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?






the man who sold the world

We passed upon the stair, we spoke in was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend

David Bowie, The Man Who Sold The World, 1970

(Of course Bowie makes me think about identity.)

I need a word.

A year or so ago, long before I started this theoryblog lean-to on the side of ye olde cribchronicles, I started groping my way towards exploring something, trying to capture something I’d never heard named. I assumed it had been named, somewhere, probably a few times over, but was both amorphous enough and fast-moving enough to have refused reification, mass currency under a single title.

I called it brand, half tongue-in-cheek. I’ve always found brand a vulgar word, flagrant and blatant in its commercial intent. The online universe – especially in the education and narrative blog circles I run in – is not always so open about its own embeddedness in the capital exchange process. I chose the word to provoke, to try to force that conversation.

But mostly I chose it to keep me honest.

It forced me to look at my commercially lilywhite self and own that I am as embroiled and invested in online circulations of capital and power as the trashiest review pimp out there. Because you cannot use social media and not be embroiled. As you connect and share and have your work recognized by others, your social capital is amplified. As your social capital is amplified, your capacity to leverage it increases, often exponentially. You don’t have to: the monetization of the sphere is not obligatory. But ignoring it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.

I wrote three posts in quick succession on the subject. In the last one, I said it like this:

be it beauty or ideas or humour, it matters not. if you put it out
there and it works, it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged,
sometimes into capital, sometimes into opportunity, sometimes
simply  into connection. we all have our eyes on a prize; we are
none of us pure, without want.

branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what
you signify in the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version
of you. it is an act, and a group act, one that does not exist without
a network of some sort to reflect and amplify it. it is ephemeral, a
wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth.

it is about image and perceived capacity.
(own it, cribchronicles.com, June 8th, 2010)

I think of all of us out here using social media in our myriad of ways as branded selves, branded cyborgs whose online and offline lives blur. Within the walls of the academy, where the branded cyborg is my dissertation topic, I tend to use the words digital identity or digital subjectivity to describe the idea, depending on which discipline I’m addressing. I see them all tied together in Butler’s idea of the performative: that subjectivities are created by the constant and ongoing citation of the (gendered) societal norms that circulate in discourse. What makes me different from you is how I perform myself – online or off – in relation to those norms.

And what makes me a branded cyborg is that the circulations in which I reference and identify myself include the spheres of social media and concommittant capital. And some version of me – my brand, or my digital identity – continues on performing me in circulation even when I’m not there. Ahem. That’s all. But that’s not an easy thing to explain.

It’s hard to name a social aggregate, an “it” in circulation. As Bruno LaTour puts it in Reassembling the Social, “…Social aggregates are not the object of an ostensive definition – like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger – but only of a performative definition. They are made by the various ways and manners in which they are said to exist” (p. 34).  The performative definition of a group draws attention to the means necessary to keep it up, and also to the contributions made by the fact of it being studied or analyzed.

Goody. I need a word to cover the performative definition of performativity in the world of social media.

Amber Case (here at TEDWomen) is a cyborg anthroplogist, which basically means she studies human life as a product of humans and technologies, or objects. She calls the ephemeral us-ness that others interact with online our “second self.”

I’m wary of this term. The idea of a second self ignores the fact that the identity distinctions between online and offline life are increasingly minimal and blurred and often meaningless: tomorrow, for instance, I’ll travel to another province to hang out with a bunch of bloggers, word made flesh. The transition from screen narratives and flurries of Twitter conversation to clinking glasses will not be particularly jarring: in fact, because the group of us interact far more regularly than most of us do with friends we know only in the flesh, the awkward stage of polite catching up will be largely bypassed. We are intimate, because we are regularly online together. Are you listening, Sherry Turkle?

Nathan Jurgenson of cyborgology – who adeptly critiques the binary implicated in the second self idea here – calls it a Profile, an aggregate sum of all the data out there about you. I think we’re on the same page conceptually. There’s something fluid about the word: its connotations are less laden than that of brand, or identity. Yet to me it suggests something flat, surface-like, easily tied up. Does it allow for complex performances of digital identity? Does it represent who we are when we’re not there?

I need to talk this out. Last time I asked – when I asked who you think you are online – I got an extraordinary collection of responses and discussion. This is part two, the simpler question, really: what would you call this you I know out here, your online doppelganger, your disembodied you? Profile, brand, second self, digital identity…what works?