a genealogy of digital identities

Grope. Stumble. Circle around.

I’m fumbling my way towards the methods & methodology choices that will guide my digital identity research. This week, for the first time, my blurry paths collided hard with current events in the world and the social media sphere.

Tom MacMaster, A Gay Girl in Damascus’ hoax blogger, has personally altered the direction of my dissertation’s methods section.

(Okay, well, him and Twitter. And the mainstream media attention his blog garnered even before he claimed Amina had been kidnapped. And the Orientalism and colonialism and exoticism that still inform how we in the West attend to narratives from the Other, seeing as I doubt somehow that it was a total coincidence that the single identity most Westerners could name from the whole Syrian uprising this spring turns out to be that of…a Westerner.)

I struggle with formalist categories like method. I recognize that they are, in a sense, intended to make things clearer, to parse the broad territory of social science and research and the multitudes therein. For someone like me, more inclined to gradations and overlaps than clear divisions, they confuse. I hover on the borders and boundaries, a millipede with feet in so many camps that headings like “Research Objectives” and “Data” make me feel hopelessly messy, mired in no-man’s-land.

This isn’t a bad thing, only a disorienting one. My work doesn’t fit tidily within the bounds of education alone, or of cyborg anthropology or any other discipline or corner. The straddling that I need to do between discourses and approaches and worldviews helps me unpack methods and methodologies and epistemologies, forces me to continually apply theory to theory in a roundabout kaleidoscope. Patti Lather’s work, which explores validity structures transgressive to traditional scientific methodologies and includes comforting titles like Getting Lost (2007), helps me feel better about the kaleidoscope. My goal, after all, is situated knowledge, rhizomatic knowledge with multiple openings. No one tidy method will ever take me on that kind of exploration.

Every journey has first steps. The two methods I’ve embarked on thus far are themselves straddlers, each bridging the blurry boundaries between methodology and method. One is the material-semiotic method that marks Actor-Network theory and the work of LaTour and Haraway and Karen Barad. The other is Foucault’s genealogy.

It is my understanding of the genealogy of digital identity that I’m going to have to revisit after this week.

Just a few days back, somebody asked the question that inevitably comes up whenever I mention genealogy and social media in the same breath: “How could there be social media subjectivity before social media?”

Sure, the platforms I’m working with date only from 2005 or so. But the shifts in the forms of identity performance privileged during that timespan have still been pretty heady. And digital identity scholarship was huge in the 90s. Haraway’s cyborg metaphor, which informs my own concept of social media subjectivity, is from 1985. The narrative forms and subjectivities that the blogosphere made into mass communications could be argued to have their origins in Montaigne. This rhizome has far older roots than appear on the surface.

Genealogy as a philosophical method isn’t much  different from genealogy as your great-aunt Louise’s favourite hobby: it’s an historically-focused endeavour that operates on the assumption that our present understandings – of self, of our place in the world, of anything – have precedents and ancestors.

In genealogy, delving into the questions of what or who these ancestors might have been and how they operated is an almost-never-ending, always-partial process of unpacking and tracing and exploring, aimed at re-presenting the present in a broader, more complex, and perhaps counter-intuitive light. Knowing you are a descendant of Marie Antoinette, even whilst you traipse the aisles of Walmart, may imbue you with a sense of grandeur, tragedy, entitlement, or irony, depending on your perspective.

Knowing the ancestors of our notions of who we are when we’re online, when we write ourselves into being, when we engage with each other through identities with visible metrics? I don’t know whether that will imbue us with any grandeur – I’m aiming more for irony – but I hope it will help situate the implications of social media subjectivities within stories and discourses more familiar to higher education, so I can then consider the overlaps and challenges facing academia in the near future.

But. But. One of the historical notions I believed I could refer to and then politely consign to the out-of-date heap came roaring back into play this week, with the furor over the Amina hoax.

The purportedly half-American half-Syrian lesbian passing herself off in interviews with The Guardian (the big one,  not the local PEI paper) as “the ultimate outsider” is, of course, actually MacMaster, a white male Master’s student living in Edinburgh.

