Thursday, June 17, 2010

Research Papers, Blogs, and the Good Ole BYU

For my ENGL 295 class, we were also asked to compare conventional research writing with the kind of blog research writing that we have been doing for the last month or so. Well, here's what I think are the advantages and limitations of each type:

Conventional Paper Writing:

Perhaps the main thing that is different in a conventional research paper from a blog post is the tone. You simply have to learn to present yourself well, and you have to learn how to take a position and defend it. I think this kind of thing is valuable. Also, sometimes I think it is kind of nice to have a finished product, a paper that is whole and done. This kind of writing I think does "mediate literature" in that it does require that you take a stance and closely analyze the work. Sometimes in blogging, it is easy to be wishy-washy in what your are trying to prove.

BUT.... Ok, now on to limitations. With a conventional research paper, you really can't learn to hone your ideas. You can't get feedback. You turn in your nice little paper copy to your professor and then, well, either you did well, or you didn't. Where's the room for growth? Also, what exactly is the point for that research paper? I did a killer analysis of Emily Bronte's influence on the poetry of Emily Dickinson for my American Literary History class last semester. On the bottom of my paper, my teacher, Keith Lawrence, stated that the paper would make a fantastic (hold your breath) MASTER'S THESIS. Um, that's HUGE. Maybe not, but it was a big deal to me at the time. But now that paper is kind of just sitting on my computer at home, or perhaps in the depths of Professor Lawrence's office, and no one will ever see it again (unless I resurrect the topic when I go to grad schoool). So, are tradition research papers valuable? Yes. But could there be something more beneficial at times? Yes, I think so.

Research Blog Writing

Ok, I've already blogged here about how the course objectives for this class have helped me in honing my research blog. This kind of research blogging allows a student to publish exploratory musings on what they are thinking for their topic. I think that this kind of fluid thesis formation is a really good thing. It allows a student to get feedback they wouldn't necessarily have gotten. For example, my professor kind of disagreed with my thesis about online identity, but in disagreeing, he pointed me to really good sources that helped me keep some of my fundamental ideas, but also allowed me to tweek what I was thinking so that everything made sense. This brings me to another strong point of blog writing. In a research paper, I would typically use the first couple of sources that popped up on BYU's website, or google scholar. On a blog, people with real skills in this field can point me to sources that are top-notch. Here is an example of that. Also here and here are examples of how I tried to talk to people outside the class. This kind of interaction is so necessary to meaningful learning. My classmates did a really good job of reaching out to people throughout the semester: look at James' blogs and Neals' blogs for examples.

The learning objectives for BYU state that our classes should be "intellectually enlarging, character building" and "lead to a life of learning and service." Do blogs help accomplish that better than a research paper? Yes, I sort of think so. After all, are my "life-long" pursuits going to involve sitting in a vacuum while typing on a screen and then presenting a nice little printed copy of a research paper? Nope. I need to learn how to incorporate criticism. This is perhaps the most "intellectually enlarging" thing I can learn that will really help me my whole life long. I want to be a Mom. Ok, so I have to learn to realize how my kids are responding to how I try to teach them. I want to be able to help teach and serve in my church. Ok, so I need to be able to present things not in a "scholarly, stuffy" way, but in a way that people will really be interested in who I am and what I know to be true.

So that's my conclusion on this class experiment, I guess. I have learned to love this class. It has been beneficial, forcing me to learn in a new way. Blogs are good things. So are research papers at times. But blogs are perhaps more meaningful.

A Shout-Out to Stacie. And Analysis.

So, as I made clear in my first post, this blog came into being because it was an assignment for my ENGL 295 class at BYU. Now, for that same class, I am going to analyze one of my classmates' blogs based on the criteria. I'd also like to take a look at how effective that criteria was in helping my classmates and I develop our blogs.

Stacie... Tea Party Movement and Women's Suffrage.

Stacie Farmer in my class did her research blog based on comparing and contrasting the woman's suffrage movement (as is portrayed in Iron-Jawed Angels) with the Tea Party Movement, as well as other online protest. Stacie's main arguments are laid out in three "hub" posts, which are spaced between other posts of more variety or expository nature. Here thesis is really in the last of these hub posts. The thesis maybe could have come earlier in the semester, but I think it works where it is too.

