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Essay: Final Draft

The internet and use for computer mediated communication has, in recent years become an ever increasing part of our everyday lives and for many a necessity to stay ‘connected’ to interpersonal relationships with those around us - this is the digital age in which we now live. Our individual identity which is an understanding of who we are and how we think about ourselves as people and how other’s think about us. Defining our own identity is somehow understanding and being consciously aware of our experiences, perceptions, feeling and memories meaning we can ‘figure out’ who we are as people. ‘Rigid gender roles, repetitive labour, the expectation of being in one kind of job or remaining in one town over a lifetime’ (Turkle, S. 1997:255) are the traditionalists value encompassing one’s identity, however now in a post-modern digital age our identity must ‘adapt and change-to new jobs, new career directions, new gender roles and new technologies’. (Turkle, S. 1997:255) With the internet becoming a natural, background to everyday life as a form of social and cultural communication to what degree is this impacting upon one’s development and understanding of their identity?

The technological advancements of the internet have happened at breakneck speed since it’s early conception in the 1960‘s, has been partly due its role in globalization and creating a global connected community. The internets primary advantage, is its ability to bridge great distances and allow people to communicate almost instantaneously. The increasing availability of internet means interpersonal relationships can be maintained through email, instant messages and video calls. However it has been suggested that this ‘sterile form of social exchange compared to traditional face-to-face interactions’ can only ‘produce negative outcomes’. (Bargh J 2004) These negative outcomes come as a result of the lack of nonverbal features that are present in real life communication such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. With more social interaction taking place online and less, richer forms of communication happening within a society or community - this impoverish social interaction that happens in real life becomes less important in developing one’s individual and social identity and increasingly more focused towards an identity that is formed from cues of internet communication. The global community which is created by the internet allows one to be exposed to cultural identities attitudes and ways of thinking one may traditionally have been isolated from. The internet as a technology has greatly expanded our ease of access to information and to people and cultures from all over the world. This results in one no longer having to rely upon one’s
local cultural values to define their identity these new relationships made on a global scale have a lasting impact upon how one see’s who and what they are. Additionally interaction within their local community become increasingly diminished therefore losing more of their traditional values that form one’s identity. The average person can now be exposed to relationships with a much larger variety of people and types of relationships that weren’t previously possible.

Amid the relativism forced upon us by the experience of living in a global civilization...we are all challenged to look again in the mirror and rethink our assumptions about who and what we are. We face the discomfort - and the depth - of living with uncertainty, paradox, ambiguity and constant change. (Zweig, C cited in Kidd, W 2002:62)

Within the post-modern global community to which we are now all exposed to, there is more freedom to be who we want to be, we can be more experimental with our identity and reinvent ourselves but this creates inconsistencies within our identity, therefore creating an unstable, chaotic view of our identity. This rethinking and reworking of our identity is referred to as a multiplicity of identities - a series of identities which one may possess and there is no one true identity. Zweig’s reference to mirror is similar to how one may use the devices of internet look at there identity in different ways and use the internet as a way to trial and test new identities. The internet offers a ‘chance for all of us who aren’t actors to play with masks’ (Turkle, S. 1997:256) Turkle’s metaphor of the mask suggests how we use the internet and the profiles, characters and roles we create and play with online to cycle through different identities we construct from unexplored parts of one’s identity. Gergen describes identities “as a hollow tube, through which, one at a time, the ‘many’ speak through at the appropriate moment...what we perceive as ‘one’ in any context is, perhaps a conglomerate of ‘one’s’ (Gergen, K. Cited in Turkle, S. 1997:257). As our multiplicity of identities and knowledge of other cultures is spread across the world we continuously construct and reconstruct our identities to apply to a given context, but there is no one stable identity but a ‘pastiche of personalities’ that reveal themselves. Identity as multiplicity allows one to reflect upon positive aspects of these identities and bring them fourth into the real world. Although one’s identity may be multiple, it is integrated, one therefore feels a sense of self without being one self.

Traditionally it has not been easy for one to cycle through multiple identities like those do, who have multiple online personae. Traditionally identity was thought of as being forged and something we did not have active control over, although people assumed different roles or masks it was still within social and cultural boundaries. However it is this ability that many of us of now familiar with of transitioning through multiple personae that allows one to comprise between these constructed personae and what they believe to their authentic self. As a result of this, these persona’s offer them the opportunity for self-knowledge and greater understanding of who they are providing instances for personal growth from the knowledge they have gained through their experiences in the digital world. The contemporary identity is flexible and empowers one to be more experimental in cyberspace with aspects they otherwise wouldn’t share in the real world, but through growth and understanding these aspects can transition across to there real world identity. These online identities are alternative lives, they all entail aspects of the user constructing them, the anonymity of the internet allows one to expose missing elements of the self so that one can begin to accept themselves for who they are, through doing this one can be more aware and better equipped when they project these missing elements into their everyday life.