What that says about white male fantasies of outsider status, the one thing privilege cannot offer, fascinates and entertains me. And affects my perspective on digital identity, because it revives a trope I thought I’d watched die.

In the 1990s, there was a lot of scholarly interest and attention paid to the idea of digital identity. Sherry Turkle and Neil Postman and a whole host of people did fascinating, exploratory work on the emerging digital culture and ideologies of technology and identity and the body in virtual worlds. One of the recurring themes in much of that work emphasized virtual identity and the possibilities of pseudonymous identity performance enabled by computers.

My favourite of these is the story of “Julie” from Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s The War of Desire & Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995). Julie was the extraordinarily successful and popular female persona of a male pyschiatrist in an early CompuServe chatroom. Like Amina’s, Julie’s was a marginalized female persona performed by a mainstream male: Julie claimed to be disfigured and disabled. In a narrative arc rather similar to that of Amina, Julie was ultimately outed by her own excess: while she claimed that her disability left her unable to interact offline with her chatroom community, she wove an increasingly complex narrative of offline antics. The stories created suspicion, and her embodied identity as Sanford Lewin was revealed. The gap between Lewin’s assigned identity and his virtual performance as Julie represented one of the major themes of digital identity scholarship in the ’90s: the possibility of being someone else online.

I thought this particular piece of digital identity ancestry had been rendered largely historical. When I began blogging in 2006, many of the bloggers I read – especially those who wrote about parenting and children – were still pseudonymous. Gradually, that shifted: the digital sociality that emerged out of that blogosphere community is an augmented reality, wherein people regularly meet in person and connect with each other across platforms, including Facebook, which tends to privilege and push towards disclosure of so-called “real” identity. Beyond that, the incursion of capital and sponsorship and the discourse of monetization all emphasized coming out as “oneself,” because a blogger named WineyMommy (names have been changed to protect the innocent) is arguably less likely to get picked up as a writer for the Huffington Post, say. Even if that only pays in reputation and opportunity.

My genealogy, though, will obviously need to consider how speaking the dominant discourse of power impacts reputation and opportunity, even for those purporting to be marginalized voices. It’ll need to reconsider whether even in the neoliberal “Me, Inc” augmented reality of social media, there’s room for performances of subjectivity that don’t match a person’s assigned gender or cultural identity.

Genealogy, as I understand, is about who can speak, and for whom, and to whom. Grope. Stumble. Circle back on myself and revisit. Thanks, Amina, for complexifying things. I’d hate for my methods section to get, uh, dull.

Have you ever had a pseudonymous identity online? If no, why not? If yes, to what extent did this persona line up with your own assigned identity?

Are you the same you across platforms (blogging, Twitter, FB, etc)? What factors affect your decisions about how to present yourself in social media spaces?






21 Comments a genealogy of digital identities

  1. Darrin White


    As you know, I lived in the Canadian arctic for several years (as did you). The first community we lived in was Naujat (which means Baby Seagulls in Inuktitut and which the European explorers named “Repulse Bay”). As one of only a handful of Caucasians in an almost entirely Inuit village, I had an abrupt and shocking introduction to “white male as an ultimate-outsider”.

    To me, this was the best experience of my life. To re-see myself as something other, something else, something different, something misunderstood (perhaps) or understood all too well. I left that village profoundly changed.

    Now, back in the land of almost-all-white-folks, and as a 40-something white male with a good job, there should be little need of any identity other than my own – no need to make one up, and I’ve been the outsider already.

    However, it is not to be so – as a consequence of my role as the senior staff of a known organization, despite all my attempts so far, I have not been able to conquer the problem of social networking, particularly Facebook.

    The closest thing to an authentic online presence was when I was blogging. However, the duties of the job and the expressed concerns of my employers (in the blog I was quite willing to critique politicians and the like) led to a sharp decline in blogging until the poor blog all but faded from existence.

    On Facebook, I have been embattled for years about what to post and to whom. For a while, my friends list had grown huge, and I found I could post almost nothing. It hardly seemed worthwhile to be online. The only “me” I could be was the “Executive Director” me – a component of the actual me, but not me. And so, about two years ago, I undertook a major Facebook cull, leaving only people I considered to be freethinking sorts who I considered colleagues (and thus able to make determinations for themselves about my motivations for posting this or that) and actual, real-life friends and family.

