The recent colonization of cyberspace by social networking sites (SNS) makes navigating identity online a complex and even dangerous endeavor. Indeed, it seems hardly a day goes by without a news report of someone being fired for online activity on a SNS (Aurora, 2013; Larson, 2013; RT, 2013; WFTV, 2013). In fact, Oracle laid me off last July after Hewlett Packard disclosed an online conversation between my former boss and one of his confidants (Morgan, 2012). Therefore, my experience of identity online is not one of liberation through anonymity (Turkle, 1995), but the danger of failing to understand how the ecology of identity is changed by computer-mediated communication (CMC) technology. Thus, personal interest fuels this essay exploring Postman-style, how identity is changed by technology to understand both what we have gained and what we have lost.
To begin, it is helpful to explicate the meaning of identity to understand what it is and how it comes into being. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2013), identity is defined as the “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances [or the] sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing” (p. 1). The concept, when applied to people is about answering the question “Who am I?” (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004, p. 96) to understand the essential sameness of character that guides our behavior with others over time. Thus, rather than envisioning identity as fixed in space and time, Thurlow, et al. (2004) argue “identity is something which we are working on all the time and that, in doing so, we like to be able to tell a structured story about who we think we are—with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (p. 96). Indeed, the authors appear to draw from the hermeneutical philosophy of Ricœur (1992) and his theory of narrative identity, where identity is the autobiographical account of ourselves that explains our complex experiences in narrative form, giving our identity both character and self-constancy. Consequently, our identity is structured like a book, movie, or television show, with a beginning, middle, and end, antagonists and protagonists, and plots and characters; a development that would not surprise McLuhan. Of course, if earlier media influenced our concept of identity, it is reasonable to wonder how computer media is changing our concept of identity today.
In fact, many scholars are optimistic about identity in cyberspace, arguing that CMC is a powerful technology that a) provides opportunities to reflect on, and thus transform, our identities (Chandler, 1998), b) allows users to become disembodied from identity (Dery, 1994; Turkle, 1995), and c) provides greater ability to manage impressions (Walther, 2007; Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008). In general, my experiences online are consistent with their findings—I can structure my online identities to manage impressions or choose to be anonymous for some interactions. However, I am more concerned about what we lose as we construct our identities online.
Of course, the most pervasive dystopian discussion regarding online identity is the loss of privacy (boyd, 2008; George, 2006; Gross & Acquisiti, 2005; Schneier, 2013). Indeed, we can easily describe the earlier instances of employees losing their jobs as a loss of privacy. However, I think we may have lost something even more important, the ability to frame our identities based on specific situations according to the expectations of others in a particular context, or our situational identities (Blumer & Shibutani, 1970). While “the Internet is unique in the history of communication technologies because it offers ordinary people the potential to communication with vast numbers” (Thurlow, et al., 2004, p. 98), the very architecture confounds our ability to represent ourselves in the context of a given situation. Instead, we have to construct our identities for public consumption, or for specific audiences or aspects of our lives, like friend, professional, or student, rather than to a specific situation. Indeed, most of the stories of people being fired for their online activity occur because their online behavior is inconsistent with their professional identities—behavior that might have been appropriate in one situation—but is not appropriate in a professional context. In short, people are losing their ability to construct or represent their online identity based on a specific situation, instead focusing on mass audiences.
Of course, CMC technology is characterized by different attributes that combine to render situational identity work impractical, while unintentionally allowing others to obtain a different picture of identity than our carefully constructed online personas. Specifically, CMC differs in a variety of ways from other media, but in the context of identity, two aspects taken together blur the boundaries between our different online personas: a) interactivity, and b) storage and replicability (Baym, 2010). For example, CMC is highly interactive. Increasingly, our social network identities are the credentials we use to engage in other aspects of online life, like using Facebook to log into CNN. In addition, social network identities are increasingly linked, either through technology when I link my LinkedIn account with my Twitter account, or socially, when an employer looks up various aspects of me across the Internet during a background check.
In addition, CMC messages endure because they are stored and replicable. Thus, my blog as an undergraduate student is part of my online identity, even after I take it down, using technologies like Google History or the Wayback Machine. Therefore, the interactive and enduring nature of the medium work together to allow others to gain a picture of online identity more akin to a mosaic of all of our interactions and representations, rather than the carefully constructed narratives we attempt to convey.
As Postman (1993) warns, “technological change is neither additive nor subtractive, [but]…ecological” (p. 18). The ecology of our identity is fundamentally changed by CMC, insofar as our carefully constructed narratives are undermined by the totality of our online identities and transactions. Thus, the narrative self is quickly becoming the mosaic self. Moreover, in traditional face-to-face interactions, we had the ability to represent ourselves within the context of a given situation, whereas our online identities must meet the expectations of an unknowable audience given the inherent linking of all online information. Thus, we have lost our situational identities. Of course, the social implications of the prominence of the mosaic self and the loss of situational identities are grave. Indeed, some people are being fired when the boundaries between different social identities are blurred. In addition, I wonder how many people become unemployable when a background check reveals situational identity taken out of context. Finally, how might our identity and behavior change when we need to sanitize our online interaction out of concern for the mosaic self created by the totality of our online identities and experiences?
In summary, we explored how ecology of identity is changed by CMC to understand what we have gained and what we have lost. While we have gained the ability to construct online identity and control and manage online impressions, we are losing the narrative self and the ability to craft our narrative identities in the context of a situation. Instead, our online identities are increasingly linked into a single mosaic identity with implications for how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.
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