Being online: What you say about yourself, or selves

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

(This post is the fifth in a series called
“Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.”)

What we’ve seen so far in this series 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 snippet of a statistic
within a larger group. This post demands an even
greater mental stretch: we have to face that what we say about
ourselves is also distorted and inconclusive.

Sociological and psychologists tend to see our activities online as
inherently artificial, referring to them as aspects of “the
performative self.” But the pundits 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

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.


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

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

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

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

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.

Handy access to networks by cameras and video devices made it
inevitable that people would impulsively send sexually suggestive
photos of themselves to people with whom they were having intimate
relationships, or with whom they wanted such relationships.
A rather unscientific



The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

found that 20% of teenager send nude or semi-nude photos
of themselves to other people.
A less sensationalistic

report from the Pew Research Center

finds only 4%, but raises the mystique-shattering admonition that the
trust shown by the senders of the photos is routinely violated by
their recipients, either right away or later when the relationship is

Addressing the safety issue in an

earlier article
I suggest that “along the spectrum of risky behaviors young people
engage in (eating disorders, piercings in dangerous locations, etc.)
to deal with body image problems that are universal at that age, a
nude photo isn’t so bad.”
But I would love to see a deeper psychological inquiry into why young
(and not always young) people perform deal such blows to their own
privacy. I think such counter-intuitive behavior embodies the very
contradictions in image and reality that run through this series of

Perhaps the eroticism of releasing intimate photos over the network
reflects the core contradiction people sense in online identity. The
nude photo is a unique token of one’s deepest identity, without
actually being that identity. Like
René Magritte’s famous pipe painting
the photo of you is not you. But by sending it to someone with whom
you want a sexual relationship, you’re saying, “Hey bud, this could be
me if you follow through in the flesh.”

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
anthropologist 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
, 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.

The posts in “Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between” are:

  1. Introduction

  2. Being online: Your identity in real life–what people know
  3. Your identity online: getting down to basics
  4. Your identity to advertisers: it’s not all about you
  5. What you say about yourself, or selves (this post)

  6. Forged identities and non-identities

  7. Group identities and social network identities

  8. Conclusion: identity narratives

tags: , , , ,