short, it is a piece of software that continuously pulls information you have requested towards you, delivering it to your desktop. Mine is called FeedDemon. It is a tool for wrangling identity:
- It delivers what I write about in my own self-controlled space (my blog, for example). It confronts me with my professional, performed self.
- It delivers me as performing on other people's spaces, mainly via comments I have written. These are representatives of my identity where I have actually gone myself and actively participated elsewhere, generally in my professional persona, but not always.
- It delivers me as performing on other people's spaces, but as they perceive me, such as through quotes they have pulled from my own writings, but also from information drawn from private emails, phone calls, in-person conversations and chat.
- It delivers other people's reactions to me, their agreement and disagreement, their misunderstandings and even deliberate mis-quotes. If I then respond to these issues, FeedDemon delivers those responses as well.
- It notifies me when someone has simply mentioned my name, my blog or my business.
- It notifies me when someone has bookmarked something I have written, or that someone has written about me, without the person who actually bookmarked the article commenting at all.
- Today all this information is primarily text, but increasingly, audio, photographic and video information can be wrangled as well.
What is so interesting about this tool, is that it not only enables me to keep track of the various instances of my identity that appear online, it also allows me to track the ongoing conversations and negotiations that take place after the first appearance. It confronts me with fragments of my identity and how others are reacting to them, changing them and/or subsuming them. Sometimes I don't recognize myself at all! Furthermore, I can respond to these conversations and negotiations, adding to the cycle. And what is even more interesting, is that others, using the same type of tool, can have all these pieces of me delivered to their own desktops, to be wrangled with at will, as I do for other people/identities I find intriguing.
In the digital world, people can interact with pieces of my performed identity, taking “me” into their own performances, which other people than react to without the physical me actually getting actively involved. People form relationships with a piece of my identity that I am not even aware of until it is projected back at me via FeedDemon. It is an exceedingly strange experience. Sherry Turkle writes, “...your identity on the computer is the sum of your distributed presence.” (11) It is worth asking where that “sum” exists, because it certainly isn't within my own head!
That situation, however, might not exist for much longer. What I mean is that the digital sum of my identity, which currently exists “out there” on the Internet, in cyberspace, in the noosphere, may soon enter my body via ubiquitous computing technology. Then the convergence of distributed identity becomes seated in the body of the future cyborg citizen. We are already seeing the body as data: “As both a rich source of information in itself and the vehicle by which we experience the world, it was probably inevitable that sooner or later somebody would think to reconsider it [the body] as just another kind of networked resource.” (Greenfield 48)
The practice and experience of distributed identity is a powerfully liberating one. This has been recognized by Stone, who said, “...the advantage of multiplicity as a political strategy is that it's a way of disrupting the idea that people are single personalities, which is a method of political control...” (Mondo, n. pag.) Miller stated the same type of idea in a slightly different way, “The fight is against one-track minds. Hearing a mono signal in this era is about the same as wearing a scarlet letter in another. Both are emblems of obsolescence, of socially enforced mores that damage everyone who agrees to them.” (49) Yet there are dangers as well, as surveillance – by others and by self – is built into these technologies. Are we truly authentic when what we say can be read by anyone, especially when it can easily be taken out of context? Will the thoughts and experiences we share today come back to haunt us in the future? Professors are now warning their students that they shouldn't be sharing their drunken party photos on Flickr as potential employees are Googling them. Furthermore, there are power laws online, which can lead to the same few numbers of people having large amounts of influence as in the physical world: “In addition to a bias for free and digital [information], power laws and preferential attachment create dominant hubs and fragmented discussion. A few companies and people capture most of the eyeballs.” (Morville 171)
As information continues to pour into cyberspace, and the power laws play their role, performed identity must also take findability into consideration. With many of the new social media, people must not only create content, but also the routes to that content, so that others can find it. As Morville writes, “We write, not just to communicate, but to enhance our own personal findability.” (142) Along with the top-down, rules-driven hierarchical finding systems, the operation of which we, as consumers, can have little impact on, there are an increasing number of easy-to-use semantic tools that enable us to create pathways to our identity, such as links and tags. Furthermore, “Findability is at the center of a quiet revolution in how we define authority, allocate trust, and make decisions.” (Morville 15) In a world where we are not only performing our own identity, but others are performing it as well, how do we know whom to trust? Who is credible? These questions are mediated by technologies that themselves have built-in biases.
As identity increasingly becomes technologically mediated, it is important to question what it is, what it means, how it is performed and how it is received. These authors have provided some fruitful ideas for thinking about identity, its possibilities and its pitfalls. Turkle said it best, “...it is on the Internet that our confrontations with technology as it collides with our sense of human identity are fresh, even raw. In the real-time communities of cyberspace, we are dwellers on the threshold between the real and the virtual, unsure of our footing, inventing ourselves as we go along.” (10)
Greenfield, Adam. Everyware. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2006.
Miller, Paul. Rhythm Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.
Morville, Peter. Ambient Findability. Sebastopol, CA.: O'Reilly Media, Inc., 2005.
Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.
Stone, Allucquere (Sandy) Rosanne. Interview with Ben Bratton, Laura Grindstaff and Robert Nideffer. Speed, 1.2. n.d. <http://proxy.arts.uci.edu/~nideffer/_SPEED_/1.2/stone.html>.
---, Interview with Paco Xander Nathan and Jon Lebkowsky. Mondo 2000 #11. 1993. <http://www.weblogsky.com/sandystone.html>.
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York: Touchstone, 1995.