Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016

by Andrew Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
Cambridge, Mass.
January 25, 2010
Andy Oram Reports: Being Online - Part 4

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Editor's Note: After the Introduction, this is the fourth of seven parts of an exclusive, 9,000-word series on Identity & The Internet by American Reporter Webmaster Andy Oram.

Which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? who deciphers them?

What we've seen so far in this article would be enough to shake anyone's sense of identity. We've found that the technology of the Internet itself fudges identity (but does not totally succeed in hiding it), that companies use fragmented and partial information to categorize you, and that your actual identity is perhaps less important to these companies than your role as a snippet of a statistic within a larger group. This section of the article demands an even greater mental stretch: we have to face that what we say about ourselves is also distorted and inconclusive.

Sociologists and psychologists tend to see our activities online as inherently artificial, referring to them as aspects of "the performative self." But the academics haven't succeeded in getting their point of view across to the wider public. For instance, the millions of people who view personal video weblogs, or vlogs, fervently believe - according to a recent First Monday article by Jean Christian - in the importance of authenticity in people's video self-presentations. Viewers reject vlogs over such telltale signs as overediting or reading from scripts.

The touchstone for discussions of people's appearances and what their appearances say about them is Erving Goffman's classic Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, whose lessons I applied to the Internet in a recent blog. The book suggested that we fashion our appearances not to hide our true selves, but to reveal them in a manner others find meaningful. My blog reinforced this insight, pointing out that, although we do prettify ourselves online as claimed in one newspaper article, we can't compartmentalize aspects of ourselves. In other words, whatever presentation we make in one context or forum is likely to leak out elsewhere.

In another blog about Goffman, I focused on the signals we give out and pick up instinctively about each other in real life, indicating that they have to be specified explicitly in online media (although graphics and video now bring back some instinctive reactions).

Goffman's career ended before the Internet became a topic of sociological analysis, so at this point it's appropriate to bring in the chief researcher in the area of identity and the Internet, psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle. She claims that we do maintain multiple online identities, and that this is no simple game but reflects a growing tendency for us to have multiple selves. The fragmentary and divided presentation of self online reflects the truth about ourselves, more than we usually acknowledge.

Turkle's research, unfortunately, got channeled early in the Internet's history into landscapes that don't reflect its later use as a mass medium. She became fascinated, during the early years of popular computing and gaming in the 1980s, with the whims so many people indulged for portraying themselves as someone of a different age, gender, or profession, or just for hiding as much as they could in order to try out a different personality. This orientation colors both of her books on the subject, The Second Self (1984) and Life on the Screen (1995), and relegates her work to a study of psychological deviation.

Still, Turkle's work can make us think about the vistas that the Internet opens up for the Self. Surveying the multiple identities we create online and the ways we represent or misrepresent ourselves, she finds that people don't do this just for play or to maliciously deceive other people. Many do it to don identities that are hard to try on in real life.

A woman pretending to be a man might open up scenarios for practicing assertive behaviors that would produce a backlash if she rolled them out in real life. A shy person might learn, through an invented personality, how to flirt and even to practice mature love. Both of these forms of mimicry, which go back at least as far as Shakespeare's "As You Like It," have proven useful to many people online.

But beyond these simple sorts of play-acting (for which real life provides its settings: acting classes, long journeys, spiritual retreats, "What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas") we glimpse in online personas a contemporary view of the self that is multi-layered and multi-faceted - by no means integrated and consistent.

Turkle also explores the psychological impact of computer interfaces. In particular, programs that act like independent, autonomous decision-makers push us to rethink our own human identities.

In the 1960s, people would spend hours typing confessions into the psychologist persona presented by Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA program. Trying out ELIZA now, it's hard to imagine anyone could be enticed into a serious conversation with it. But as we've grown more sophisticated, so have the deceits that programmers toss at us. Turkle reports an interaction with a robot at the MIT AI Lab that drew her in with a veracity that made her uncomfortable. "Despite myself and despite my continuing skepticism about this research project, I had behaved as though in the presence of another being."

Affective technologies have leapt even further ahead since 1995. Someday, robots for the disabled and elderly will try to reflect their feelings in order to provide care that goes beyond washing and feeding. Turkle draws on many strands of psychology, sociology, neurological science, and philosophy to show how our intellectual substrate has been prepared throughout the twentieth century for the challenges to Self that sophisticated computer programs present. Had the field of synthetic biology existed when Turkle wrote her books, it would have provided even more grist for her thesis.

This is one place where I part company with Turkle. I don't believe we're getting more and more confused about the dividing line between Computer Power and Human Reason (the title of a classic book by Weizenbaum, ELIZA's creator). I have more faith in our discernment. Just as we can see through ELIZA nowadays, we'll see through later deceptions as we become familiar with them. Simulated intelligences will not perennially pass the Turing test.