Strong Points
Development/Post Variety: It is easy to see how Stacie's ideas took form. She covers everything from Mormon Feminist Housewives to business blogging and then settles on discussing the Tea Party Movement. I think that this shows that Stacie worked hard to really see what direction she could go in. This is the kind of self-directed learning we talked about in class. Stacie also documents her research on scholars and her efforts in contacting those scholars. Again, I think this shows how she was willing to take initiative and also covers the criteria point of Interactivity and Community. I also think Stacie does a good job of focusing on correct Length. This is something I have (and continue to) struggle with, so I appreciate that Stacie's posts are not too long, but do give enough valid information to be engaging. I also think Stacie does a good job incorporating media, such as pictures and video, to her blog. One thing I noticed from the beginning in looking at Stacie's blog was her ability to incorporate Links into her discussion. Sometimes these links go to other sites, and sometimes they go to videos. It's not always perfectly clear what the links are going to be too, but the links are always pertinent and beneficial.

Just a Few Suggestions
The first of Stacie's more expository blog posts does deal primarily with her literature. However, I think her Analysis could have been a bit more in depth. She maybe should have drawn more conclusions from Iron-Jawed Angels than just the fact that the Women's Right Movement was very physical in nature. This goes along with the points of Currency/History and Sources. As I read Stacie's blog this past semester, and as I'm looking at it now, I don't remember there necessarily being a great deal of scholarly support for her arguments. However, she did get in contact with a scholar she found on Amazon, which does add weight to her ideas.

The Criteria
I do think that the criteria listed here are good tools to analyze and provide focus for our research blogs. I will be perfectly honest. When I realized that this class was going to focus on new media, which was going to mean that my classmates and I would be blogging, I was a bit worried about the material I was going to learn. But, as my classmates and I followed the criteria, we were able to learn about new media while engaging with critical texts while also coming in contact with real people studying our topics. Not only that, but incorporating media and a "personality" on our blogs is going to prep us for the future, where things like that really do matter. The only criteria that may be missing from the list is the need to comment on our classmates blogs throughout the semester. This kind of "gift economy" attitude is incorporated in the criteria through such things as Community, but we talked a lot in class about commenting on our classmates' blogs, so it makes sense that this would be spelled out in the class criteria as well.

The End as the Beginning

At the end of today, Spring semester at BYU will draw to a close. I will go back to my apartment, finish packing all of the random things that I forgot I owned, and tomorrow my Dad will show up in Provo, ready to drive with me back to sunny Mesa.

Can you see the light at the end?

I don't mean to be cheesy or anything, but is this the end? What if it's not? What if this blog continues to serve the purpose that I hoped it might in my first post? Has this blog been useful? Have my key ideas been a meaningful contribution in the online discussion about identity?

ENGL 295 Learning Outcomes
First off, has this blog helped me in gleaning everything I could from my ENGL 295 class? Here's the outcomes for the class:
1. Read literary, critical, and online texts analytically and
2. Find and evaluate secondary sources.
I think I've been able to do these two, with discussions of literary texts like Joy Luck Club and How to Tame a Wild Tongue. I also have been able to look at critical texts, about both Joy Luck Club and online identity issues. As for looking at online texts, I have looked at more informal sources, such as online book reviews, as well as scholarly blogs.

3. Develope collaborative compositional processes.
I have tried to use the comments others have left me, as well as the material they've suggested. Here and here are examples.

4. Write a traditional research paper. Did it! (although it wasn't really on this blog)

5. Engage in self-directed learning. This, I think, is my greatest accomplishment. I came up with researching this topic on my own, and I took it in the direction I wanted, and I decided who I agreed with, and who I disagreed with, and whose ideas were valuable. I can't really provide a link for this.... the blog in itself shows the process. Feel free to shift through posts and see how my own ideas emerged.

Good blog? What the teacher wanted?
After my ENGL 295 class started working on these blogs, my professor, Gideon Burton, started his own Literary Process Blog with a list of what he would like our blogs to be like. There's quite a few areas of criteria, so I'll just touch on a few. I think that towards the beginning of this blog, I struggled a little on length. Sometimes I rambled (forgive me. I'm an English major). I also didn't really add too much media toward the beginning, such as pictures. Perhaps Focus was a problem toward the beginning, and some of my posts would be a bit confusing if read alone. But I think I have learned, and gotten better at posting. I have a good variety, touching on book reviews, profiles of scholars, data visualization, and event-centered posts. I think I've gotten pretty good at linking posts together and forming cohesion. And I do think I have a good amount of quantity here, with discussions that are grounded in both the current online conversation as well as the larger context of ideas related to my subject of identity. I also was able to interact with other people in the online world through this blog. See here and here for more about my interactions with others.

