Fri 18 Feb 2011
It’s just me.
A person isn’t a brand.
If “online” is just another place to manage identity, why does digital identity deserve special treatment?
Thanks – big thanks – to all of you who gave me input on digital identity and how you think of it and name it. The paraphrased quotes from the last post’s comments all helped me dig deeper into the specifics of what I’m aiming to explore with this dissertation-in-the-making. I both agree and disagree with each: the conversation hones my thinking and my writing, and I am grateful.
Here’s what I think: the specific kind of cyborg identity that interests me is new. People have, arguably, depended on technologies to construct and perform identity for thousands of years: the wheel created social structures that shaped who people were and how they saw themselves, and writing – to Socrates’ chagrin – enabled a persistence of self over time that has deeply shaped our notion of what it is to be human.
But what I call – for now, at least – the branded cyborg is a particular hybrid of human and social media platform that creates a circulation of identity different from previous incarnations or understandings of self. It is a reputational identity with tangible, visible, measurable attributes, and the economy in which it operates makes demands on the entity who generates it.
In this sense, I think the branded cyborg – for those of us who are one – is us and reaches beyond us, at the same time. It is identity in the public domain. And I think how it operates matters.
That’s why I think digital identity deserves special focus, even if it is perceived by social media users as a simple extension of themselves. Operations of power and interaction are not actually the same online as they are in so-called “real life,” no matter whether we try to conduct ourselves the same or no. The speed of connections, the flattening (to an extent) of hierarchical relations, the reputational and corporate economic aspects of social media, and the ways in which power circulates and allows for different performances and different recognition of performances all change the subject positions that the environment creates and privileges.
Donna Haraway first wrote her particular version of the cyborg into being in 1985: a creature without origin and without innocence, resolutely committed to “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.” A couple of years ago, in response to the irritatingly popular mythology of the digital native, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek cyborg momifesto, on the cyborg nature of mommybloggers. We perform aspects of self for each other, intimately, but accept that the whole is seldom represented. We often parody notions of what motherhood should be in an effort to resist the discourses that frame our identities. We are hybrids of human and technology just as surely as our children are touted to be.
My ‘we’ has expanded since then, but I still find the figure of the cyborg valuable as a representation of the particular kind of digital identity I want to explore. In my dissertation, I’ll revision Haraway’s late 20th century version of the cyborg as a 21st century digital subject; an entity of social media.
Now, I don’t think everyone online is a cyborg, or at least not a branded cyborg, not really. It depends on what we DO online. Those of us who live “in the open,” to an extent, who engage in the creation/consumption sharing cycle of the produsage economy and who put our own work out there to our networks and actively try to grow audience for those networks under a particular name (or names) that represent us? WE’RE branding. If you have a Facebook account and the rest of your online activity is mostly surfing, maybe you’re not branding. It’s about level of engagement in that reputational, rhizomatic economy. It’s about sharing, putting aspects of self out there, seeking recognition and being open to new connections in the network. It’s about reciprocity, as well: sharing the work of others, leaving comments, participating in the circulation.
So the digital identities of cyborgs are multi-faceted representations, contributed to and amplified by others as part of the etiquette of social media. Cyborg subjects involved in social media produsage networks ‘create content’ such blog posts, tweets, video work, slideshows, or comments attached to a particular digital identity that circulates in the open, building social – and potential financial – capital for its creators in the process. Traditional media appearances or in the online work of others will sometimes factor into a person’s digital identity: the traces that register with Google as a part of our digital identity are not always fully under our control. However, as Google’s page rank works on scale of views, longterm commitment to a particular digital profile or identity means that sites or accounts managed by the user will usually end up outranking random facets of identity originating with other subjects. The identity can encompass many platforms: depth and frequency of use lend gravitas, as do statistical data like blog pageviews and public rankings like Klout.
For Judith Butler, we are called into being as subjects by the operations of power and discourse, and our agency is concommitant with our subjectivity. What does this mean for digital identity? Cyborg digital identities are the product of already-formed subjects: the traces of us that circulate online are deployed in that environment by subjects always already navigating discourse and power. The digital identity may be constructed the same, psychically and discursively, but operates in a different environment. It is the agency of the digital subject – and whether the digital environment offers alternative opportunities for agency not previously available to the subject in embodied form – that interests me.
As an educator, I’m also interested in whether these potentially new digital subjectivities and their agency then impact the embodied subject and his or her expectations. In other words, what does it mean to teach a branded cyborg in an educational system premised on very different subject roles and agentive constructions than are available here online?
This is why I don’t believe that your online identity is simply ‘you.’ When a subject chooses to engage in the produsage economy, creating and sharing content and contributing to the consumption of others’ content as a means of connecting and building visibility and reputation, a cyborg digital identity comes into being. This digital identity, I will argue, cannot be identical to the subjectivity of the embodied person creating the content, even if the person intends it to be. The digital identity will almost invariably end up being recognized and interacted with differently than the embodied person, because the medium allows for and privileges different types of engagement. Few people, even if they write for a living, walk into an office in the morning and are told outright what a wonderful writer they are. Few students can walk into schools, even with the most well-intentioned teachers, and say Hey! This really amazing/terrible/striking thing came across my radar last night and I’d like to take this morning to respond to and share it creatively. Not everyday. And I’m not sure school should be about that every day, though I’m not sure it shouldn’t. But most students learn from their earliest years that schooling means a set of power relations that tend to preclude and sanction statements like that. They learn a different subject position, one with a very different sort of agency than they will encounter online, as cyborgs.
In this context, then, new forms of agency and specifically digital subjectivity are indeed jointly called into being. The discourses and power relations that create the specific subjugation that calls each individual into cyborg identity would, I assume, be individual: I will want to explore Butler’s work on desire and on giving account of oneself in order to consider the myriad of ways this may operate. Certainly, in my own experience, it was subjugation to and representation by a discourse of motherhood that I felt excluded my experience of loss and attachment that led me to try to narrate my own story online, visibly: in creating cribchronicles, I created my own agency to speak a counter-discourse.
This all sounds delightfully, misleadingly emancipatory. I don’t mean it to. I see change as carrying good and bad, cultural gain and cultural loss: I want to explore both. Social media is neither saviour nor sin, in my mind. And lots of people, I’m sure, go online mostly for the porn.
My read of both Haraway’s original cyborg and Butler’s notions of subjectivity and performativity is that the messiness is okay; that clean trajectories are to be mistrusted, interrogated, that porn – and all the aspects of humanity that it stands for – are part of the package I’ve taken on here, in looking to study identity in this public domain of the digital.
My hope, really, is that in exploring what it means to be a branded cyborg I will stumble and grope my way to a more complex understanding of what it means to be human, here and now.