These ideologies about the formation of identities on the internet and their impact on one’s real world identity can be seen by those internet users who are part of stigmatized groups such as homosexuals or those with strong religious beliefs. The internet offers them a place to participate in forums of discussion which are out of reach in their everyday life or community. This therefore results in these online communities becoming of great significance to their identity. Through positive reaction, members of these groups can make this new aspect of their personality a social reality thus demonstrating the power internet communities can have on real world transformations and acceptance of identity.

If we take the homepage as a real estate metaphor for the self, it’s decor is postmodern. Its different rooms with different styles are located on computers all over the world. But through one’s efforts, they are brought together to be a piece. (Turkle, S. 1997:259)

Here Turkle is likening the homepage or profile on the web to that of a reflection of the self or a virtual home for one’s interests. One’s identity is created from the words, images, likes and followers one attaches to their homepage and through these associations and connections an identity emerges much like the objects you buy and how you decorate your home in the real world. She describes the decor as ‘postmodern’ although these associations maybe muddled and chaotic they are a representation of identity as multiplicity. Similarly to how one might use their homepage to associate themselves and construct their identity from the brands, pages and image they attach to their homepage is also referenced in how Simmel discusses identity, he says ‘the best arena for people who lack autonomy and who need support, yet whose self-awareness nevertheless requires that they be recognized as distinct and as particular kinds of beings. (in Ashley and Orenstein, p. 314) Simmel is suggesting that we use fashion to play with the outer identity that we present to others. Fashion in the early twentieth century city allowed people to express their identity through the clothes they wore, but furthermore was a way for the lower classes to explore there identity through becoming conscious of the fashion of the upper classes. Simmels ideas about identity are mirrored in the way our internet home pages work through the construction of an exterior image for all to see which forms our identity. Additionally Jean Baudrillard’s post-modernist thinking also supports this concept. He puts forwards the idea that when we consume products, we do not passively consume objects but the consumption of these objects are signs or symbols. Baudrillard is suggesting that the importance lies within the what the symbol or sign means within a culture and not the owning of the physical object that is important. Through the consuming of certain physical objects one is making a statement about the image they wish to project to other about their identity. This process is reflected in internet culture when users engage with brands on social networks and websites which become part of their home pages and defining one’s identity.

‘Our understanding of who we are and of who other people are, and, reciprocally, other people’s understanding of themselves and of others (which includes us). Social identity, is, therefore no more essential than meaning; it too is the product of agreement and disagreement, it too is negotiable.’
(Jenkins, R. (1966) cited in W.Kidd)

What Jenkins is suggesting here is that humans are active, thinking beings consciously aware of our identity and culture that surrounds us and not passive in takers of cultural controls. Jenkins is confirming that our individual identities and our own understanding of personhood is held through our social experiences and interactions with others. People have become so aware of their identity that they use there multiple persona’s in ways that they adjust to whom ever they are communicating with. This characteristic of flexibility is part of the identity in modern times. The way in which someone communicates is pertinent to one’s thinking and behavior all of which reflect upon their identity. In the information one has a plethora of relationships with people all over the world, they are part of diverse communities which is why it is necessary for people to have conflicting characteristics within their identities. Computer mediated communication has saturated the average internet user with and endless world of alien cultures to explore this extensive social contact with those outside of one’s own cultural norms and structures to be deprived as people explore breadth of cultures they can experience online. Kidd cites Hall saying ‘we should think, instead, of identity as a “production”, which is never complete’ (S. Hall (1990) citied in W. Kidd) which is apparent as more aspects of one’s identity are produced from online experiences but this ultimately results in the lose of identity values crafted from real life cultural experiences.