Back to the Thesis, One Last Time
So, yes, I am going to restate my thesis for you. I think that the online world allows identity formation, experimentation, and active creation to take place. Through these multiple identities, a stronger and more whole sense of self is formed for an individual. We create a beneficial singular identity that contains multiplicity. Now, am I absolutely positive that this thesis is set in stone? Not by a long shot. Like I stated above, the greatest triumph (too strong of language? deal with it) of this blog is that it was, and IS, a process, where I can open up my learning. I've been trying to do a lot of linking on this post looking back at all of my work so far, but, again, I can't really provide a link for this. My ideas have become more focused over time, and have sometimes changed as I came in contact with other people. Maybe in a way, this blog is the greatest indicator of my own thesis. Multiple faces of my learning have been presented, as well as mutliple sides of myself. But I hope that all of these wonderful multiplicities can be reconciled together in a way that allows others to get to know me better, and allows me to better get to know myself.

So, Spring semester churns to a close at BYU. But don't worry, it's not the end! The light at the end of the tunnel is really the beginning!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Postmodernism Revisited

It's kinda weird what pops up when you search for images tagged "Postmodernism." Weird, but cool:

This picture fits in with Postmodernism because under this theory, interpretation is left open. There is no set, specific meaning, and there are multiple ways to view one thing.

Tracking Down Postmodernist Ideas

Yesterday, after I blogged about Zach Waggoner's book and his ideas about identity and video game avatars, I decided to take a closer look at other things that Waggoner might be working on. This was the idea of my Professor, Gideon Burton, who helped me find an online syllabus for an upper-level English class Waggoner is teaching at ASU, Video Game Theory. Looking at the syllabus, I noticed that Waggoner had assigned reading from Sherry Turkle called "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet." Turkle is a sociologist and the Professor of Social Studies and Technology at MIT. I read an overview of her arguments in this book, and ran into some interesting ideas, not all of which I agree with.

Turkle's Studies
Turkle basically argues that a computer screen allows a user to connect to the events on the screen and "suspend disbelief." But here's the catch. Turkle believes that this suspension of disbelief lasts after a person is done looking at a computer. A computer user's real life becomes entangled in Postmodernism as well, and "reality becomes what is referred to as "RL" -- "Real Life" -- which is just another role-playing game." In effect, Turkle is arguing that the internet and computers render people incapable of believing in the reality of, well, anything. This total lack of meaning and comprehensibility is very Postmodernist, and so it makes a lot of sense that Turkle also argues that "a unified self is...fiction."

Room for Reconciliation?
So, while Turkle does definitely argue against any semblance to a singularity of identity, which I believe can exist by containing multiplicity, I do think that my ideas and Turkle's are not mutually exclusive. Turkle said that, through the internet, "we do not feel compelled to rank or judge the elements of our multiplicity. We do not feel compelled to exclude what does not fit." The author of the overview stated "once that is accomplished, the self is prepared to play out all its fantasies..." Hm. So you have here an acceptance of multiple identities, which then leads to a "self" that is capable of making choices. Sounds pretty close to my original thesis about online identity. Who knew that a Postmodernist sociologist and I would ever agree?

Little Side Rant
Now that I've found a bit of agreement between my ideas and those of Sherry Turkle, I do want to highlight some of the ways in which we disagree. Both Turkle and I think there can be some blurring between online and offline self, but I think that this can be a positive thing, because it means that people are, in a way, trying to stay close to their offline selves, even if they are utilizing multiple identities to do so. But Turkle's arguments lead to a sense of "apathy" where we "cease asking how we are being manipulated by simulations." I argue that the internet allows us to be the manipulaTORS, not the manipulaTED. That's a big difference. Also, like I've stated above, Turkle sees the internet as a place where there is an "effort to "deconstruct" or "deactualize" reality." I think that identity experimentation can strengthen offline identity, not render it completely meaningless. Turkles ideas may lead to belief in "a world in which little is demanded of us; in which the stakes of life aren't so large, and the consequences of action aren't so final."

