Being online: Conclusion–identity narratives

An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

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

After viewing in rotation the various facets of that gem that we call identity, it is time for us to polish and view them in one piece.
This series has explored what identity means in an online medium, the
most salient aspect of which is the digitization of information.
Consider what the word digitization 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, 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.

In place of the term narrative,
some psychologists, who would probably love to do an intake interview
on Hamlet, refer to the self as being established through a soliloquy.
However you look at
identity formation, taking it online extends its reach tremendously.
The soliloquies we engage in, and the narratives we create for
ourselves, reshape our memories and determine our futures. But these
self-interrogations that used to take place in our craniums while we
lay in bed at night now happen in full view of the world.

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
him. 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

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
  6. Forged identities and non-identities
  7. Group identities and social network identities
  8. Conclusion: identity narratives (this post)

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  • Daniel

    Hi, I am writing the comment while sitting at the airport hotel and using my umts flatrate. As I am on a business trip 3 to 4 days a week I need the internet not only as a gateway to friends and family but also as a kind of entertainment lab. Social media has developed fast and with a lot of creativity but to be honest only very little offers reasonable value to the users. Using new “web only” identities to participate in the www will be quite normal in the future. Two parts everybody has to separate anyway business and private – online and offline :-)

  • JMiller

    Hamlet… really?

    Counterpoint on the genius of Hamlet is that Shakespeare’s gets the audience to trust some sociopath-prince who kills three people (specifically, two of his friends and his prospective father-in-law) and whose unthinking behavior drags his nation down to subjugation by a hostile but inferior neighbor. Specifically, check Horatio’s response to Hamlet casually mentioning that he’s had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern executed.

    The faux persona may only be a subset of traits of the acting person underneath, but the acting person underneath the persona has all of the traits of their persona (unevenly manifested, but necessarily present). And while the aggregate “You” may be able to exhibit a trait (“jovial”) that you have not given to your persona, the persona is exclusively made up of traits that you act out through it (“cruel”). This has existential consequences since, ultimately, the person you really are is the person you act like regardless of who you want to be. Consider the behavior of the person/people who drove Megan Meier to suicide: they may say that they’d only intended a harmless prank, but their disconnection from the tangible consequences of their actions (a la Hamlet and his victims) reveals the disingenuously subjective nature of their personal narrative.

    In short, the claim “I’m not really that person, I just spend several waking hours every day acting like it” is a hollow one.

  • Colin Hawkett

    Worth noting the Open Identity for Open Government initiative. Published last year, and has the backing of a lot of major players (including Google and Microsoft). It’s quite an advance on the way we manage online identity today, taking into account multiple identities, anonymity, pseudonymity, networks of trust and more besides.