In the recent documentary film ‘Catfish’ of 2010 and subsequent television series ‘Catfish’ of 2012 by documentarian New Schulman, he explores both his own and other’s experience of those interacting and maintaining an identity on the internet. The documentary deals primarily with people, including himself, who fall ‘in love’ online but have never met face-to-face, essentially these people are falling in love with an internet identity and alias created by a real world person. The first episode in the series identifies a relationship between Sunny Cross and whom she believes is Jamison King. The episode later reveals that Jamison is actually a persona constructed by Chelsea Browning. They have both been engaged in an online relationship for eight months, in which time they exchanged countless online messages, text message and phone calls but have never met. During this eight month exchange of message, they have only conferred through sterile forms of internet communication which do not feature any of the physical non verbal commands commands that occur in real world conversations. The absences of these communication cues leads the relationship to be lacking in certain areas in truly understanding one’s identity, the relationship is also significantly inadequate to those who have met in the real world. Furthermore this also leads the recipient of this constructed identity to fictionalize elements of that relationship that are missing.

Through the eight months that the couple have exchanged messages, the relationship has come to a serious junction in which both parties are being defined by this relationship. The online persona that Chelsea has created in Jamison is becoming more of her than it is of Jamison, this is a primary example of the shift that occurs when online identities begin to crystalize themselves in reality and within Chelsea’s identity. The characteristics Chelsea brought out in Jamison’s online identity that she felt she couldn’t explore through her existing identity as Chelsea are now becoming solidified in Chelsea’s real world identity. It was said that they spent an average of four hours a day communicating with each other through various forms of communication. This is a significant proportion of the day for the average human being and it’s effects just as significant of the couples real world social relationships. With such a large portion of time taken up by this relationship this results in other relationships with real world friends and family lacking severely as they spend this constant amount of time engaging with this online relationship.

Chelsea has used the internet to construct a series of identities which features qualities that exist within her identity that she doesn’t feel confident enough to express through her identity as Chelsea. She has used the anonymity of the internet as a testing ground to trial these aspects, so has created a multiplicity of identity in cyberspace. Through the persona of Jamison, online, Chelsea has found success with the qualities she has explored through Jamison, in the relationship between herself and Sunny. Chelsea has been using these profiles for over four years, and is not 18. She created the first profile when she was just 14, at this time of adolescence, many try to figure out ‘who they are’ and this process continued on into adulthood for Chelsea. In the documentary Sunny says the relationship ‘came so natural over the phone and on the internet’ therefore suggesting the ease, that overtime this relationship can be carried over into the real world, which is the case for Chelsea who has been able to bring aspects of Jamison’s identity into the real world. Chelsea is part of a stigmatized group of people, as she reveals at the end of documentary that she is a bisexual, which is something she has been unable to understand and express in herself but could do so through Jamison. Her internet identity has allowed her to explore both her sexuality and her gender role within society through this online persona.

Chelsea also reveals in the documentary that she has been a victim of bullying in her past as a teenager and although the profiles she created were initially created to seek revenge on her peers, but grew into something else as she began to use them more. Through the multiple profile she talked to a great number of different people through these persona’s over four years. The profiles allowed her to converse with a larger number of people that are expecting of the aspects of identities that she experimented with, it is these people of different cultures and backgrounds that overtime enabled her to accept them in herself as Chelsea. Additionally Turkle’s thoughts on how we use homepage’s and profiles as facades for our identity allowed Chelsea through Jamison to express likes and interests
which allowed to come into contact with people who shared the same interests. Furthermore the anonymity that these profiles offered Chelsea from her true persona she says gave her ‘a sense of security’. This was the security that she needed and the internet gives us in order to experiment with our identity which we can’t do in the real world. Moreover the profiles gave Chelsea control over aspects of her identity which previously she had never been given as a result of her adolescent bullying. Reflecting Hall’s view that post-modern identity is a production and Chelsea uses the internet as a tool to produce her identity.

The internet is the greatest invention of the 21st century and has become a part of the background in our everyday and is subsequently taken for granted. The internet is being used as a tool to meet and interact with new people from all over the world and for many this is becoming the norm. However this is having drastic effect on how we conceive and understand our identity. The openness we now have to other cultures that the internet gives us access to is slowly defining our identity rather than the cultural and community that defines us geographically. The anonymity of the internet now offers most of us the opportunity to explore and test elements of our identity that we can’t express in the real world bringing these fourth into the real world. However these online experiences that we have are exaggerated, fictionalized and are absent of some real world cues, so although one can engage in self-awareness and exploration of their identity on the internet, it should occur with a certain degree of caution as internet experiences in no way reflect real world instances of these developments in identity. The internet can be seen as tool for seeing into alternative views of our identity, which can become a reality but the growth of our identity should ultimately occur through real world communication and relationships.

Final Draft for January Submission deadline

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