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Constructing our realities through different channels available on the Internet.

Among the various courses I am taking at the University of São Paulo this semester, “Discourse” has a lot of interesting ideas that can be connected to discussions pertaining to DNs. In the text A social theory of discourse, Norman Fairclough (1992) defines discourse as “a mode of action, one form in which people may act upon the world and especially upon each other, as well as a mode of representation. Discourse is a practice of … signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning”.

This definition made me wonder how this concept can be applied to the practices that are taking place on the Internet. How do online tools enable users to represent themselves through different types of discourses? More than that, how can DNs’ interactions on the Internet be affected by these new possibilities?

One important topic of Born Digital refers to identity and issues related to the way the Internet is being used to propagate small bits of personal information in the form of videos, blog posts, pictures, etc. So, if Fairclough states that through the practice of discourse we are constructing our world in meaning, the Internet offers new channels of discourse through which new types of manifestations will emerge. What seems like just a few years ago, if you wanted to learn anything about me, you had to rely on a simple ID with my photo and basic information. Now, if you want to learn more about me, all you need to do is google my name. From this, you can learn about activities I have partaken in such as university projects and jobs, and you can even access pictures of me, especially if you are part of a shared social network such as Facebook, Orkut, or LinkedIn.

These different online tools allow me to propagate specific discourses about myself depending on their use, whether as social, professional, or any other kind of network. For example, I use Orkut to connect with friends as a fellow Brazilian, I use Facebook to connect with friends internationally. Alternate to a social network, LinkedIn allows me to expose my professional side, defined by my work experience, education, and the conferences I have attended. Ultimately, the Internet allows new types of channels through which we are signifying ourselves, our identities.

So, what are the consequences of these new ways of signifying ourselves, of fragmenting our identities in small portions and publishing it throughout the Internet? In Born Digital, Palfrey and Gasser refer to the importance of social identity, which is “undergoing a makeover at the hands of Digital Natives”. They note:

(…) the disclosure of personal information – say, for instance, posting your hobbies online, or disclosing where you are living, or sharing information about your tastes in music – is intended to achieve certain goals. Those goals might include, for example, social approval, intimacy, or relief of distress, among other things. In the economic and business literature, other motivations have been explored. Benefits of online information disclosure might include saving money or time (as examples of extrinsic benefits when, for instance, ordering a book online and paying by credit card), or pleasure or altruism (as examples of intrinsic benefits). According to the disclosure decision models, individuals examine – as rational actors – whether the disclosure of information would indeed be a good strategy to achieve the respective goals in a given situation, and whether the expected benefits would outweigh the risks.

Blogs, social networks, home pages, etc “can be understood as means to develop and evolve their notions and levels of “self” and personal identity, respectively. On the other hand, the revelation of personal data on the Internet is closely connected with establishing group membership.

All that raises issues of privacy, security and control of information which sometimes seem to be suppressed by the euphoria surrouding the digital era.

It is important to take into consideration that although online tools are enabling Digital Natives to do more creative things based on their connections to a larger, more diverse network of the online sphere, other issues arise including that of privacy and security. It worries me to see that all this information, might always be floating somewhere around the Internet; and that it can be accessed some other time in our lives when that self representation is no longer convenient, funny, or desired.

– André Valle