In just over a week I hop on the first of three planes and head to Seattle for Internet Research 12. I’m looking forward to seeing many colleagues I rarely get to see in the flesh, and indeed adding flesh to many folks who I only really know as Twitter or Facebook profile pictures.
The paper I’m presenting is called “The Ends of Online Identity” and is the first step in a larger research project which looks at online identities before or after they are really owned by the person to which they refer. Indeed, the many varied responses to Facebook’s upcoming shift to the new Timeline which replace profiles with a curated historical story fits in perfectly with the terrain I’m exploring, which focuses on what happens to identity online when other people are responsible for shaping it (such as parents, before someone is old enough to really manage their online self, or post-mortem when someone’s profiles and digital shadow become the memorialised self). The project itself is only in the initial stages and this paper is more about establishing the parameters and scoping out the field, but I think there’s enough in there to make it an interesting conversation.
For those of you who might be interested, here’s the abstract:
The Ends of Online Identity?
While the early years of online interaction were often framed by notions of identity play, anonymity, pseudonymity and multiplicity, the last five years have seen many of these playful boundaries collapsing with online and offline identity no longer presumed to be easily separable. The dominance of Facebook as the social networking service, and their firm insistence on ‘real’ names and identities has been one of the clearest causes and indicators of this shift. However, once online and offline identity are more firmly attached to real names, an individual’s web presence becomes harder and harder to escape. Moreover, while notions like ‘Identity 2.0’ (Helmond, 2010), ‘the networked self’ (Papacharissi, 2010) and others tend to emphasise at least some degree of agency, the persistence of digital information and the permanence of names suggests it is timely to revisit the ends of identity where the agency of the named individual is less, if at all, applicable.
At one end, identity fragments can be created even before an individual is born, from Facebook updates, blogs and photos detailing attempts to get pregnant, through to ultrasounds images and the like. Early childhood too, can often be documented online by parents who embrace every recording technology possible, both capturing and often sharing online every smile, every outfit and all those initial milestones of development. While most parents consider some degree of security when posting information about children, many of these digital traces persist and can often be easily (re-)attached to the children in question later in life. This initial digital contextualisation and the power of parents and others to ‘set up’ the initial web presence of individuals before they are active participants online deserves greater attention. Victor Mayer-Schonberger (2009), for example, has proposed that information online, including social information, should come with an expiry date, after which digital identity fragments are automatically erased. While an admirable strategy, implementation of such a proposal in a widespread enough manner to be useful would be very challenging.
At the other end of identity, the question of what happens to our digital selves when we die is also increasingly important. While our corporeal forms are subject to entropy and decay, the same is not necessarily true of online identities. From blog posts and social networking profiles to photographs and more personal files, the need to ‘do something’ with digital identity fragments is increasingly pressing. In some instances the keys to digital identities (our passwords) are being left in wills as part of individuals’ estates, but far more often this question is left unasked until an individual has died. Facebook, for example, had to institute the possibility to allow family members to memorialise or delete the Facebook profiles of deceased loved ones after many people reported Facebook suggesting they ‘reconnected’ with recently deceased relatives and friends.
This paper will outline some initial ways that our ‘ends of identity’ might be conceptualised, including a brief review of current approaches, with the intention of outlining an emerging research project which examines the impact of digital identity creation which is not readily controlled by the individual whose identity is being created or transformed.
Helmond, A. (2010). Identity 2.0: Constructing identity with cultural software. www.annehelmond.nl , PDF: http://www.annehelmond.nl/wordpress/wp-content/uploads//2010/01/helmond_identity20_dmiconference.pdf.
Mayer-Schonberger, V. (2009). Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age . Princeton University Press.
Papacharissi, Z. (Ed.). (2010). A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites . Routledge.
My presentation is part of a four-paper panel entitled “Coherency, Authenticity, Plurality and the Trace” which also features papers by Erika Pearson / @erikapearson (University of Otago), Stephanie Tuszynski (Bethany College) and Brady Robards / @bradyjay (Griffith University). Our panel is currently scheduled for Tuesday, 11/Oct/2011: 4:00pm – 5:30pm in “South” if you’ll be at IR12. I hope to post the slides before our panel session and, if I get the chance, I’ll try and capture the audio and post it some time shortly thereafter.
Any comments, thoughts or questions are most welcome! 🙂