the branded cyborg manifesto: identity in the public domain

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.

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,, 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?

the who

Who do you think you are?

It’s hard not to hear that question as an interrogation, a challenge. It’s particularly hard when it’s the subtext running through everything I read. Who are we? How has the way we see ourselves changed over generations, cultural epochs? How does being online impact our sense of ourselves?

Studying identity is like peering into a mirror that reflects a thousand mirrors back: it’s dizzying. The big picture I’m trying to cobble together isn’t about me, and yet it’s my own face I see refracted out from the exploration: a disco ball of Bonnies spinning to the tune of of a lot of big theory words. It’s all heady enough without the inevitable personalization the identity lens brings. Grappling with something so big and unwieldy and…well…self-ish does make me wonder who I think am. In a hundred different ways. Which is only really culturally appropriate if one is fourteen and writing bad existential poetry.

And then there’s the motion sickness. I’m at the point in my Ph.D where the bulk of the required, pre-determined coursework is done or on hold, to an extent. I’m in the privileged position of spending many of my waking hours under my own direction, blindly groping – or so it feels – towards vague concepts that excite and intimidate me.

But the more I read, the more the concepts I started with slip from my grasp, and the ground shifts under me.

Part of me feels like this uncertainty is probably good, that my existing thought and belief structures need to be destabilized in order to allow new ideas and concepts to settle somewhere. Part of me balks at how convenient and tidy this sounds, as if I thought my thoughts eventually formed coherent, integrated entities. Ha. Suspicious notion for somebody working with the partiality and fragmentation of poststructural theory.

But then, blushing at being caught out in my wrongthought, I hear the refrain again. Who do you think you are?

Here’s the thing. I have a whole other blog to tell you who I think I am. Here, I’m going to try to tell you who I think YOU are. Or how I think identity works, at this early, slippery, juncture in the sorting process.

I have been sleeping with Judith Butler under my pillow. In book form.

I started this journey because I’m interested in the idea of digital identity, of who we are when we’re online. What it means to “talk” to people on Twitter. What it means to interact digitally, and form deep connections with people we may have never met.  How writing one’s life can be different from telling it in person, because of what one is allowed to say and focus on. What it means to share our thoughts and life via RSS or tweet or status update rather than email or telephone. Why some of us @reply most of the time, using the medium almost as a party line. What kind of commitments – in terms of time and repeated engagement, in terms of pressure to be funny or interesting or smart – it takes to build and maintain a “self” online, an identity that others recognize and respond to. Whether there’s a digital identity even if nobody’s reading or following.

For Judith Butler, identity is performative. There is no essential, core self: who we are or think we are is created by discourse, what she calls “the limits of acceptable speech” (1997). Discourse is always in circulation, in every culture, though it shifts from place to place and over time, sometimes drastically with drastic events. We are all, for Butler, creatures of discourse and little more. Even the body is understood in her work not as a pre-discursive fact – though she doesn’t deny that we have bodies – but as meaningful to us in terms of language. Even before we are born these days, thanks to ultrasound, we exist within a web of language relations and assumptions that predate and utterly circumscribe our bodies. You are male. I am female. Those meanings are read onto us even before we know we exist, and shape how we come to know ourselves.

Butler disrupts the apparent simplicity of that binary and the concepts of gender and heterosexual norm that it supports by exploring histories of feminism and Foucault, challenging who we think we are by suggesting that the essentialist categories we rely on to explain ourselves have cultural and power-based historical interests propping them up.

(In a few weeks I have to give a presentation on Butler and her non-essentialist identity concepts to a room in which I will actually be the only person generally identified as straight and white. We’ll see how that goes. It’s one thing to destabilize identity when yours is usually taken up as non-problematic for others. It’s another thing to try to do so to a group of people who’ve lived the oppression our society doles out to identities that don’t measure up to the white, heterosexual discursive norm.)

It may seem strange to try to ground a study of digital identity in queer theory, with its focus on bodies that don’t even make it into the online realm. And yet the notion that we perform ourselves with each other, differently according to circumstances and the discourses that limit and frame the roles we understand ourselves to be playing, is for me an extraordinarily useful place to begin examining how and who we are online, and whether and how this who differs from the selves we get to be or play in our so-called “real” lives.

For me, I’m not sure there’s even a divide anymore. Online is one of the places I live and perform. So is the university. So is my children’s daycare, and the grocery store, and whereever else I go. So is my home, and even here my roles vary depending on who I’m interacting with. Some of these selves or performances matter more to me than others, some are more surface than others, more circumscribed by the limits of acceptable speech and by what is expected. But I’m not sure any aren’t real.

Do you believe in a real, authentic core self? How does the idea of performance strike you? And who are you when you’re online?

Who do you think you are?