I don't agree with that. I believe our actions matter. This is why I argue for active identity creation.

Some Preliminary Conclusions
And I guess that will end up being my main argument. As I ponder wrapping up some of these conclusions later this week (with the knowledge that I haven't really finished learning everything or deciding what I think about all facets of the online identity issue), I know that there's one thing I think: the internet does not render us powerless. We must be active people, capable people, responsible people. We form an identity out of multiple facets because from learning and forming who we are, we become responsible for the overall identity we create.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Avatars. Video Games. All that Jazz.

This afternoon my professor Gideon Burton suggested that I take a look at a book called My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games by Zach Waggoner. I took a look at Chapter 2 today, which is all about identity theory in new media.

Waggoner first differentiates between Modernist and Postmodernist theories of identity. Basically, modernists believe that there can be singular identity, or a sense of identity "continuity over time and space." Identity is integrated; it is not fragmented.


But most video game scholars are apparently Postmodernists. I've never had much patience for Postmoderists. They always seemed to me to be a bunch of scholars groaning about the absolute total lack of meaning in a horribly coreless world.... That kind of pessimism seems a bit juvenile to me, actually. But in this context, their claims are interesting and valid. One Postmodernist theorist states that "the knowing self is...NEVER finished, whole, simply there and original..." Hm. That doesn't really match up with my theories on this. But, then, lo and behold, Waggoner states that this same scholar goes on to describe "self-identity as consisting of many distinct and unique parts (division) that nevertheless share enough (merger) to be able to join together." It is absolutely crucial to the formation of identity that "these different aspects of the self" are "able to 'see' each other."

Now Back to My Thesis
Hey! Guess what! That's what I've been arguing! This is like Born Digital, a text I've used before, where Palfrey claims that the online world allows our multiplicites of identity to be easily seen by others, and therefore more easily reconcilable into one complete whole.

How do Video Games Relate?
Not all of the scholars in this book agree on what identity is, which is fairly common enough. But video games do tend to fall toward a Postmodern theory of identity. For example, avatars in a game can be recreated, or can "rise again" after they have already died once. New games can be started. Video game levels allow players to attain a sense of accomplishment while also having more possibilities of identity formation in the future. And because a video game is like a story that players can actually create rather than just consume, identity is better able to be created than just sort of assumed (I blogged more about identity creation here). All of these things add up to support a Postmodernist theory of Identity, where identity is multiple.

Back to My Thesis...Again
But, these multiple identities lead to the creation of an identity that is "capable of fluid transformations but is grounded in coherence and a moral outlook. It is multiple but integrated." Postmodernists insist that this kind of identity cannot be called "unitary" by any means. Well, if that's what they want to say, that's fine with me. "Integrated" and "coherent" are enough to support my original thesis that mutliple identities online, such as those formed in playing video games, can be all contained within something of a semblance to a singular identity.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tongues that are Untamable

"Identity is the essential core of who we are as individuals, the conscious experience of the self inside."

This is a quote by Kaufman, an American psychologist who, I admit, I know next to nothing about. But I found this saying while reading Gloria Anzaldua's "How to Tame a Wild Tongue."

"How to Tame a Wild Tongue" is a chapter from Anzaldua's book Borderland/La Frontera, the New Mestiza. While I don't agree with all of Anzaldua's sentiments, I do think that this is a very valid piece of literature to discuss some of my themes and ideas about multiple identities reconciling into one online. For Anzaldua, identity is very closely tied with language. I love some of the passion in her writing... "How do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it? How do you make it lie down?" Anzaldua grew up in the Tex-Mex culture of the borderlands, a place where identity is defined as being blurred between spaces. As a Chicana, Anzaldua grew up with a multiplicity of languages, a multiplicity of identities. She learned standard English, slang English, standard Spanish, Mexican Spanish, North Mexican Spanish dialect, many regional versions of Chicano Spanish, Tex-Mex, and Pachuco (which is sort of a rebellious spanish-like language that came about in the 1930s and 40s).

That's a lot of languages. A lot of identities. But Anzaldua does argue that this multiplicity of languages can be used to find a singular identity. She says that
for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal, Castilian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language? A language which they can connect their identity to, one capable of communicating the realities and values true to themselves--a language with terms that are neither espanol ni ingles, but both.
I like that word "create"... I think it works in really well with what I am thinking about identity online. We create our own identities. We see the multiplicity, and, just as a Chicano language was "created," we create a singular identity that contains multiplicity.

