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“Avatardentity”: Digital Natives and Self-Writing

Though my writing for the Digital Natives blog went into hibernation over the summer, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things we talk about here every week: creativity online, safety, communication, activism. More than anything, though, I could not stop thinking about online identity. In the middle of the summer, I posted to my personal blog an essay I wrote last spring, titled Algorithms and Avatars, or: What I’ve Learned So Far. In it, I explored the paradox of “building” authentic online identity:

We build up our personal online identities, in large part, through the detritus we automatically leave behind: pictures we wanted others to see, articles we wanted others to read. Online identity is a very weird idea. It hinges on faith in honesty: if identity implies authenticity, then the information that helps to construct it cannot be false. But online identities are definitely constructed in other ways. They constitute the internet’s built environment: the structures we can see and study, and whose construction we can interrogate for meaning and consequence. These structures are in some ways completely under the owner’s control, and in others complete out of it.

For instance, I control what information appears on my website and my personal Facebook page. I select and monitor the information that appears in those places, religiously. But I do not control the words and pictures that other people post. If those things have my name—my textual name—attached, then they become part of the constellation of my online identity. If a search engine can find a piece of information and associate it with my name, it suddenly reflects on me. My name is my keyword: it unlocks the floodgates to my online identity. Keywords and passwords are worth thinking about. We are putting an awful lot of stock in words.

But no matter how much stock we are putting into words, we are slyly putting even more into static photographs and grainy videos. In one of my spring classes, Constructing Reality: Photography as Fact and Fiction, we often talked about the presumed indexical quality of photographs: that they represent a real person, a real moment, and a real photographer’s proximity to that moment. Though a generation of Photoshop users surely must know to be skeptical of the content of photographs, still something tugs at our faith when we see human faces rendered flat. We both suffer from and depend upon that faith when we perceive and produce our online avatars.

These online avatars comprise words and pictures. Sometimes, as in Second Life, the avatars are full-blown—illusory three-dimensional human-form characters, constructed in online avatar engines. Choosing your hair color, gender, and clothing are recognized to be self-creative acts: they need not correspond directly to physical reality, but are rather allowed to exist metaphorically. Second Life avatars are accepted to be fictional fronts for inner realities, the executors of ideal “second lives” in a fantasy world. Facebook profiles, on the contrary, exist in a subversive fantasy world, masquerading as a mirror of reality. By tethering profiles to a real-world college environment from the beginning, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set the stage for an assumption of unstudied authenticity. Real names, real phone numbers, real photographs, real addresses: the world of Facebook is a world that supposedly resists deception.

And yet, Facebook cannot resist the management that goes into curating an online identity. In one study, researchers found that about 10% of teenagers who are unhappy with their real-life appearances are happy with their online appearances. This happiness, I have to believe, comes in large part from the ability to select and manipulate photographs so as to place the subject “in the best light.” A Facebook avatar is really just that: a museum of presumed real-world artifacts, curated so as to cast their star in the best light possible. This concept of “best light” is no mistake: it comes straight out of the tradition of glamour photography. Online identity management, then, is something like glamour curation. It is a skill at which millions of teenagers (and adults) are quickly becoming expert. Ironically, though, most of the photos that make it through the curation process are snapshots taken with harsh flash in nighttime social settings. The indexical quality of the photographs—where you were, with whom, wearing what—is more important than their composition. Social glamour, on a fundamentally text-based internet, is almost as important visual glamour.

Thanks to a few lucky links and some very smart writers, this essay ended up threading its way into a larger online conversation about identity. Tony Delgrosso weighed in with an essay on what he termed “Avatardentity,” writing:

It’s my general belief that the person we “put ourselves out there” as online is, phenomenonally speaking, no different than the person we would have put ourselves out there as 20, 30, or even 50 years ago. Yes, the tools are there to handcraft a virtual personality for ourselves, but I don’t see how it’s all that different than what people have always done to make the same impressions; the effort to craft an impression of “us” has simply shifted to a different kind of community and in-crowd. Today we are no more the sum of the things we choose to put on Flickr, Twitter, blogs, etc. than we were the sum of our shiny DeSoto and Cape Cod house and electric range and picket fence in 1954. Same rules, same desires to “be” a certain person, different means of projecting an image. So despite our newfound ability to shape our online self—our “avatardentity”, if you will—we’ve always been shaping ourselves.

The methods we use to judge the authenticity of a person online versus in person do get a bit more involved, I’ll admit; the line between truth and fiction is much less pronounced. It’s more difficult to engage with people and participate in communities of interest when we’re always uncertain who is being “authentic” and who is simply playing a role. But I’m confident that most people sophisticated enough to participate and be accepted into many of those communities have pretty good instincts, and don’t tend to misread the boundaries of sarcasm, personal truth, and outright fiction. I also believe the next generation of people to have spent the entirety of their lives cultivating an online persona will be even better equipped to function in that space; kids today have the best bullshit detectors of all. They have to.

It’s worth highlighting two points from Tony’s essay. The first is that we’ve always curated museums of self. It’s just that these museum’s didn’t contain “presumed real-world artifacts”; they contained real artifacts, full-stop. The second is that Digital Natives, “kids today” will have to be even better equipped to read the “boundaries of sarcasm, personal truth, and outright fiction.” That skill is sometimes shorthanded as “media literacy,” but I think the need goes deeper than that. From a very young age, Digital Natives will need to learn how each of the component parts of online identity—words, pictures, even search histories—can be constructed. How each component part is manipulable, and how often individuals manipulate them.

A few days before Tony wrote his post, Jason Gingold addressed some of the same issues, emphasizing that the internet as a catalog of action tends to trend toward truth:

I think we grow into our authenticity. I think time is the great seeker in the game of identity hide and seek. It will always find us. We might begin our venture into the social networking world with the idea that we will become someone or something we wish for ourselves. But the more time we spend online, the more messages we write, pictures we share, dialogs we have, comments we make, the greater the chance that our true selves take over where the guise of a persona falters. The more we become certain of ourselves as individuals, the easier it becomes to maintain consistency of character. Or the more of our true feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions become revealed to the communities we enter.

I find this idea fascinating—that since online identities are composed of a catalog of actions, the online consistent self that can emerge is the one closest to the truth.

A recent New York Times Magazine article, in fact, addressed this very thing: the self-portraits that emerge over time, the soft pulse of an online identity being constantly updated; refreshed. Titled “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You,” the article explored the idea of ambient awareness:

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

Since we’ll be talking about identity all week, I wanted to loop in some of the ideas and issues I’ve been grappling with in that arena. One final provocation, though, is the idea of the log vs. the wiki. Any catalog-like format—blogs, Twitter, Flickr—provides a sense of time, and therefore an implication of change over time. By seeing the trajectory of posts in these places, it is possible to develop not only a mental portrait of another person’s identity, but also an “ambient awareness” of their daily habits and their path of change over time. Authoritative documents, on the contrary—like MySpace, Facebook, and other profile-based sites—act like the front page of a wiki, the page that comes before the list of changes. It is always current, therefore hiding its own course of evolution.

How do you construct your online identity, or identities? What methods have you seen that you respect? What methods make you suspicious? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

One final reminder: starting tomorrow, on September 23 and 24, Harvard Law School will be hosting the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) Open Meeting. We hope to meet many of you there!