Turkle's view of online behavior is more persuasive. I'm willing to grant that exploring identity on the Internet can help us develop neglected sides of our identity and integrate them into our real selves. She expects us to go even further - to develop these sides without integrating them. We can quite happily and (perhaps) healthily live multiple identities, facilitated by how we present ourselves online.

Let's review the social setting in which Turkle inserts her arguments. Looking over the period during which the technologies and social phenomena Turkle researches have grown - the period from 1970 to the present, when MUDs and other online identity play developed - we see an astonishing expansion of possibilities for identity throughout real life. We have more choices than ever in career, geographic location, religious and spiritual practice, gender identification, and family status - let alone plastic surgery and drugs that alter our minds or muscles. People have reclaimed disappearing ethnic languages and turned vanishing crafts into viable careers. And people are experimenting with these things in countries characterized by repression as well as those considered more open.

Changes in speech and clothing allow us to try out different identities in different real-life settings with relative safety. We can sample a novel spiritual rite without relinquishing our traditional church. But of course, doing all these things online is even safer than doing them in physical settings.

Global information and movement lead to what sociologist Anthony Giddens, in his 1991 book Modernity and Self-Identity, calls reflexivity. I showed in the previous section how "reflexivity" works in the data collected by advertisers and corporate planners. Toward the cause of producing more of what we want and marketing it to us effectively, the corporations are constantly collecting information on us - purchases, web views and clicks, sentiment analysis-and feeding it back into activities that will, on the next phase, produce more such information. Reflexivity is a fundamental trait of modern institutions. But individuals, as Giddens points out, are also reflexive. We imitate what we see, online as well as offline. Online, it's even easier to try something and learn from the results. Goth clothing and body piercings we pick up online are cheaper and easier to discard than real ones when we have to clean up our image.

However, we're becoming more circumspect over the past few years as we realize that people will be able to tie our online forays back to us in the future; this may cause the lamentable end to experimentation with the Self.

Turkle refers to a story that was widely circulated and much discussed in an earlier decade, of a male psychiatrist who posed as a disabled but capable woman on CompuServe. He quickly entered supportive online relationships with a number of women. But as the relationships became too deep, he had to extricate himself from his virtual friends' dependencies, leaving a good deal of anger and numerous sociological questions.

But the most interesting aspect of the story to me is that no one can verify it. It appears to be a conflation of various incidents involving different people. In a way, drawing any conclusions at all would be pointless, because we don't know what emotions were involved and can't investigate the participants' positive and negative reactions. Thus does an influential and highly significant case study about Internet identity take on a murky identity of its own.

Today's digital trails are more persistent than those ones that created the legend of the CompuServe psychiatrist. Anyone engaging with strangers today would probably carry on through social networks, blogs, or wikis that do a better job of preserving the trail of logins and postings.

Thus, I return to my assertion that identity is becoming more unified online, not more fragmented. We may not be exactly as we appear online, but for the purposes of public discourse, what we appear to be is adequate.

When college student Jennifer Ringley began her famous webcam of daily life in 1996, it was seen either as a bold experiment in conceptual art or a pathetic bid for attention. Soon, though, the inclusion of cheap cameras in cell phones fostered a youth culture that captured and distributed every trivial moment of their lives, a trend driven further by ease of using Twitter from a cell phone.

For a long time the Internet was praised as a place to shed the baggage of race and other defining traits ("nobody knows you're a dog"). But as researchers such as Lisa Nakamura point out, postings that brim over with images and videos reintroduce race, gender, and other artifacts of daily life with a vengeance. And research by a Web-focused anthropologist who uses no capitals in her name, danah michele boyd, shows that people self-segregate in social forums, reinforcing rather than breaking down the social divisions that frustrate the prospects for mutual understanding among different races and groups.

One could throw in, as another consequence of the growth of identity, the oft-observed tendency to read only political articles that reinforce one's existing views. Unlike other observers, who look back wistfully at an age where we all got our information from a few official media sources, I have applauded the proliferation of views, but agree that we need to find ways to encourage everyone to read the most cogent arguments of their opponents. Censorship - even self-censorship - does not contribute to identity formation in a healthy manner.

There's also more than a hint of the trend toward asserting identity in the participatory culture chronicled and analyzed by Henry Jenkins: the fan fiction, the commentary sites for X Files and The Matrix, the games and consumer polls held by movie studios, and so forth. This participatory culture is mostly a community affair, which creates a group identity out of many unconnected individuals. But surely, creating an unauthorized sequel or re-interpreting a scene in a movie is also an act of personal expression. I would call it placing a stake in the cultural ground, except that the metaphor would be far too static for an ever-changing media stream. It would be more apt to call the personal contributions a way of inserting a marker with one's identity into the ongoing reel of unfolding culture.

It's a lot easier nowadays to be real when you're on the Internet. But some people still, for many reasons, adopt forged identities or non-identities. We'll explore that phenomenon next.

Next: When The Internet Kills

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