by Andrew Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
February 21, 2010
MANAGING THE MYRIAD ME
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Editor's Note: After the Introduction, this is the last of seven parts of an exclusive, 9,000-word series on Identity & The Internet by American Reporter Webmaster Andy Oram.
A honest tale speeds best being plainly told.
It is time to pull together all the facets of that gem in constant rotation that philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "Being," and that we call identity.
In this article, I have explored what identity means in an online medium where information is digitized. Consider what the word digitize denotes: the fragmentation of a whole into infinitesimal, fungible, individually uncommunicative pieces.
The computer digitizes everything we post about ourselves not only literally (by storing information in computer-readable formats) but metaphorically, as the computer scatters our information into a meaningless diaspora of data fields, status updates, snapshots, and moments caught on camera or in audio - as Shakespeare might say, moments of "sound and fury, signifying nothing."
No computer, only a person, can reassemble and breath life into these dry bones, creating from them a narrative.
Anthony Giddens, whom I quoted earlier in the section on selves, says that constructing a narrative for oneself is an obligatory part of feeling one has an identity. Giddens does not seem to take the Internet on in his writings. But it's a reasonable stretch to say that we build up narratives online, and others do so for us, through the digitized, disembodied (or to use Giddens's term, disembedded) bits of information posted over time.
College development staff and others who search for information on us are building up narratives haphazardly based on available data. On blogs and social networks, however, we quite literally provide them with the narrative. Perhaps that's why those media became popular so quickly, and why so many people urge their friends to follow them: social media take some of the anarchy out of our presentation of self.
The next step to gain more control over searches about yourself or your business may be emotionally formidable as well as time-consuming: when someone comments about you on any searchable forum, answer. The answer can be on the same forum as the original comment or on some site more under your control, such as your blog - use whatever setting is appropriate for what you have to say. You can then only hope that your reply is picked up and treated as important by the search engines.
One indication of Shakespeare's genius was the parallel, distinct narratives he managed to create in "Hamlet" - or as Goffman might put it, his ability to develop two sophisticated frames that are totally at odds throughout the play. Similar stylistic devices have been worked into thriller moves, spy novels, and thousands of other settings since then.
Everyone except Hamlet himself (and a few sympathetic colleagues) created a narrative as uncompromising as it was terrifying. Hamlet was seen as irrational, brooding, provocative, ungrateful, impulsively amoral, cruel, dangerously violent, and totally out of control.
Only we, the audience, see Hamlet the way he saw himself: brilliant, sensitive, almost telepathically alert, courageous, unambiguously righteous, gifted with a hidden power, blessed by a divine mission - in short, a hero.
Upon all my readers I wish narratives unlike Hamlet's. I hope you never feel the need to construct for yourself a narrative, online or offline, as desperate as the ones he constructed. At the same time, I hope that other people de-digitizing a narrative from your online signals do not see you as Polonius or Laertes saw Hamlet.
But we have to accept that we are constrained in life by how others see us, that many will formulate opinions from the digital trail we are all building just by living in the modern world, and that we can't control how others see this trail. There are just a few things we can do to improve our prospects for surviving and thriving online.
We can assess the economic value of what we reveal: what we are allowing others to do by revealing something, and what we may get back of value. And like economists, we have to think long-term as well as short-term, because the data we reveal is up there forever.
We can also develop tolerance for others, learning not to judge them because we don't know the back story to what we see online, as I have recommended in an earlier article.
Finally, we should accept that we can't bring other people's image of us into conformity with what we feel is our true identity. But at least we can resist bringing our identity into conformity with their image.