Identity 2.0

Me as Robot Youngling

This is a post about identity politics in the spaces between personal and professional that we now inhabit.

My ideas aren’t fully formed on this yet, but I thought it was important to open up a discussion, because (as I intend to go on to say) it’s important to get a collective as well as personal view on this, because as much as new mediums suggest that I am at the centre of my social and political universe, and as politics and marketing turn their sights to the hyperlocal, I believe the collective, and the universal should still be part of the dialogue.

At the NCVO New Politics conference that I attended in early January there was a real sense of charities and not-for-profit organisations turning towards the ‘hyper-local’, an approach that especially suits relatively new social media tools that allow unmediated (in a conventional sense) conversation with individuals. In this interview with a couple of NCVO members organisation representatives, I chatted about this trend.

In a lot of ways a hyperlocal approach is empowering for both parties, but in another way I believe a radical or uncritical shift towards the hyperlocal could be incredibly dangerous. If you forward your cause or politics only on an individual basis – this is how this directly affects you, and why you should care – you lose a sense of the bigger ‘better good’. You lose the politics that acknowledges that in some aspects we are all alike, and should all have equal footing, privilege and rights. Why should someone have to empathise on an individual level to support human rights and environmental causes? How far is hyperlocal different from a proactive version of NIMBYism? This is not the fault of the tools (social media) but how we use them.

There’s another aspect of this shift in personal/professional spaces which is endlessly fascinating to me. As someone who’s very resistant to advertising (it’s the main reason I don’t watch television) and any message that attempts to shape me to a hegemonic vision of consumer driven happiness, I am very conscious of how we are now opening up and splitting ourselves over different platforms, and how vulnerable that makes us to pernicious outside visions of identity.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that twitter, facebook, digital photography, photoshop et al are necessarily dangerous, these are new mediums for a very old way of communicating, I believe we are operating by the same rules as we always have done, just that on here the longtail is evidential, physically left. Recently I’ve been looking after a couple of friends who’ve gone through pretty bad break ups, both of which has been made almost insurmountably worse by the presence of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr – public spaces that are experienced personally, hyperlocally. Whenever I’ve broken up with someone, we’ve always done the 3 month mutual block/unfollow. But it’s always *there*. The long tail to your relationship. The relationship status change.

I went out on Friday night, and found that rather than asking for people’s numbers, 18 and 19 years olds are now more likely to ask for a full name – like a QRcode can hold so much more information than text, a facebook profile gives you so much more upfront. But it is also meticulously constructed, groups are the badges showing politics, bands, humour, unflattering photos are untagged, people are constructing online versions of themselves, whether you want to call it a profile or an avatar or a character, we de- and reconstruct ourselves daily. Are we making ourselves more vulnerable?

Enter personal brand ambassadors

More so than ever before children are being used to influence their peers, via social networking and IRL, on behalf of certain brands. Likewise throughout Twitter and blogs we hear the calls to the ‘personalised brand’ or the personal-as-brand. People (myself included) now find Twitter a space that shifts from personal to professional daily, and indeed this is technically no different to how we exist IRL – we shift between personas daily, at work me, public transport me, parent me, partner me – however extra dangers persist and in the preservation, we can lose context. Does social media focussing on the personal as brand, political, important, or central, distort our world view? And how do we critique a world built on personal brand? What happens when the brands we tire of are implicit? Integral?

There’s something to be said for easing people away from hegemonic visions of identity, encouraging fluidity, but we should also acknowledge that to assume the fluid transition of personal to professional, person to brand, in archived spaces assumes identity is a blank slate, sculpted, opted. Does this also apply to people who aren’t white, CIS, hetero, able bodied, middle class, developed-world men? What about the majority cast as as an ongoing ‘Other’ – to whom identity is more important, or more integral, people who are defined by their difference? Identity is dangerous when it is thoughtlessly fragmented or assaulted – and is at the root of an awful lot of hurt, destruction, and aggression throughout the world.

Acknowledging the cartesian mind/body split is all very well, but the split mightn’t be so simple with people whose bodies have shaped their mind’s experience – as a defining characteristic, a battleground, an Other.

My own experiences haven’t been particularly traumatic, but I have certainly been faced with difficult decisions when it comes to being female and on the internet. For a while I used an unconnected name (I still do on Comment is Free etc.) and photos that you couldn’t really discern me from. I got a bit angry at this, though. Although I’m not happy to fill the public internet (my facebook is mostly private) with pictures of myself as my main ‘selling point’, I also don’t feel like I should have to divorce myself from my image in order to be taken seriously. Which prompts people (even people I valued the opinions of) to accuse me of only having a certain amount of Twitter followers, or interaction online because I was ‘a pretty girl’. In what space will I ever be my words first?

These are fragmented thoughts, on a political, professional and personal level. I want to emphasise that in no way do I think social media, longtails, hyperlocal politics and activism are in any way bad. What it cannot be, however, is the only tool, left uncriticised. I’d be interested in what you think, and whether you think it’s something that’s being talked about enough, or too much. Go forth and comment.

People “have something to lose if they are regarded solely as informational patterns, namely the resistant materiality that … has marked the experience of living as embodied creatures […] Although VR may afford simulated access to a virtual and digitised community of representations — arguably a kind of “global public sphere” achieved at the loss of embeddedness and context — given the individuated manner in which the technology is being developed and will be accessed, the conflation between the conception it affords the user and the user’s own perceptivity needs to be acknowledged and theorised” pp.15-6 N Katherine Hayles in Digital Sensations, by Ken Hillis.

NB I know it’s a bit of a wanky title, but I thought the one I really wanted to use (Cybrands – like Cyborgs, geddit?) looked a bit like a pharmaceutical product, so there we are.

And yes the robot picture is me. I was BORN A GEEK.

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3 Responses to “Identity 2.0”

  1. Ben March 2, 2010 at 12:03 am #

    Back in the dim and distant past I wrote some musings on identity and information. This was more philosophically rather than politically motivated. It follows an intuition I had about fluidity and a conversational notion of identity – essentially that entity and identity are no longer synonymous in any meaningful way except in relation to context. Musings, such as they are, can be found in this forgotten corner of cyberia –

  2. Joanna March 2, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    …got me thinking, fascinated by different ‘selves’ worry about lessening value of actual physical meetings, time for longer, socially-based, unmediated reflection and the sometimes mistaken overvalue of the virtual self/brand. Also opens up a whole realm of extra pressures and new languages/viewpoints…shall ponder ideas around personal branding (despite my aversion) further – thanks – & didn’t we all dress up in cardboard boxes in our knickers at some point?

  3. Hannah Nicklin March 3, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, people,

    Ben, that link looks really interesting, I’ll give it a proper read when I have a moment.

    Joanna, yes, yes we did :)

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