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.

15 Comments the branded cyborg manifesto: identity in the public domain

  1. Andrea Z

    First of all, I am loving this theory blog of yours. Kudos.
    Peter Kittle, a colleague of mine from the National Writing Project, and I have been batting around the concept of “distributed identities”(his term) and implications of these distributed identities as an organization and as an individual. In your post, you state,
    “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.”

    I love the way you’ve articulated this: in our distributed identities work, I’ve been most fascinated by the ways in which the medium itself may alter or change our identities. Whether we label it embodied or performed, it seems to me that the interactions themselves are impacted by the spaces in which they occur and thus change our intended branding, or even the way we understand ourselves. Lots to think about anyway. Can’t wait to hear more of your thinking about it :) Peter and I will be presenting at DML in a few weeks, so I’ll be sure to tweet out our stuff for your perusal. Would love feedback, of course!

    1. bon

      thanks, Andrea.

      Peter ended up commenting today on my last post: i’m new to the distributed identities concept but i think i follow and see the links between the ways we look at it all. Peter mentioned he’d moved from a branding concept TO the distributed concept so – as my sense of this shifts and grows – i’m interested in exploring what that means. DO tweet out the DML conference, definitely. :)

  2. Neil

    Hi, Bon.

    First, excuse me for maybe not fully understanding every detail of the post as you’re now clearly one step ahead of my knowledge in this are (and the fancy words!)

    I stay that because my reaction is still more from the gut, rather than the head, and might be slightly off the point.

    On the last post, I made a comment about how this type of “branding” seems more suitable for the person who is actively trying to “sell” something — a product, an idea, a career, getting a date — than the typical user.

    I bring this again, because I notice how often you talk about the individual and his identity and reputation, etc. The thesis still reads to me, on that gut level, as if you are approaching social media from the POV of an individual who is entering the fray with a clear goal (or goals). I don’t see a lot mentioned about how the online “society” is throwing things AT him. Rather than seeing each individual as a warrior leading his troops to victory, I see the online world more as the individual trying to make it through the desert alive, with obstacles in the way.

    Considering you are interested in education, aren’t there many issues that remain unresolved. Who becomes the authority? How do we deal with information overload?

    Maybe I’m an oddball, but I spend less time worrying about my own branding then how to deal with yours. Who should I read on Twitter? How do I get to know this person better? Where are the photos of Bon and Kate from their meetup in Nova Scotia? Should I IM this woman on Facebook or am I bothering her? Will tweeting my blog link again seem obnoxious?

    In some ways, it does remind me of high school. Aren’t we all worrying as much about the others as how we portray ourselves?

    Of course, I understand this is all part of the branding package as well. I just bring it up because the language that you use, from an outsider’s POV makes social media seem too controlled, as if the analysis was all about how we are creating content, and expanding our digital personas. A “cyborg” differs from a human because it is part machine, but did you notice how the IBM machine had trouble playing Jeopardy, and answering some of the more complex questions dealing with word play? I don’t think any of us are really part-machine online. We are all human. We are just using machines.

  3. bon

    interesting, Neil…thanks for explaining. i appreciate the feedback about the language i’m using – that it gives you the impression i’m talking about somebody entering social media with direct goals.

    i’m not, but if i sound like i am, i guess i need to figure out why.

    i think we must see the typical user differently: not as a different person, but as engaged in activities that we perceive through different lenses. i think most of us end up online to try things out or fulfill a need, and only gradually gain some (often-ever-shifting) sense of what we’re doing and what purpose it might serve. often too, we transition from nobody to some sort of somebody without consciously making that happen: i know VERY few ppl who’ve gone into social media with clear intent and fulfilled that intent. yet most of the ppl i know do have a recognizable, multi-faceted profile or brand – something that they are known to do and that they share.

    i think of it like a dinner party or a conference. a few ppl will show up solely to get their biz cards out. those aren’t the ppl i’m really talking about, b/c they’re not engaged in the connection, the reciprocity, the building together that is part of (the good side of) the produsage economy. but all the other ppl still thought about what they’d wear for the occasion, since in the flesh that’s what we’re actually putting out there instead of our writing or photos or lesson plans or whatever. everyone who hopes to make a good impression – however vague – counts as having an intent, in my books. it doesn’t have to be clear, or met. it’s just a messy hope of something interesting…at least for me.

    i would SUCK as a brand strategist, clearly. ask sweetsalty Kate about how well i adhere to her rules of “suck less.” i am constantly navigating unexpected stuff that gets thrown at me. i don’t stay on message. i don’t even have one coherent message – i have a little mantra of “not looking away” from hard or complex things, but i’m performing my own self online. it’s just that that self has a life beyond me, too. and that gap is what i want to explore.

    is that where we keep getting separated by our interpretations of words?

    for what it’s worth, i think some of this conversation is hard to follow without reading some of Haraway’s original stuff on the cyborg – because she’s not talking about part-machines in the way that Watson on Jeopardy is a machine. to me, Neil, you’re a total cyborg. it doesn’t make you a machine. but you can’t BE the Neil i know without the machine, b/c well…without the machine we wouldn’t interact.

