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University of Lisbon) E-mail: email@example.com Abstract The present paper presents a theoretical framework to the study of personal identities gathering structural and interactionist approaches to offline and online selves. My intention is to demonstrate the adequacy of Goffman’s symbolic interactionism in the definition of a mixed self in cyberspace. This mixed self has elements of a surrogate and of a complement to offline self-presentations. So it can be stable and fragmented, grounded and constructed, real and simulated. If it seems consensual that Internet has changed cultural processes and the basis of social identity with the displacement of grounded interaction to a virtual space, doubts remain in considering that it allows the separate existence of multiple aspects of the self that otherwise wouldn’t be expressed, in an infinite possibility of programming multiple selves. I agree that identity is a social construct (Hall, 1992 and 1996; Giddens, 1991; Jenkins, 1996) and it is saturated with social aspects and struggles existing both in online and offline spaces. In this work, I determine that there is no such thing as: “one person – one identity”, because, even in embodied life, people have “many identities” according with the social role they have to play in a determinant context (Levy, 2000; Lahire, 2001). The multiple identities usually linked to cyberself do exist, but must be tied to post-modern times, schizophrenic identity or mixed selves, since: the perturbation and crisis in the social world and the emergency of a new sociocultural level – global – characterized by fast-moving changes and content overload; lead to identity fragmentation and to a self made of patchwork elements. Key-Words: identity, social construct, cyberspace, mixed self
Introducing theory of self and identity
The concept of self, person and identity have been highly discussed among social scientists of different fields such as: anthropology, psychology and sociology. In Jenkins opinion, traditionally the distinction between self and person is between the private, interior and psychological self and the public, external and social person. In other words, the self is the individual’s private experience of himself/herself; the person is what appears publicly in and to the outside world. As a result: “selfhood and personhood are completely, intimately and utterly implicated in each other” (1996:30). Both formations of selfhood and personhood are social processes and their early constructions are determinants in supplying the individual with the required resources for societal responses, that is, to the categorizations offered or imposed by others. In this process, family, in a proximity and deep influencing level, is crucial in providing the first world’s interaction and the first kind of social identity (idem:54-67). The concept of identity needs to conciliate the dichotomy of “who one is” and “the velocity of change in surrounding social contexts” (Howard, 2000:1). That is why Jenkins defends the concept of “social identity”, as a property of human beings that refers to the way in which they distinguish themselves among others (1996:3-4). Self-identity concept defines a modern project within which individuals can reflexively construct a personal narrative that let them understand themselves as in control of their lives and futures. Consequently, social identities exist in a direct intercourse with power relations. But this construction is made in circumstances of uncertainty and multiple choices where risks are infinite. This evidence leads to an increasing importance of the lifestyle choice in the constitution of self-identity (Giddens, 1991:5). Thus, identity is socially mediated and traditionally most of that mediation is related with language and the exchange of face-to-face messages. The central question that surrounds identity studies is the debate of its unity and stability, in a context of a social structure and social interaction. It is possible to categorize self and identity studies in two perspectives: the structural and the interactionist. In the first one, researchers have been focusing in structural factors that may affect personality and social personality, such as: social class and social inequalities (race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, among others); and group identification (Cerulo, 1997; Howard, 2000). In the interactionist perspective, social psychologists have been analyzing the processes whereby definitions of self are constructed and negotiated in social interaction (Branaman, 2001:3). The self-construction is a never-ending adaptable process of individual to social constraints and it is correlated with the human need to survive and make sense of subsistence, that is, to give meanings to existence. As a result, collective identities are heterogeneous, they vary from context to context; from person to person, but they can also persist through time (Jenkins, 1996:111). A new special arena has emerged in identity studies: cyberspace. The exploration of self and identity thematic in cyberspace come up with questions on role playing, continuation and discontinuation of offline and online identities and self-presentation, as well as, changes in the social bases of identity (Jenkins, 1996; Howard, 2000). In addition, we must not forget the individual and social relation of identity formation with the local and global cultural contexts. The conditions for the establishment and maintenance of cultural identity are tied to the way in which personal identity is constituted, in addition to the fact that cultural identity is basic to social identity definition (Friedman, 1994:29-30). Following previous conceptions, I consider identity as a mobile and non-linear process; influenced by individual, social and cultural elements; and resulting of the interpenetration of face-to-face interaction and computer-mediated interactivity. As a process, identity is never 2
complete, even when we assume several selves with complementary features throughout our life and in the social web. As mobile and non-linear, identity can always be changed and return to former characteristics, abandoned and recovered during the process.
