What is identity? How is it formed? And how does it exist online? In windows, right? Microsoft reigns supreme. Sherry Turkle says “the life practice of windows is that of a decentered self that exists in many worlds.” I want to look at it differently, as a centered self heavily informed by real life.
Sandra Cisneros explores identity in her essay “Eleven.” She writes:
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.
This view on identity is shared by one particular green ogre:
I’d like to think about identity not as a collection of separate windows, but as a series of interrelated layers.
I have several identities. I like to write; I have a live journal account I’ve used since high school. I sometimes write poems and songs. I am a musician, I like to play guitar. I am a photographer. I’ve done some work for bands. I like to make videos.
So, I act differently in these situations, but do I act that differently? Moreover, does what I do as a photographer exist in a different window, so to speak, than what I do as a musician? It doesn’t feel like it. In fact, I would say that when I wake up as a photographer one day to shoot a band, I still feel like I’m a musician and a writer. And I am—underneath the layer that makes me a photographer.
As we take on new identities, we do not discard old ones, but we carry them along beneath the surface. They inform our current versions of ourselves. James Paul Gee writes about the identity his son assumes as he plays a video game called Pikmin, and how that identity informs other identities:
The identity that Pikmin invites the player to take on relates in a variety of ways to other identities he takes on in other domains. I believe, for example, that the identity Pikmin recruits relates rather well to the sort of identity a learner is called on to assume in the best active science learning in schools and other sites. Such learning—just like Pikmin—encourages exploration, hypothesis testing, risk taking, persistence past failure, and seeing “mistakes” as new opportunities for progress and learning.
The risk taking and exploration I practice as a writer also relates rather well to my success as a photographer. These modes of expression have homes on the internet. Flickr is a home for photographers. Youtube, a home for filmmakers. But is there a place where photographers, filmmakers, and everyone else have equal footing? I have this idea that the most successful online spaces will be the ones that most resemble the multimodal nature of real life. They will accommodate people with disparate interests and abilities.
So are some identities more important than others? Of our successive temporal identities, we can assume our most recent, or outer identities, take priority. But what of our identities informed by our interests and abilities? Nardi and O’Day assert that
with pervasive communication technology, it is no longer appropriate to speak of a physical geography as providing a defining boundary (though it might). Local is now defined by influence in an ecology—which comes from participation and engagement—and commitment to a set of shared motivations and values.
This may have weight, but as long as we still live in houses, pay water bills, and send our kids to public schools, local interests will always be paramount. Here’s a recent NPR segment that addresses the assumption that Twitter is a democratizing force, a flat medium that connects people in every corner of the world equally:
Real life permeates virtual life at every turn. Online life mimics real life, similar to the way a newspaper or TV mimics real life. Peel back the layers of a newspaper and you will find not only news, business, and sports, but obituaries, wedding announcements, and job listings. Twitter combines news, casual conversation, and promotion in a different way—a single stream.
Online spaces preserve these layers of identity in ways that real life does not. We do not walk around with the x-ray vision required to see through the outer identity of others. The internet is like a giant knife, revealing a cross section of ourselves, always.