    The cull was sweeping, and left me with less than 20% of the original list. Some seemed not to notice, others sent friend requests almost right away. It was an awkward time. To avoid embarrassing interactions, those that tried to re-friend me were accepted back but were added to a highly restricted list. They couldn’t see much more after re-friending than they could when they were un-friended.

    At the same time I made several other lists. Some, the people who I trusted as family, close-friends, and people who I trusted on brains alone, where added to a full-access list, and could see everything – this list became the default list. The rest have been sorted into a number of lists that relate to arts, religion, social causes, anti-bullying, and more.

    Now, the Facebook me is a different me for almost everyone who is my Facebook friend. That thought alone is both depressing and almost overwhelming. I have a system that works, imperfectly, that relates a different pseudo identity to any number of people. That was hardly my goal.

    Now, with each post, I must check to ensure only the proper eyes see the content. Of course, errors happen. I may be in a rush, I may just forget to check, and sometimes things slip past the filter.

    As a result, I suppose a little bit of the real me slips through as well, and perhaps these personas are not as different as I might imagine.

    1. bon

      i remember all too well my first few months North…first time i’d ever been culturally Other in my life – still the greatest culture shock i ever went through.

      and interesting, Darrin…your comment & Veronica’s below are both about managing the multiplicity of identity for different audiences. maybe i need to look more at that.

  2. Deb

    I’ve been examining my own reactions to the Amina and Lez Get Real identity reveals, and it is infinitely complicated. I don’t want to presume the authors’ goals in their identities, but that’s where I find I drift after I look at my (sometimes unfair, sometimes delusional, sometimes grounded) expectations of other people’s authenticity. Did the author’s want that escape from priviledge? Are there benefits to outsider status? An exotic specialness? Were their political motivations for each work? Financial? Emotional? Literary? Was data gathered on those who fell for the hoax? Were the charades supported by others? This is a whole different alley than you asked–about my own identity/ies. Oy! SO MANY QUESTIONS BON!

    1. bon

      so many questions indeed! i wonder too about the choice and desires behind MacMaster’s & Brooks’ (or wait, Brooks is the pseudonym?) performances of lesbian voice. i don’t particularly expect (or believe in) authenticity, as i think we are all performing SOME version of ourselves and our worldview, and that this is a) never total and b) still kinda us even when we try to make it not be. but. i also think passing yourself off to the f$%^#ing Guardian as a voice of the oppressed when you KNOW you’re a white dude in Edinburgh? it should probably occur to you that you might be speaking out of turn.

  3. Sandi

    I really struggle with my online identity. My main online persona is @5and1 on twitter. I’m a working mom and my posts there are of a personal nature. Want to hear about how I deal with twin four year olds? Read my stream.

    I have another twitter profile, a professional one and I find that I never post there. I am extremely cautious about what I post there. I worry about what I might disclose. I use the professional account strictly for consumption of information.

    I have so many questions about online identities. I look forward to reading more about this.

    1. bon

      Sandi, i guess you’re actually speaking on a similar theme to Darrin & Veronica – these practices of splitting identity according to audience (as i’ve done for this blog) or modifying social media b/c of audience issues is really fascinating, in terms of how it shapes our practices and ways of being, online and off.

  4. nathan jurgenson

    really nice post! i had always been a little upset that so many social media scholars went too far from the idea that one can be anyone online. the pendulum went too far and it is time for a correction. so many people, especially young people, use false names or nicknames on facebook. of course, it is much more normal to use false names on twitter (not against their terms of use, unlike FB). and there are whole cultures that almost never use their real names in social media, like in Japan. and, of course, there is the whole layer of creative performativity even when we use our real names (both on and offline). every bit as important as what we post is what we do not; what that space in-between status updates suggests.

    so why did researchers go so far to forget all of this in recent years? i think this sort of reflexivity is important when doing a geneology.

