Monday, January 30, 2012

Identity Online

"Annoying Facebook Girl is an advice animal image macro series featuring a photo of a teenage girl rolling her eyes with her mouth agape accompanied by a blue and white color wheel background. The overlaid text typically associates the girl with vapid status updates, attention whoring and generally irritating Facebook activity." - Know Your Meme
"It'll only get worse. Here's what I am listening to on Spotify. This is the page of the book I am reading. I am currently watching the 43rd minute of a Will Ferrell movie. And I'm not telling you this stuff. The software is. I am a character in The Sims. Hover the cursor over my head and watch that stat feed scroll". - Charlie Brooker
"Dozens of revelers filmed pretty brunette Amy McCrow, 20, as she drunkenly frolicked in an inflatable paddling pool. The footage was posted on Twitter where thousands of people were soon passing round the ten-minute clip." - The Sun

The idea of having an identity online would have been nonsense to most people even  a few decades ago. Now it is taken for granted that what we do on the Internet is part of, if not all, of who we are. People perform on the Internet and this creates an identity that is in turn attributed to that person. Even if the person is unaware they are performing, as seems to be the case with Annoying Facebook Girl and "pretty brunette Amy McCrow"* the identity of these people is something that is recognized and attributed, in the same sense as stereotypical portrayals of ethnic groups in Hollywood films do. Identity is not you name, or personal number in the case of performed identity, it is about the recognizable traits, types, images and behaviors one subscribes to or that are attributed to an individual. For a detailed analysis of indentity and meaning online see, Meaning and Identity in Cyberspace: The performance of gender, class and race online (PDF).

In this lecture I will first define what I mean by identity online. This identity is based on performance, as "there is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains 'integrity' prior to its entrance into this conflicted cultural field. There is only the taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ’taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” (Judith Butler 1990 145). Identity as a performance needs recognition, an audience and feedback. It cannot be achieved alone. What is at the center of this performance is not the performer, but the tools. The raw processes of identity construction are grounded in the social; in norms of behavior, dress, action, language, rank, stereotypes, visual cues, perspectives and attitudes. Online these are mediated by the speed and breadth of digital media. What these social norms either appeal to do react against are modes of identity. These modes should not be thought of as separate. Rather they act in concordance and dialogue with each other on multiple levels. Once example is the relationships between gender and national identity (Swedish text) that have been found in a study of violent men who channel this behaviour into political (ir)rationality. Modes of identity performance online include

* Gender
 Gender is a range of characteristics used to distinguish between males and females, particularly in the cases of men and women and the masculine and feminine attributes assigned to them. Depending on the context, the discriminating characteristics vary from sex to social role to gender identity. Sexologist John Money introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in 1955. Before his work, it was uncommon to use the word "gender" to refer to anything but grammatical categories. However, Money's meaning of the word did not become widespread until the 1970s, when feminist theory embraced the distinction between biological sex and the social construct of gender. Today, the distinction is strictly followed in some contexts, like feminist literature.

Most modern societies have only two traditional distinct, broad classes of gender roles, masculine and feminine, that correspond with the biological sexes of male and female. However, some societies explicitly incorporate people who adopt the gender role opposite to their biological sex, for example the Two-Spirit people of some indigenous American peoples. Other societies include well-developed roles that are  considered more or less distinct from archetypal female and male roles in those societies. In the language of the sociology of gender they comprise a third gender.

If the idea that gender is performed according to socially defined rules, codes and constraints, then it seems more than obvious that gender is not necessarily a polarized set of identities, i.e. masculine and feminine. Rather gender can be understood as a potential, and there are countless possible ways gender can be performed.While many people use the Internet to preform traditional binary gender roles, many people use it to perform gradients of gender, between the ultra-masculine to the ultra-feminine.

One example. of millions, of online gender performance is the Gender Queer Chat channel on YouTube.

* Sexuality
The performance of sexual identity is everywhere online . Just like gender performance, sexuality online relies on cues, stereotypes, symbols, behaviors, actions, images, language and attitudes. The heteronormative is the idea that "people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It also holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between a man and a woman" (Wikipedia). The heteronormative is very common as a form of sexual identity online. However, there are very many variations on sexuality online.  Some examples are
Polysexuality: the attraction to multiple genders and/or sexes.
Polyamory, the desire to be intimately involved with more than one person at once.
Pansexuality, which is attraction to all genders and sexes.

One example of the performance of sexual identity online is Qruiser: "the largest Nordic Community for homo, bisexual, transgender or queer people and our friends".

* Nationality
Nationality is membership of a nation or sovereign state, usually determined by their citizenship, but sometimes by ethnicity or place of residence, or based on their sense of national identity. Like gender and sexuality, nationality is performed online using cues, stereotypes, symbols, behaviors, actions, images, language and attitudes.

This German advertisement for IKEA portrays Swedish Midsummer using the symbols of the nation and national identity in a parody. There are of course much more serious performances of nationality online. The same stereotypes of Swedish nationality can be contrasted with Syster Sol feat. Hot This Year Band - Mad Mad Mad as a statement about nationality as identity.

National identity is the person's identity and sense of belonging to one state or to one nation, a feeling one shares with a group of people, regardless of one's citizenship status. National identity is not inborn trait; various studies have shown that a person's national identity is a direct result of the presence of elements from the "common points" in people's daily lives: national symbols, language, national colors, the nation's history, national consciousness, blood ties, culture, music, cuisine, radio, television, etc.