Like I said, I don't agree with everything Anzaldua claims. But I really like parts of this text. I guess I'm interested because my mom is an elementary school teacher in Arizona, my beautiful home state, for kids who do not test proficient in English. She has about twenty of the most adorable Hispanic kiddos you've ever seen. I also love this text simply because I love language. Many times, Anzaldua uses Spanish in her text. The first time I read it, I was able to use my high school AP skills to understand most of it. The rest was translated for me by Greg, the very cute boy I am dating who returned in December from an LDS mission to Madrid. Sometimes he would pause and crinkle his eyebrows, and then shrug. "I don't know that word," he'd whisper at the library table in Periodicals. "Must be a Mexican word. They've come up with their own little things to say."

We all come up with our own little things to say, our own little things to do. We make our identity out of all these little things together. Wonderful, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


A few days ago, I was talking to my professor Gideon Burton about my project and ideas regarding how the multiplicity of identity online lends itself to the creation of a more unified sense of self in the offline world. Dr. Burton referred me to a series of three blogs by James Goldberg, a graduate student at BYU: Caucajewmexdian, Mormon Midrashim, and My Life and Hard Times. I took a look, and there was some interesting stuff and wonderful writing. So, I asked James a few questions. He not only commented on my blog, he wrote a whole post detailing a few of the limitations of my metaphor comparing ethnic minority identity and online identity. Check it out!

The more I blog, the more I am just very pleased with the capabilities of this wonderful digital world we live in. How amazing that two people, who never would have met in "real life," are now able to collaborate and discuss these ideas with each other.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Amazon, How I Love Thee

Ok, so this is not the Amazon I was referring to. But you've gotta admit... pretty spectacular, isn't it?

Anyway, the Amazon that I was referring to is the handy-dandy, where I hunt around every Christmas for good books to buy as presents. A few days ago, one of my professors, Gideon Burton, suggest that I look at the book Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds by Celia Pearce, a game designer. This book has a chapter on identity, which relates nicely to my studies on how multiple online identities can be unified in a way to form a more whole, singular sense of self. Virtually flipping through this book on Amazon, I did learn some things about identity. Probably one of the most important things I learned is that games, throughout history, have been multiplayer, and therefore tied to group identity. Think about it. Mahjong, mancala, senet.... these games involve more than one person. So do new online games today. So the issue of group identities and the formation of alternate identities is really not a new issue. Interesting!

I looked at some of the books that people usually buy along with Communities of Play. By looking at the tags and using Amazon's rather convenient search feature, I could tell that most of these books, while discussing the interesting cultures of online games, which I really don't know very much about, didn't deal so much with identity.

But then I found Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture by T. L. Taylor. The beginning of this book describes the author's attendance of an EverQuest convention held in Boston. Taylor states that
"This event, a "Fan Faire," presents some unique experiences in blurring the boundaries between game and nongame space, off- and online lives, avatars and "real" identities and bodies. The longer I have spent with EQ the more I have come to believe that this boundary work is at the heart of massively multiplayer games, and indeed internet life in general."

Taylor watches a man who usually hands out virtual flowers on the game give out roses in real life. She notes that people usually only go by their online names: even couples refer to each other by their game names. But, people do talk about their offline jobs and lives.

I do think that these observances are very pertinent for what I'm studying. Is a muliplicity of identity demonstrated here? Yup. Most definitely. But, although people utilize their alternate game identities to their advantage, they do mesh their offline selves with what they create. Does this give them a more sure sense of self? I think so. These people show a desire to bring together their different identities by attending a conference of this nature. The act of going to the conference demonstrates, in my view, a confidence in an aggregate offline and online identity, an identity that is formed by both worlds.

Monday, June 7, 2010


So, I've been looking a little bit lately about the current online discourse on my subject regarding online identity. Here is an event that is coming up that I think relates nicely to my thesis:

Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game: Internet Games, Social Inequality, and Racist Talk as Griefing

This lecture on Tuesday, June 15, is a part of the Berkman Center Luncheon Series. There will be a webcast that you can see through the Berkman Center site at 12:30 pm ET. The lecture will be given by Lisa Nakamura, who is the Director of Asian American studies at the University of Illinois. Professor Nakamura has done some writing focused on how the digital age affects racism, and vice versa. Tuesday's lecture will center around how social networking games, like Second Life, include "griefing" or pranking that has become increasingly racial. I'm really interested in a Second Life group that Professor Nakamura will speak about that is called the Patriotic Niggas, (I apologize for the slur...that's the name of the group and I want to be as specific as possible). The group, which is NOT comprised of African Americans, basically works to shut down Second Life by filling public space with garbage.