    1. bon

      i freely admit, i was one of those scholars. b/c in MY end of the blogosphere most of the sock puppet identities had long been routed out – with one or two glaring exceptions who continue to raise eyebrows and questions (i’m looking at you, DanNoah). while there are still levels of pseudonymity in my cicrcles, they seem to tend to be (as for the other commenters) more about cloistering from real life contacts, not from the online community.

      in the end, the creative performativity aspect either of a sock puppet identity like Amina or Lez Get Real or the more usual “it’s me but not all of me” digital identity fascinates me.

      apparently amplification and monetization don’t change everything. good lesson for me re. social media. a small part of me feels sorry for the hoax bloggers, because i don’t think performing outside your embodied identity is inauthentic or wrong…but i also think it can invoke some seriously problematic power & privilege issues especially in an amplification-based environment where a fake lesbian telling stories of lesbian identity may be able to draw on mainstream discourse in ways that gain more limelight than the actual voices of real lesbians.

  5. Veronica Mitchell

    When I started blogging six years ago (sheesh), I thought that the blog me was the same as a real me, with only the name changed. Now I realize that the real difference isn’t how I act or what I say, but in whom I allow to read it. The pseudonym lets me exclude from conversation people I know in real life who have negative or judgmental reactions to the me I write on the blog. It is not an attempt to build a false identity so much as it is an attempt to flee the consequences of certain parts of my real identity.

  6. Annie St-Jacques

    Well done Bonnie, I read your post at lunchtime and have been obsessed with it ever since ;-) I really need to give it more thoughts in order to come up with something intelligent to contribute from a scholar perspective, but here is what I can say for now:

    -I have multiple social media accounts because I need/want to interact with people a) whom I am close to; b) who share one of my languages; c) who share some of my societal values; d) who share some of my professional interests – all different people and all this in order to advance collective knowledge. This may not be accomplished through a single account – although I find younger people are better at this so there may be a new trend here, all for the better! The bottom line is I truly think that I remain myself whatever the environment, but I adapt my messages to a specific audience in terms of language, beliefs and values.

    -My experience is that people may act differently (behaviors, not identity) depending on the circumstances, but still retain basic core values. Your identity is the expression of who you are, your values, your background, your experience, etc. When people assume an identity, even a fake one, and contribute to collective knowledge-building, something positive comes out of it. After all, it’s not like we’re looking to marry these people and personally, I couldn’t care less who they are!

    -Although this is kind of a new phenomenon, I don’t think we should feel threatened by people adopting a specific identity (true or false), because they still contribute to collective knowledge-building in one way or another. The last word is mine and I appreciate the different perspectives!

    Thanks for this insightful reflection and all the best,


    1. bon

      i agree that people contribute to a social media space whether they are performing the identity others in their embodied life would recognize, or no.

      i also think the purposes we use spaces for impacts how we see others’ performances in them. i find it really interesting that you specifically think of these spaces as knowledge-building spaces…i do, both formally and informally, yet it makes me wonder how or whether our networks look rather different. because i have to admit that to call my Twitter feed a knowledge-building space first and foremost might be…stretching. ;)

  7. Sock Girl

    I blog and tweet as Sock Girl (a name I decided upon when as a mature student I realized I had socks older than my peers. The fact that I learned about the “bluestockings” that same class was not lost on me). I Facebook with my given name. I began blogging to record my life and things that I was thinking as life unfolded as worker, mother and student. But every observation, every quip, every anecdote is every bit my life and thoughts. It is not a separate persona, it is just me anonymously, and I have chosen to do this because I frequently tell stories of my children in a very small community. I use Facebook with my given names as the audience closed to family and close friends.

    I have wondered if Sock Girl (if she existed separately) might act differently than me in person, for she is the me without filters… but I prefer to imagine that she is just the me that is comfortable among friends (which is really what my readers are to me).