As realized before, the traditional debate about identity is mainly focused on its structure, social construct and changing through time and in a defined physical space. Nowadays and since the years 1980’s, a new focal point on identity studies emerges related with the influence and relation of the self-definition and technology. Thus the critical questions are: is there a digital identity? If yes, which elements define it? Joshua Meyrowitz (1985, 1989, 1997) was among its first researchers focusing in which electronic media reorganized the sites of social interaction. According with Meyrowitz, communication technologies have dissolved the connections between physical and social places, locating the self in a new hybrid arena of action, meshing private and public, signaling new types of performances, and forming new collective forms (apud Cerulo, 1997:397). In a general approach, the studies of digital identity or cyberself can be divided into two main orientations: symbolic/social interaction and postmodern identities. The first one is based in the reflexive construction of the self through interaction with the social world, where the differences between the offline self-ing project is not substantially different from the cyberself construction (Robinson, 2007). Several authors had used Cooley’s (1902) conception of the “looking-glass self”, Mead’s (1934) set “I/me/generalized other” and Goffman’s (1959) “presented self” to characterize a cyberself as a result of the symbolic interaction of the individual with his social world, including cyberspace. On one hand and according with Cooley (1902), individuals develop a self from the reflection they get from other people. So first we look to other people as we look in the mirror, imagining how we appear to them. Second we guess how we appear to them and how they judge us and finally we feel satisfaction or embarrassment. Cooley’s concept has consequently several inferences from psychology and psychoanalysis since its implications depends of the interpretation of the own self and of the subject mental health. On the other hand, and in Mead’s conception (1934), the “Me” is how a person feels other individuals see him/her; the “I” is the response of the individual gives to the social world; and the “generalized other” is the constructed self that considers the generalized inputs from society and from the social group where the individual lives in. Usually the “me” was formed through face-to-face interaction that was loaded with a tremendous amount of information from both verbal and non-verbal communication. Nowadays, the “me” can also be formed through mediated communication. Although, this social mediated communication is limited, because it is found in a mediated interaction that lacks face-to-face elements, namely, non-verbal communication elements, such as: voice tone, facial expressions, spatial proximity, gesture, touching, attention, and so on. So the “me” is mostly build upon the explicit use of texted information. Cross referencing with Goffman’s conception of the presented self (1959, 1974) we may realize that the information used by individuals to present and validate their identities on the Internet is supported by the use of “given” and “given-off” data, that is, by explicit and direct information, and by information that allows others to inferred one’s identity. For instance, texting a presentation, paralinguistic (style, structure, vocabulary) and paracomunicational (website
presentation) elements are given data; and links and favorite selections (pastime, quotes, music, books, films, blogs, and so on) are given-off data (Miller, 1995; Robinson, 2007).
Post-Modern approach: fragmented/stable, continuous/discontinuous
The starting point of the research about internet identity is the study of Sherry Turkle: Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1996). Turkle argued that online identity changes, becoming fluid and fragmented, thanks to anonymous environments where it can be broken into fragments, deconstructed and reconstructed. To Turkle, anonymity in cyberspace is potentially empowering and equalizing, because we cannot see or judge. Authors like Shields (1996), Plant (1997), Haraway (1998), Wallace (1999) and Cheung (2000) have also supported this notion of digitally-fragmented identity that we can relate with post-modern identity due to its liquidity, ambiguity and fragmentation. Despite the rise of virtual environments and the relation with computer technology allowing the self to become multiple, confusing, misrepresented and deceptive, we cannot generalize the affirmation that cyberself is a fragmented self. As Blomberg (1996) and Kendall (1999) claimed in some cases – thematic fora, virtual communities – digital identity is not fragmented but stable, and the individual can express the same self both face-to-face and online. In addition, several communities ask for their members registration and the production of valuable content is been identified by their authors (Grohol, 2006). As a consequence, identity matters if we want to leave a significant footprint in cyberspace. So virtual identity can be fragmented or stable according with the digital environment and with the individual’s purpose for being online. Internet is a social space where self and social identity are almost freely constructed, structured, given meaning and shared through computer-mediated interaction, in a sequence of “possible selves”, that is, “multiple conceptions people harbor of what they might become, would like to become, or are afraid to become” (Gergen, 1976). On the internet we have enchanting opportunities to engage in role-plays that wouldn’t be possible in real life (Wallace, 1999:3844) due to personal, collective, technical and all sorts of constrains. But are we really using Internet to create such different identities from the ones we really have? Are we role-playing seriously or are we just celebrating a sort of online masquerade? Although we cannot simplify our definition of cyberself, it is verifiable that online identity might be marked by: interactivity, openness/publicness, anonymity, and saturation (greater number of relationships, in a greater variety of forms); while offline selves might be defined by: static relations, imaginary friend, secrecy/private, deeply known only by special friends. Considering this two approaches on digital identity and following Weber’s conception of the ideal type, I appoint a systematic of an internet users’ with two opposed digital selves: substitute and complementary. The substitute online self is a surrogate to the offline self (face-to-face relational self). Supported with Turkle’s research, this kind of online self is: fragmented, anonymous, engaged in avatar role playing in cyberspace. The complementary online self is a stable, grounded self, used to increase the number of offline contacts in the same line of attitudes and actions with which the individual takes on his offline life. Additionally, I encounter a mixed self, that is, an online self-assembled with features of both preceding types, evidencing that both online and offline identities are fluid and variable according with individual and social circumstances and purposes (see figure #1).
Figure #1 - Online selves systematic
Fragmented self Constructed self Avatar self Anonymity Role playing / Simulation Attitude and behavior discontinuity New relationships
Stable self Grounded self / real play Credibility Transposition of offline relationships to online environment Increasing number of interaction with the same contacts
The mixed self is the synthesis of the combination between offline and online identities, but it can be observed in everyday and every space (and not only in cyberspace). As stated by Pierre Lévy, each day our identity becomes more problematic. Nothing is simple. More and more completely everything has to be invented. We have no models. We are the first ones to enter in a completely new world (2000:18). Besides, each day we experience several needs to play a different role, to embrace different identities that dress up our self: we can be a professional, a friend, a lover, a client, a servant, a religious believer, an atheist… all depending on the kind of interaction we need to establish with the other, either in face-to-face relations, either in mediated relations.
Final Remarks While the substitute and the complementary self are portraits of ideal types, that is, a unified analytical mental construct with one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints, the mixed self is an empirical construct based on everyday life observation. In sum, internet identity research needs to reposition itself conceptually, the concern must move away from the generalized, enduring claim that internet identities are anonymous, multiple and fragmented, because, in some cases, online identities are continuous with offline selves (Kennedy, 2006). Though, and for the study of digital identity(ies) we must specify which aspects of media are under examination in order to avoid misconceptions.
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