How is identity constructed online?
I think this is a really interesting and complex topic and reading the few suggested articles, while giving me an insight, has also left me with a lot of questions. As a result this post is part research, part opinion, and a lot of thinking aloud.
Creating an identity for yourself online, I think, is quite easy and fluid. You can emphasise the traits you want people to notice and minimise or erase those you don’t. And you can change the image you portray of yourself when you feel like it. For example, Thomas (2004) quotes Violetta,
“i mean, i’d have whole typing styles for people. like, if i were trying to trick someone i knew into thinking i was someone else, i’d type a lot differently than i do normally.”
This examples shows that Violetta through her language portrays different versions of herself. As Thomas explains, cybertalk “serves to empower her to thoughtfully shape the identity she reveals through text” (2004, p. 369). So simply through the choice of words and writing styles one can change how others identify them. Thomas (2004, p. 366) also gives the example of gender quoting Butler, “gender is not passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature, language, the symbolic, or the overwhelming history of patriarchy… Gender is an act.” This statement was meant to support the notion that gender is not a physical thing and can therefore be invented and changed. I find this notion quite interesting. To be able to exaggerate your gender, to hide it or to reinvent it in a public arena such as cyberspace would surely have important consequences. Whilst I agree that gender is not a physical thing, it is definitely manifested physically. Through mannerisms, the way we walk and talk, the language we use, our clothes, our hair and our makeup. All these things, of course, can in turn be manifested in cyber space to represent whichever gender we wish.
“Gender is an act.” This sentence really is food for thought when considering Thomas’ (2004) statement that children are inclined to exaggerate their gender in cyberspace with girls giggling a lot and boys discussing masculine topics. Why would they do this? Why is portraying one’s gender so important to children? When creating an identity online you choose what you want people to see, so why is it so common for children to choose gender as being an important thing to portray to people?
It is clear after reading Thomas’ and then Gee’s articles that both girls and boys use cyber space to play out their fantasies. Girls use it to become their idols. The traits they admire in others they adopt themselves through their avatars. It allows them to become beautiful and attractive, however they perceive that to be. Boys use it to act aggressively in ways they can’t in real life (without negative consequences). Through online gaming they can feel strong, powerful, crafty, and masculine.
Gee (2005) contends that players become the game character in both body and mind. He says the player takes on the beliefs, goals, feelings and attitudes of the character. This is an interesting similarity to the girls who want become their idol, the boys do the same in video games.
An interesting point in the Thomas article quotes Cowie (1990 in Thomas, 2004, p. 362)
“when she asserts that a spectator may fantasise that they are inside the action of the fantasy, that they can be a participant in the fantasy they are gazing at, and that, furthermore, they may simultaneously participate in the fantasy from any or all of the characters and roles that are being enacted.”
I immediately identified with this– isn’t it that that makes reading books and watching movies interesting? We empathise with the protagonist and other characters, we cry when they’re sad, we rejoice with them when they’re happy and so on. And as the viewer or reader, we can empathise with all the different characters and their different view-points in the same sitting. Taking this much further, is a little girl named Lindsey in the Wolf and Heath (1992) article. She not only empathises with the characters but she becomes the characters. When reading we get the impression she jumps straight into the story like Bert in Mary Poppins when he enters his chalk drawing. Lyndsey adopts the speech and the actions of the characters as she is reading, but also when she is reminded of a story by an external trigger.
Lyndsey is playing with the traits of the characters, similar to how girls play with traits through their avatars. In cyberspace children can play with their identity, trying on different traits, adopting some and rejecting others.
Not mentioned in these articles is the portrayal of identity through social networking sites such as Facebook. While there is no use of avatars in Facebook there is a similar manipulation of identity. One can choose to upload photos of themselves of a certain style and appearance, and can tag themselves thus drawing attention to photos of themselves uploaded by other people. This creates a physical impression of how you want people to see you. Then of course there are the status updates. These tell a lot about a person, what they’re doing, where they are, what they find funny, they’re likes and dislikes, their level of intelligence, who they’re with, how they’re feeling… the list could go on. What a person writes as a status update has been carefully chosen and worded for an unknown amount of people to see. Each time you write something, you are portraying a certain message about you as a person. Less blatant, but with the same effects and intentions, are comments and wall posts. What you write on someone’s wall, or how you comment on someone else’s wall post, photo, video or link is publicly exposed and sends a message about what kind of person you are. As Thomas (2004, p. 369) wrote in her article,
“It would appear that being articulate is a highly sought-after quality when building friendships online, and that this quality creates positive and deep interactions with others. Since identity online is primarily realised through interactions, it follows that literacy skills in terms of the ability to use language well plays an essential role in identity construction and perception.”
Moving on from written language, the links and videos put on Facebook also portray a certain identity. I have friends that quite often post newspaper articles they find interesting, this obviously gives quite a lot of information about those people. Not only that they are intelligent, but what current issues interest them, what their political views are and what their opinions are on controversial issues. Others post videos they find amusing, thus portraying themselves as people with a sense of humour. A lot post links to music they like. Like other links, putting your musical taste online for so many people to see prompts discussion about the band and the song, it introduces people to new music and it allows bonding over a common interest.
As with the avatars, Facebook with it’s status updates, comments, photos and links allows people to create an identity and a sense of self that they want others too see. It allows you to choose how people perceive you.
I’ll finish this post with some final questions: What are the consequences of creating a version of yourself that is different from the real one? Is it healthy for a girl to become the beauty she dreams of being but will never physically become? Does this improve her self-esteem or lessen it? And do violent and tactical video games serve as a release for boys that they would otherwise not get? Or does it encourage them to adopt those values and behaviours in real life?