As our daily lives become increasingly integrating with online culture and more and more interactions take place in digital space, so too does the self become integrated in digital space. Each time we create a social media profile, we are putting extensions of our identities into cyberspace, in essence creating autobiographies of (sometimes obsessive) self-documentation. These extensions of the self, which are intimately tied to wider cultural trends, interface design, and platform development, serve to commodify and objectify the individual. Anyone with a social media account has already changed their self, whether they know it or not.
In their lecture “Getting a Digital Life: Autobiography Online,” Sidonie Smith, the Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities at the University of Michigan, and Julia Watson, professor of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University, discussed this trend and the factors that contribute to the creation and augmentation of online identities. In the “information age,” opportunities to construct, organize, and network not only our lives have transformed the methods and effects of self-representation. To do this, the speakers looked at six different topics: archives, memory, identity, branding, and quantification.
The way that we think about the past has been irrevocably altered by the data storage capabilities of modern tech. Specifically, this enables the paradoxical phenomenon of “future memory,” according the speakers, as individuals create digital identities and store photos, music, ideas, network connections, and other personal content. In digital environments, specifically archives and data stores, users not only retrieve past versions of themselves from memories, but also personal fantasies.
The blank creative space of the Internet is the perfect platform for self-creation from the ground up. The speakers described a new service called eterni.me, which takes everything you’ve ever posted online in addition to every representation of you, and uses artificial intelligence algorithms to create a visually-accurate Avatar of you that you, and others, can interact with. It sounds eerie, and it kind of us. Eterni.me serves as a metaphor for the effects of our everyday online practices.
Now, Instead of singular persons whose identities inherently lie in the depths of the self, individuals are now personal brands. To thrive in a modern new media environment, individuals must harness branding strategies in order to adequately market themselves to peers, colleagues, and employers. Microcelebrity self-marketing techniques, once only reserved for the particularly socially ambitious, are now used by most web users. A Jeffrey Shearer quote read, “I’m not just my own person, I’m my own brand.” Individuals continue to commodify themselves regardless of whether or not they are actually trying to self-promote or network in order to maintain positive impressions of the digital identities that they have created.
Part of self-representation is self-curation. Individuals much choose and edit the parts of their lives that they want to share, and with whom they want to share. The praxis, or actually experienced process, of self-curation is unique to each individual but is driven by the concept of authenticity. As users craft the identities that they want others to perceive, they must appear authentic to their networks. Self-surveillance drives this process—users patrol the web control and specify all of the representations of themselves available on public web space. As Smith said, “digital self-curation may outlive actual people.” Though the speakers did not use this term, what they were describing was Goffman’s concept of “impression management.”
As online environments become more complex, diverse, and widespread, the capacity for different kinds of identities has exploded. Virtual realms and communities, especially ones where avatars and digital embodiment come into play, make us question our notion of what a “person” even is. Not only can individuals digitize themselves, but they can experiment, play, and fantasize by embodying themselves in this digital worlds as non-human or even humanoid avatars. As programmers begin to more deeply digitize the racial body, individuals engage in identity tourism, where they use avatars of races other than their own to explore new identities. A really important point that Watson made, one that we have discussed at length in class, is that the Internet is not a post-racial space. Defying rules of spatio-temporal reality, users are able to build personas and embodied identities that are only limited by their imaginations.
Finally, the speakers came to a discussion of ‘the quantified self.’ Identities are fragmented into many pieces online. Each medium that contains a personal profile is a different piece of the individual, unique media versions of the self. The quantified self is the sum of these different versions of the self, stored forever online. Smith brought up an interesting paradox of the quantified self: though both the body and the mind are digitized and thus concrete extensions of the self, the individual becomes anonymous data, random series of numeric coding. While we are personifying, solidifying, and identifying/singularizing ourselves, we are also becoming nameless, faceless, identity-less numbers—both finding and losing ourselves at the same time.
Other topics of discussion included the debate over privacy. What is okay to share, and what is not okay? How does transparency play a role in identity development, and how can one recognize it? I was really excited because they brought up Dave Eggers The Circle, a book which I have written extensively about. This brought up the question of, “is privacy theft?” which aggravated me because they never quite answered it, or even explored it in depth. Watson said something very interesting that I am still trying to work through in my head. She described cyberspace as the “Internet of Things.” We conceive of the internet as people semiotically represented and interaction with each other; in fact, the Internet is increasingly become non-human as algorithms (things) begin to interact with other algorithms instead of people. According to her, this will lead to unimaginable brand representations in cyberspace as algorithms interacting with each other produce effects and communications. Not only are we unable to predict what these will be, but we might not even be able to understand or recognize what they are and what they mean—to uncertain effect on the branded self.
Overall, the lecture covered topics that we all already are pretty well-versed in. Though they didn’t use the same names, the concepts that they described should be quite familiar: personal branding, microcelebrity, impression management, authenticity, the authentic self, meta data, dataveillance, and context collapse. At the end of the lecture, I asked the speakers to speak about the effects of context collapse on the formation of identity and impression management. The speakers didn’t really know how to respond to me, and admitted that they had never really thought about it that way.
During the question and answer session, Karen Lawrence spoke up and made an interesting contribution. When we document our lives online, we do not do so with the express aim of writing autobiographies: “online self-representation is not the creation of an autobiographical novel or a written autobiography, it is the creation of an alternate persona.” Here, a poignant thought was brought up by Smith. The experience of self-extension into digital space creates the phenomenon of recurring nostalgia. The feeling that she described is one that I couldn’t quite qualify in any other way, but is one that I (and I’m sure all of you) have experienced before.
Throughout the talk, I was irritated that the speakers described the phenomena that we have been analyzing in class, without taking the conversation a bit deeper. Granted they only had 45 minutes and we had a whole a semester, but I wanted something I could sink my teeth into. One of the last things that they said, though, turned it around for me and made me think. Watson said: “we don’t have any of the answers. You have the answers. You should be the ones up here telling us about your digital lives.” Which is true. Ultimately, because we are the ones living “digital lives” we are the ones that actually know what they are, and can qualify and quantify the experience. You can study digital identity development till the cows come home, but the practice of autobiographical media usage is one that must be experienced.
The speakers left us with a quote from Sherry Turkle to close out the lecture: “We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effect on us.” As we have seen, virtual spaces invite disembodiment and disengagement from the physical world. As larger portions of what makes us us becomes swallowed by new media, it is important to neither blame or exalt the technology. Instead, we must be impartial, explore our practice of new media, and reflect on how these interactions with technology shape us lest we lose ourselves in the datasphere forever.