The iconic image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was used by the Australian national ISP Bigpond in its promotions in Second Life.

* Class
"Is there a class divide online? Research suggests yes. A recent study by market research firm Nielsen Claritas found that people in more affluent demographics are 25 percent more likely to be found friending on Facebook, while the less affluent are 37 percent more likely to connect on MySpace.
More specifically, almost 23 percent of Facebook users earn more than $100,000 a year, compared to slightly more than 16 percent of MySpace users. On the other end of the spectrum, 37 percent of MySpace members earn less than $50,000 annually, compared with about 28 percent of Facebook users." - Does your social class determine your online social network? (CNN 2009)
Social class online is a bit more difficult to determine as the means of representing class, i.e. the Internet, has class status built into it.  In order to be online you have already moved beyond at least 6 billion other people on the planet in terms of access to infrastructure and education. This suggests a class divide in itself. Within those that do have access there is the concept of the digital divide. The Digital Divide refers to any inequalities between groups, broadly construed, in terms of access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies. The global digital divide in 2010:

Once the shift has been made into the realm of global digital culture, then the performance of social class online as identity once again relies on cues, stereotypes, symbols, behaviors, actions, images, language and attitudes. Class can be signified by speech, dress, location, education, income, profession, and family background. 

* Ethnicity

Cyberspace entices us with the promise of an online utopia--a web of fluid identities and infinite possibilities. When we look for signs of freedom online--anywhere from chat room conversations to cyberpunk fiction--we are almost inevitably urged toward "liberation" from our bodies and their "restrictive" attributes like race, gender, and age. But cyberculture critic Lisa Nakamura insists that the Internet is a place where race matters. Race itself may not be fixed or finite, but Nakamura argues that racial stereotypes-or "cybertypes"-are hardwired into our online interactions: Identity tourists masquerade in virtual roles like Asian_Geisha and Alatinolover. Web directories sharply narrow racial categories. Anonymous computer users are assumed to be white. In Cybertypes, Nakamura looks at what happened to race when it went online, and how our ideas about race continue to be shaped and reshaped every time we log on. Examining all facets of our everyday online experience fromInternet advertising to email jokes, Nakamura shows that the postmodern ideal of fluid selves made possible by network technology is not necessarily subversive, progressive, or liberating. The harder race is pushed off-line, the greater the consequences in real life for people of color. A lively and provocative discussion Cybertypes offers a valuable new way of thinking about race and identity in the information age.

The Tumblr site Asians Sleeping in the Library is one example of how race is performed, or portrayed on the Internet. The Asians Sleeping in the Library emerged at the same time as the video, Asians in the Library - UCLA Student's Racist Rant:

Ethnicity on the Internet is a major source of identity.I have chosen to focus on examples that take up Asian identity in an American context, but it could easily be within the Swedish context.

* Generation 
Much like sexuality, gender, ethnicity and race, a generational identity distinguishes each of us. Imprinted by major experiences and events -- like Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion -- a generation's shared identity shapes the values, ethics, and attitudes about the world in which its members live and work. By appealing to particular events, memories, cultural products (fashion, music, books etc.) an identity based on a generational understanding can be portrayed. At the same time components of a generational identity can be called upon to create meaning, often with a sense of nostalgia involved. A recent example I came across is the excellent Swedish group First Aid Kit, who use retro elements in their music to appeal to a wide band of age demographics;

It could be 1979 all over again. While the girls in the band were born in the early 1990s they revive many of the folk sounds that were popular in the 1960s. Melanie Safka is one comparison that can be made to First Aid Kit, one that spans three generations, and will make First Aid Kit even more popular.

Melanie - Ruby Tuesday (1975)

Presenting online as a member of a particular generation is important for people to understand who you are in general terms. People may try to appear younger than they are, and in doing so will resort to referencing sources outside their own generational context. The recent phenomenon of the so-called 'cougar', or age disparity in sexual relationships is an example of generational identity in action in social contexts. These are often mediated online.

* Taste
Taste as an aesthetic, sociological, economic and anthropological concept refers to a cultural patterns of choice and preference. While taste is often understood as a biological concept, it can also be reasonably studied as a social or cultural phenomenon. Taste is about drawing distinctions between things such as styles, manners, consumer goods and works of art. Social inquiry of taste is about the human ability to judge what is beautiful, good and proper. Of course what is considered beautiful, good and proper is totally grounded in social praxis. The Internet is one arena where taste is developed and referenced to build identity.

Social and cultural phenomena concerning taste are closely associated to social relations and dynamics between people. The concept of social taste is therefore rarely separated from its accompanying sociological concepts. An understanding of taste as something that is expressed in actions between people helps to perceive many social phenomena that would otherwise be inconceivable.

Some judgments concerning taste may appear more legitimate than others, but most often there is not a single conception shared by all members of society. People with individual sensibilities are not unique either. For instance, aesthetic preferences and attendance to various cultural events are associated with education and social origin. Different socioeconomic groups are likely to have different tastes, and it has been suggested that social class is one of the prominent factors structuring taste.

As a performance of identity according to taste, this video (a remix or mashup), provides viewers with a set of ideas regarding taste and music that are attributable to the identity that hosts it on his/her YouTube account.

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