Identity on the Internet


Identity it seems, is fluid and changeable and depends on a lot of things. How do you see yourself? How do you WANT to see yourself? Where is your family of origin?  What sort of groups do you belong to? And what about the family you’ve created for yourself? Who do you hang out with? What sort of work do you do? What are you studying? What are you learning to become? Or even, what hand has fate dealt you, if that’s what you believe? And the most important question, and one that no one really asks outright, but clearly this forms the basis of what we really want to know about each other these days – how do you choose to present yourself?

If the Rachel Dolezal saga has taught us anything, it is certainly that her identity dilemma is not a symptom of the present age, but has been radically transformed by it. The immediate dissemination of the knowledge shared by her parents about her original(?) identity created the kind of transference of knowledge that anthropologists used to call diffusion, very characteristic of knowledge exchange in the era of the internet where everyone, everywhere finds out at once. It seemed that the whole world was shocked, horrified, and in disbelief that someone who was white would seek to represent themselves as black.  Alternatively, there was also support for this position.

Aside from the inherent racism that these sentiments contain, Rachel Dolezal’s choice of identity and how she chose to present herself in her daily life highlights the fluidity of identity through time, space and culture. Is black still black and white still white? Or has this case pointed to the social and cultural categorisation that identity represents?  What about the essential reality asociated with identity (if there is such a thing) and can this be transformed by culture, by an adoption or appropriation of culture?  Is Rachel Dolezal the first person to adopt another identity in the way that she did? I don’t think that, as we all transform and change ourselves throughout our lives. Clearly the issue at stake here related to the tensions inherent in the power relations between black and white in America and indeed point to the same tensions globally.

I am not a scholar of whiteness studies and cannot offer more of a comment than this, but I am intrigued about the ability of Rachel Dolezal to ‘choose’ blackness, much as we choose a partner, a city to live in, a career, a job and a set of values represented through our social, political and economic choices.

Dolezal herself raises the issue of identity construction as reported here: ‘She admits that the controversy, especially the timing of it, caught her off guard. But her hope is that some good comes out of it, if it changes how some people think about identity. “The discussion is really about what it is to be human,” Dolezal said. “And I hope that that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”’ http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/16/us/washington-rachel-dolezal-naacp/

All of this debate is intriguing especially when held alongside contemporary social movements, such as the training associated with modern leadership that make claims about authenticity.  Authenticity stands as the leadership sine que non, at least at the moment, to which all knowledge about how to be a good leader is subsumed. To be authentic, to be real, even to be flawed carries with it the badge of the honest, real, leader. To be found out somehow as false within this, is to fail. So if authenticity is at stake as a value, how do we deal with the dilemma of authenticity that Rachel Dolezal represents? Did she not also have a leadership role in her work as a tutor/lecturer at university?  Do we believe what she claims about her identification with black culture and feeling that she too is black as evidence of authenticity? Or is this far too much of a stretch and a betrayal to the lived experience of blacks in America?  Alternatively, understanding the fluid nature of groups, identity and belonging, do we accept her claim of sharedness?

This is a dilemma that I cannot resolve. However it points me to issues of representation that people experience within their everyday lives, and about how identity can be adopted, modified, reworked, even invented and then presented. If the complaint of the modern era is disengagement, is this not partly due to the compartmentalisation of one’s identity? Is a work persona different to the authentic self that you live in your home and everyday life? Can an identity be authentic and be hidden?

We all carry truths about ourselves that may be shared or disclosed but only within certain sets of circumstances, or with certain groups of people with whom we make claims of having a shared history, a set of shared experiences, a shared sense of belonging and hence a shared identity. The ability to keep aspects of one’s self private in this way does not necessarily point to a problem with one’s identity or an inauthenticity, but may instead be part of a lifeplan to care for oneself. I think here of twelve step programs and Alchoholics Anonymous, or other programs where full names and full identities are not necessary for belonging. A shared culture of dependence, of shame, of falling, hitting rock bottom and redemption through a program of shared stories leads to the development of these strength-based communities who rely on the private identity of dependence and the shared journey of recovery for membership.

But what about our identity on the internet? The recent murder in Melbourne of a high profile AFL football coach allegedly by his son highlighted how identities are created, or rather manufactured from fractured pieces of information available electronically. Journalists attempting to create a picture of the alleged murderer highlighted parts of his prolific online diarising, online videos, his world travels and search for an authentic identity, and it seems most importantly details could be gleaned from his now publicised Amazon wish list,

“His Amazon reading wish list fluctuates from titles like Man’s Search for Meaning, to Building Wealth One Step at a Time, and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help you Find – and Keep – Love”
http://www.smh.com.au/national/walshs-nomad-son-spoke-of-fathers-iron-will-20150703-gi4q9b.html

… when we think about how wish lists are constructed, by hitting the ‘add to wish list’ button available on many online bookstores, can we really suggest that the titles contained there tell us anything very much, anything meaningful at all about the identity of the person who clicked the ‘add’ button? What would any of us look like if our identity were attached to our wish lists? I’m pretty sure that mine would look very expensive, as my wish lists contain only the outrageously priced books that I will never be able to afford to own, but will anyone really pick up on that?

The internet also offers the construction of new identities for authors in much the same way that ‘Anonymous’ or pseudonyms used to function in the print era to protect the identity of both the famous and infamous, or even the sex of the writer. In the same vein, we can now present ourselves as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’, The [insert adjective] [insert noun]’ or a cute reduced handle on Twitter, or as an anonymised group or page on Facebook, or Tumblr, or with a pseudonym to protect our identity on Instagram and many other forms of social media, not even counting the ones where people try to hook up.

If I could rebaptise myself, would I call myself ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’? Probably not, but would you even find my work if I didn’t tell you something about who I was, what I was trying to write about and what existential state motivates me if I were to simply use my own name?

In academia you trade on your name, people search your work by your name, they quote you by name, attach theories to your name, copy practices ascribed to you and your name, hold discussions and tutorial groups to discuss your work undertaken in your name, and so it seems counter intuitive in many ways to adopt a pseudonym when representing oneself on the internet if you belong to, or aim to belong to and be read by an academic audience. Not everyone does this and there are plenty of websites and blogs set up by people who have become the personification of their product: geography, history, politics, anthropology, writing, all the isms… However, some people do trade on their own name, and I would suggest that this is because they are probably secure enough in their positions, in their disciplines and in their writing to do so. I’m sure that plenty of examples to the contrary exist though as well, which points to the irony of the internet: that both can and do exist at the same time.

So, what does this all come back to? Where can you represent yourself as whole, as complete, as the sum of all your parts? Where can you present yourself, your ideas, thoughts and writings to an audience who will accept the disparate parts that make up your identity? Is personhood a salvo of competing selves? How can we be complete, whole and real in the age of the internet? Or is it silly to imagine that this is what’s required at all, when really, if I’m reading your thesis on gender relations, do I really care about your personal history of alcoholism? Or would this knowledge of your personal history add a depth to your writing and hence my understanding of your perspectives were this public? This is true of so many ‘selves’ that we probably all hold within us.

How to reconcile all of this still remains a mystery to me. Comments welcome please.

Photo credit: http://img.wonderhowto.com/img/14/96/63458281265816/0/remove-your-online-identity-ultimate-guide-anonymity-and-security-internet.1280×600.jpg

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