So what does this mean? A group of people are changing their identity drastically online in order to be destructive. This, definitely, does not add up with my thesis. How are these people different than mainstream bloggers and others connected to social networking sites? How are they (gulp) the same? How common are groups of this nature? What makes groups of this nature act this way? Are there people who engage in similar stupid activities who utilize identities more closely tied to their offline identity?

Something else I thought was interesting was that the information about this event on the Berkman site stated that "internet gameplay is becoming more socially and culturally diverse." Well, that's cool. This is possible because people are briging their online cultures with them to their internet games. There probably is cultural experimentation and reinvention taking place, as is sadly demonstrated by the example above. But, nevertheless, the online world is culturally diverse because people like to bring their culture with them into the online space. Then, they can emphasize and experiment with elements of that culture online, with leads to a multiplicity of identity, which then leads to a more whole overall identity.

I'm still hunting around for other events, but I really wanted to discuss the implications of the gaming lecture above. To see a more broad list of events having to do with the internet as a social and political sphere, see the Events page at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Privacy and Identity... danah boyd

First off, I'd like to draw everybody's attention to the Digital Native newsfeed I added to my blog this morning. It comes from the Berkman Center at Harvard, which I posted more about yesterday.

Also through the Berkman Center, I came across a link to danah boyd's blog. Boyd is a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center and a researcher for Microsoft who deals with new media issues, such as privacy and identity. I found a good amount of posts on this blog that have helped me to better understand my topic, such as the post "Facebook and radical transparency (a rant)" and "Pew Research confirms that youth care about their reputation".

So, do danah boyd and I agree on identity issues in the online world, you ask? Her ideas have definitely helped me consider new facets of my argument, such as the tie between identity and privacy. In her Facebook rant post mentioned above, boyd argues that Facebook ought to do a much better job of keeping people informed about how their privacy settings are configured. We must have the right to choose and consent to our identity in cyberspace. If people want to be very public, such as boyd, who makes herself public through Facebook and Twitter, that's great--but they ought to have the right to know exactly what information is being published.

Boyd's rant came in response mostly to Mark Zuckerberg, and the changing of Facebook's privacy standards. Zuckerberg said “You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…"

So where do I fall in this debate? Well, I guess I agree more with boyd. People care about their online identities, and they ought to be able to control those identities. I'm still trying to figure out if boyd would agree that this measure of control over multiple identities is basically the same as forming an aggregate online identity. Like one of boyd's commenters said, "truth is the aggregation of a gazillion interactions." So that's where I'm headed in my research process right now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Palfrey, Harvard, and Identity Play

Aren't these leaves gorgeous? Yes, they are. Well, let me explain where they come from. This is a picture taken at Harvard University Campus in the autumn. I've never been to Massachusetts, but I did consider sending all my ACT and SAT scores there when I was in high school, just for kicks and giggles (I've been pretty set on attending BYU since I was old enough to know that the letter Y and the color blue are by nature inseparable).

So, how does Harvard's beautiful campus relate to my thesis on identity in the digital age? Well, it all started as I began hunting around for some blogs and other online conversation about this topic. I found this Harvard intern blog a few weeks ago, and I thought I'd take another look today. Searching around this blog led me to the blog of John Palfrey, who was the co-writer of the book Born Digital, which I've blogged about before here and here. John Palfrey, by the way, is a Professor of Law and the Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard (that school with the beautiful campus). I searched through some of Palfrey's blog entries looking for some more of his insight on identity in the digital age. One of Palfrey's posts is a series of notes taken at a conference, where Palfrey states that others studying in the field of the "networked self" have said that "In privacy, you need space left over for identity play, for engagement in unpredictable activity."

Well, this fits my thesis... sort of. I'm arguing that the internet allows people to experiment with identity, which in turns often allows them to form a singular identity. Basically, experimentation with identity leads to a MORE firm sense of self.