  4. mary g

    As I read the post, a sort of light bulb (dim) came on for me. My on-line persona and identity share similarities with the political construct I assumed when I was a municipal politician. Both in expectation (surprise at seeing me shopping for groceries like everyone else) and in assumption (all polititians are on the take, said the dentist drilling holes in my tooth – couldn’t even bite him), the people who knew me as a municipal politician did not see a person, but rather a construct. I hazard that this view was fed by hearing me on radio or quoted in the paper as well as by their own assumptions. It’s not identical, but some of the assumptions made about my on-line personality feel similar.
    Don’t know if this helps. And as for language, I know you are using words precisely (as I am not, I’m afraid). I can handle it.
    This stuff is fascinating.

    1. bon

      construct is a fabulous word for it, Mary.

      i think being online we get to perform more complex constructs, b/c (if we blog or tweet) people read our words rather than just project their own impressions on us, but we still end up trying to inhabit a complicated role that means different things to different people. even if we’re aiming to be out here for ourselves and not for any direct marketing reason; even if we mostly want to express ourselves. the reflections we get back of ourselves will shape performance – that’s just human nature.

  5. Jane Gassner

    I learned two new terms today: “rhizomatic economy” and “produsage economy”.

    And this statement got me enough to want to copy it down.
    “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.”

    Jeeze, I can actually feel the almost rusted shut wheels of my brain starting to creak a bit.

  6. e

    I read Haraway way back when I started my MA – your reference took me back to my small little cubicle for a sec:) I was thinking/writing about technology as ideology, and this is still a lens I find very compelling – like any ideology it demands an adherence to specific beliefs (about functionality, usefulness, identity, presence, utility, …) that influence everything else we then see when we consider technology. I think cyborg isn’t apt – to me it implies that a technologically mediated channel leads to a lesser humanness, or changed humanness and I disagree. The interactions possible in the digital space challenge us to frame new descriptions of ourselves, and brand doesn’t cover it for me. Even within the practice of branding, there is alot of debate about how useful the word is because it’s being used to describe so much. The emerging label for alot of what I do is the retro “corporate identity” which I like since it pulls back the curtain about helping a company create shorthand iconography to build equity with people.
    I like mary g’s “construct.” Good old Sci-fi description:)

  7. JoVE

    Thanks for sharing your thinking as it develops. I like where you are going with this. I think there is something in here though it still needs some teasing out. But despite what I said on the last post, I think this next stage of your thinking is making me think differently about this whole thing.

    keep it up

  8. Susan @Whymommy

    Hot damn, bon.

    Is this where I say that theory matters? Is this where I tell you that my epiphany yesterday – where I finally understood that my online representation of me was driving the bus, and not in a healthy direction – caught me offguard, shocked me, even though i am absolutely 100% true, authentic, complete in my interactions?

    Cause it did. And I didn’t understand why, I think, but this helps. The other part that you didn’t mention is the effect of amplification and reinforcement available online. Much of my work is advocacy work. People join in and help me push that work forward. It becomes important to them, it becomes that much more important to me, and soon I’m doing that more than my science. People respond to me as a cancer patient — same thing. So I think the aspects of self that we put out there and that people respond to are unintentionally emphasized, both in our online identity and then in our selves.

    It’s not always a healthy feedback loop.

    1. bon

      Susan, an amazing point: it can be hard to continue to perform the role that ends up being read onto us, even when the amplification and support matter and help. i’m interested in which direction you were driving that bus? and why?

      it’s so complex. our digital identities take on a bit of a life of their own, and though we drive them, the circulation of social matters ends up “wanting” certain things from us, and we perform in the directions that seem open and yet, that’s not always what “we” need.

      i think this is exacerbated when we inhabit a social role that evokes strong emotion in others: a cancer patient, mother of a dead child…we feel a responsibility to portray that experience and speak its truth and at the same time the expectations that accompany playing that role can be exhausting.

      i’m glad you think this is important. i do too, though i’m still trying to learn to speak the why.

  9. christine

    dear lord, i’m not nearly smart enough to really comment in a fully engaged sort of way, but i do know this: our identities–IRL and on-line–are often all about power. that isn’t to say it is all bad, but power and power struggles are big parts of forming who we are. whether that is just figuring out who rules the play ground or who rules the mommy blogosphere comment contest it all matters even if we claim it doesn’t.

    i’ve also really come to grips with the fact that i am creating–here, on FB, my blog, twitter, etc.–a persona (my cyborg?) that has a purpose. it isn’t “just me.” i am trying to construct myself as “writer” and i’m realizing that i have to WORK at it.

    does that mean that i’m only motivated by money or notoriety? of course not. but to deny that i am part of creating my cyborg self would be silly.

  10. christine

    ohohoh!!!i just had this weird realization. my master’s thesis was all about colonial maps of virginia and how cartographers and colonists used them as images of power. i know there is a 300 hundred year span between these paper maps and computers, but there is a connection, i think.

    technology. power. control.

    they all work together.

    of course the most common of people weren’t making maps in the 17th century while today millions of everyday people create digital cyborgs and brand themselves all over the today.

    it’s all about image, and in many respects control.

    no, i’m not one of those “everything is about power” people, but it isn’t unimportant or irrelevant. in fact, in both cases power plays a pivotal role. those millions of people on the internet are trying to take control of themselves and create images that will bring them some sort of gain.

    1. bon


      ahem. :)

      but i’ve been reading a lot of Foucault so yes, power is a theme never far from my heart these days. the connection between the colonial maps is fascinating – i think you’re totally right. and it’s that capacity for control – which is never really control and yet still matters in terms of what it allows the subject – that fascinates me.

      thank you, Chrissy.

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