    1. bon

      i think you’re making an important distinction, here, about the difference between pseudonym & persona…i need to dig into that one further. thank you. :)

  8. christine

    remember that woman a year or two back who claimed have had several miscarriages or still births then went on to have a “real” baby? the baby was really one of those creepy expensive dolls made to look like a real newborn. though these examples may be far removed from, say, a teenager pretending to be a sex kitten several years older than she really is they are connected by two big things: 1) acting and performance and 2) in these cases, (particularly the fictional teenager i mentioned) it is about subjugation of women to gain …what? gifts? praise? men? really the gain is limited as these types of performances (like pole dancing or porn films) only really serve to keep women limited and exploited both on-line and IRL.

    ok so i’m focusing primarily on the feminist perspective here, but it isn’t unimportant, in fact, i think you could write a whole dissertation about just that!

    but i think, more generally, many people (say in virtual worlds, gaming, and even FB, etc.) are creating a performance. they get to “act” without the audience even realizing it. well, perhaps they do, and in the case of second life or the like everyone is in the “know.” but i think some people may use popular social media sites as a creative outlet: the witty FB status, the filtered, nostalgic photos (thanks nathan!), the perfectly posed profile pictures, the meticulously crafted blog post…the list goes on. we –i think we all do this to some degree– thus create our cyborg.

    1. Bon

      WHAT?!? what would be the fun in that??

      (i mean, i actually CAN go whole evenings talking about other things. really i can. but the feminist perspective on cyborg identity – in some ways the cyborg metaphor as i use it always has some element of a feminist lens, b/c it comes from Haraway’s materialist feminist perspective – that’s too much gold to leave out.) ;)

      in truth, i think it’s all performance. not just online. living.

  9. BHJ

    I use the name Black Hockey Jesus online and my “real” name is Jon but This Big I, the one that contains them both (and many others) doubts that any of the identities (Jung’s Little People) are in charge of who presents what at any given time, whether it be via one of the social media formats or “in real life”, as they say.

    For instance, who’s writing this comment? Probably not the same man (or woman) who wrote the blog post 2 days ago or the Facebook update yesterday or who met you in a coffee shop on Prince Edward Island, an event that DID indeed occur, but in reality or dream? Who can say?

    What I mean to do is complicate your groping and stumbling with the idea that, of course, there’s no authentic self at the wheel but, in addition to that, we can also never really be sure which one of us is driving, ever. I might sit down to write a post for Black Hockey Jesus and discover, at the end, that Jon wrote most of it, or Michelle, a woman in here who demands to be seen and heard in complicated ways that I don’t yet understand.

    I’m also blown away by the way Black Hockey Jesus, an identity I egotistically thought I was constructing, ie thought I was in control of, infiltrates my “real” life and alters the way Jon thinks, feels, and lives.

    My life today is radically different than it was three years ago, largely due to the way the digital clawed its way into my actual.

    1. Bon

      complications always welcome. if i ever gave the impression that i think there’s an authentic self at the wheel of these digital identities, mea culpa. that deserves lashings.

      i think we contain multitudes. i think the particular ways that online technologies and esp social media platforms compel us to perform and interact are not categorically different from the rest of our performances and interactions, and yet allow different affordances and have different consequences, thus changing the stages we have access to. sometime is radical ways.

      i think it all blurs together into some kind of augmented reality. Bon is not entirely Bonnie, though Bon is more than one thing and who she is has shifted and i have always tried hard to keep the two aligned. still.

      i want to know more about Michelle.

  10. mary g

    I like what Veronica Mitchell said. Some real meat on those bones.
    I’ve always blogged as Mary G and that is, in fact, my name. My full name is on Facebook. But. Very little of me goes onto Facebook. It’s not really interesting to me to contribute in that space, only to read.
    I thought, four years ago when I started, that I could be really open as a blogger but soon discovered that the openness worried me. Went back and deleted a bunch of stuff. Being completely open exposed more of my family than I thought was fair to them.
    I believe that what you see on my blog now is a lot more like what you would meet in person than I wanted it to be.
    Perhaps a complete pseudonym produces more freedom. But, where is the freedom for anyone in being someone else entirely? I suspect every post must be constructed and examined to eliminate slips and clues.
    I think an on line persona that is a construct ( I don’t mean writing under a name like wineymommy) is the product of someone with mental health issues, from the stalkers through to the Aminas. Is there work in the psychological/psychiatric field about this?


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