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

by Andrew Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
Cambridge, Mass.
February 11, 2010
Andy Oram Reports: Being Online - Part 6

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

So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat.

Despite all the variations played on the theme of personal identities in the previous sections, remember that identity is a group construct, not an individual one. If we never took part in groups, our personal identities would scarcely matter.

We're all members of certain groups without our choice: the particular race, social class, or gender to which others assign us. When a woman posts a seductive picture online, she is helping to shape the way men and other women view womanhood in general. The same goes when she posts a demonstration of herself expertly fixing a computer or operating a super-collider. And the image every member of a racial minority puts up of himself or his cohorts, like it or not, determines the way all members of that race are judgedbbb.

It seems an invariant in human culture to exploit the image of an individual in order to leave an impression about the entire group to which he or she belongs. It has been done by the arts and mass media ever since they were invented, but the Internet gives millions of ordinary people the chance to inflect the process.

Going by Goffman's extremely broad definition of "framing" - any assumption or shared knowledge that lies behind a visible act is part of the frame - identity might be the most important frame of all, and the locus around which other frames revolve. Thus, my identity as an English-speaker and American frames the starting point of this article from the perspective of a world technological and cultural center.

Others, though, may come to the Internet with an identity impaired by its very use. For instance, they may have to sacrifice their languages, or at least the character sets they traditionally use, in order to communicate online in a cost-effective way.

As Lisa Nakamura points out in her book, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), individuals can expand or criticize conventional images of women, Asians, Muslims, and others by reusing images and mashing them up in challenging ways. Nakamura even suggests that the typical slicing and recombination of digital images reflects the way people create their identities from fragments of older traditions, which in turn have been shattered by the economics and culture of modern global change.

Technology also groups us. Are we the first to jump on a new medium such as Voice Over IP or Google Wave? Just as - to cite Giddens - we express identity through lifestyle choices such as vegetarianism or living in a downtown apartment instead of a house in the suburbs, we express identity through the devices we buy and the Internet services we use. And other people make assumptions about our identity based on these things.

Let's turn now to groups at a more intimate level. Every online forum has the potential to be a small community - and even a small government, with rules backed up by unique punishments - where people train each other to carry out their identities in various ways.

Groups must be explicit and conscious of group identity. Online media rarely provide chances for the equivalent of sitting at a bar with grizzled veterans and hearing their stories. That is why groups often post rules (check out Wikipedia's, which are complicated enough to call for an entire wiki of their own) to deal with churn and the lack of opportunities to pass on norms informally.

This article began with the hope of understanding the current state of the art in online group formation: social networking. The reason social networking sites hold promise is that they augment the individual, an echo of Douglas Engelbart's goal to augment personal achievement through the invention of the mouse and multimedia networking in the 1960s. Anthropologist danah michele boyd made the suggestion (or perhaps just reported a subject's suggestion) (in a 2004 article) that these networks try to represent each person's identity as the set of connections he or she has. At Friendster, at least (where people look up each others' friends for potential dates), networks of friends become the main show. The same criticism could be made of LinkedIn, where the chief goal is career-building rather than dating. In both cases, when viewed in the worst light, your identity is reduced to the connections you can offer other people.

Just as rudimentary digital cameras - especially when embedded in mobile devices - have confirmed the old notion that a picture is worth 1,000 words, the connecting power of social networks will be multiplied a thousandfold if facial recognition improves to the point where it can automatically disseminate information about where we were and whom we met. If automated crawling tools could identify faces in millions of photos taken at parties, conferences, banquets, and even public places, and then combine the information to determine who knows whom, the amount of information that would become publicly available about our habits and associations would be staggering.

Social networks create a new personal information economy. We already have such an economy in real-life's customer reward cards: we give up valuable information about our long-term purchasing habits in exchange for discounts. Some business experts suggest a similar explicit arrangement for the Internet. Regulations would prohibit the retention of information unrelated to a sale, but allow retailers to offer discounts in exchange for the right to retain certain types of information. This would make privacy a class issue, because the affluent would be most likely to forgo the bribe and withhold their information. And because the affluent are the biggest spenders, businesses are unlikely to find it worth their while to support this compromise.

Everyone on social networks is engaging in the new personal information economy. We choose to post our favorite movies in order to meet fans and learn about new movies we'd like. And we reveal our colleges so we can meet potential business partners from those institutions. We even post jokes and casual observations to earn people's admiration. While we're all having fun, every nugget we release is subjected first, consciously or unconsciously, to a key question: will we get some benefit from the social network commensurate with the value of the information we are about to give our contacts?

This view of social network as economy provides a partial answer to the questions posed at the very start of this article:

Should we post our age and marital status? Should we
make our profile private or public? Should we reveal that
we're gay?...

The answer is that each of us is responsible for assessing the value of posting at every moment, taking into consideration the tone of the network, how many people are watching our postings, what they can offer us, and more.

While filtering our contributions to the network, we also filter those who are entitled to receive them - and here the economy is out of balance. Rampant are the complaints about receiving connection requests you don't want from old boyfiends or the guys who smoked dope with you in high school. Social networking urgently needs to establish a culture in which it's okay to say that you're filtering your connections. (A couple years ago I rejected a connection and got a death threat in return. Looking at the person's profile, I determined that it was a joke - but I still think twice about visiting the city where he lives.)

Although connections on social networks are definitive, no one asks about the identity of the social network itself (except shareholders hoping to increase its popularity and critics trying to change its policies). But some online communities head in a very different direction. Law professor Beth Simone Noveck, in an essay titled A democracy of groups, points out that self-organized groups can mold their own unique identities in order to effect collective action.

Noveck's optimism regarding self-organizing groups led to the current experiments with online democracy pursued by the Obama Administration, where Noveck has been appointed Deputy CTO for the Open Government initiative that Obama released on his first day in office.

In Noveck's theory, a group's effectiveness depends on each member's success in establishing his or her individual identity. "Through visual and graphical representation, this new technology enables people to see themselves and others and to perceive the role they have assumed. Appearing as a defined person - whether by name or in an embodied avatar - makes it easier to sense oneself as part of a group and, arguably, will facilitate the inculcation of the social norms at the heart of a group's culture," he has written.

These are intriguing claims, but it's odd that Noveck does not consider the ability to import external markers of identity into the group space, or to check members' assertions of identity against these external markers. For instance, what if visitors to Second Life could receive a token from her law school (through the OAuth protocol, say) that validates her as a professor?

One way to tie individuals more tightly together in online groups, as explained in her article, is to make online forums feel more like real-world places so that people can develop "forms of attachment" to the forums in ways that they feel emotionally attached to their town square, college, or other local "great good place" (to borrow the name of a popular book by Ray Oldenburg).

As Noveck writes, "The new generation of technology is reintroducing the concept of space and place online." As an example she cites Second Life, which was growing rapidly in popularity at the time. Effectively, she is granting identities to groups, just as we do to individuals, and recommending that a group foment stronger ties among its members by creating a stronger group identity.

No one in the Obama Administration has picked up the most aggressive suggestion in A democracy of groups, that the law recognize groups as entities - "new forms of collective legal personhood" - in a similar manner to how it now recognizes corporations. But Vermont has taken a step in that direction by changing its laws to allow virtual corporations, and ultimately we may be dealing with group identity online as much as with individual identity.

Next: Conclusion: Managing The Myriad Me

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