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.
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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?