But is this what Palfrey meant when he referenced "identity play"? Hmm. You got me. So I looked it up and found a pretty concise definition, which also states that "In whatever way [identity play] happens, Identity Play allows people to explore a wider variety of experiences and enjoy a more fluid sense of self."

So, is it fair to say that this supports my thesis? I think it does. Multiple identies formed on the internet do not fracture peoples' lives. They can lead to a "sense of self" that is MORE whole. The ability to be fluid in our identities actually provides us with something like a more complete identity. We play with idenitity, and in playing, we figure out what we like, what we are... we become more ourselves.

Just some thoughts. I think I'm going to google more Harvard pictures now.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Online Identity: Multiple Forms Singular

Lately I've been posting about identity issues that confront digital natives—as well as other online patrons—as they connect to social networking sites and other online services. As an English major in Brigham Young University's College of Humanities, I've looked at identity politics before in a wide variety of contexts—but never in the face of digital or “new” media. However, looking at identity through this different medium has not largely changed my perspective or opinions on identity—in all circumstances, identity remains a complex issue that engenders debate and differing opinions. I would argue that online identity establishment consists of a singular, visible identity that is created by the aggregate of multiple online identities.

Not So Unfamiliar

My claims regarding online media perhaps are not so far-fetched, because of what we have learned and studied regarding identity in literature before. In looking at how humans have viewed the simultaneous existence of multiple and singular identities in the past, I will draw primarily upon Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989. This book deals with four Chinese mothers who have a hard time relating with their Americanized daughters.

Before delving into the dynamics of the establishment of identity, it is necessary to understand why studying the identity issues in this book is relevant and beneficial to understanding online identity today. As part of the book Ethnicity and the American Short Story, Rocio Davis wrote a piece claiming that this The Joy Luck Club deals with the identity issues that result when a person is thrown into “the waning influence of an older culture and the overwhelming presence of another”. If this doesn't describe the digital age, I don't know what does. Humans have tried to figure out identity when coming into contact with another culture before—perhaps the digital paradigm is not all that different. “The difficulties of a culture undergoing transformation” perhaps are the same whether you're talking about the a fictional Chinese-American family, or an online world trying to make sense of how social media impacts a sense of personal identity.

Identity in the Joy Luck Club is not a simple issue. I've posted about identity issues in The Joy Luck Club before; see here for explications of identity and the character of Jing-mei. Many of the characters deal with the multiplicity of identity that Jing-mei deals with. In the segment entitled “Double Face,” Lindo Jong, a Chinese mother, sits in a chair in front of the famous American hair-stylist Mr. Rory. She sees herself in the mirror, and she hears her daughter tell Mr. Rory how her hair ought to be done—how she ought to look. Mr. Rory can't help but notice how similar mother and daughter look, but it is not only the two hereditary female faces that Lindo considers—Lindo, a Chinese immigrant, also sees two women, two faces, within herself. “Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show the one, you must always sacrifice the other.”

The argument here regarding multiple and singular identity issues is presented indirectly, but not subtly. Lindo believes in identity sacrifice, because, although people feel the tensions of different identities within themselves, only one identity should be allowed to show at a time. It is a human characteristic to switch between identities. As Lindo interacts with Mr. Rory and her daughter, she informs her audience about which “face,” or which identity, she is using: “I use my American face...I smile, this time with my Chinese face.” However, Lindo's daughter Waverly understands this identity-switching that her mother indulges in. She informs her mother that people know that her and her mother are “two-faced.”

Analysis of this section of The Joy Luck Club leads me to three conclusions. First, multiple identities do exist. However, a Chinese woman finds her singular identity in part because of the way that she has chosen to vacillate between identities. She may want to sacrifice one identity over the other, but she really can't. Lastly, the world surrounding the Chinese woman is at least partly aware of her multiple identities, which, in turn, allows the world to define the woman based on a singular identity.

Current Concerns

So, is the complex way of establishing and dealing with identity in the Joy Luck Club an applicable metaphor for understanding identity in the online world? I would say it is, not only for the parallels previously established, but also because people are concerned about the ramifications social media will have on identity, just as the Chinese mothers were concerned about the ramifications of American society on their own identity as well as on the identities of their daughters.

While studying online identity issues, a colleague, Allison, who is studying social media as a means of rebellion, gave me a link to an article entitled “Does Social Media Produce Groupthink?” This article expresses the fear that social networking sites, like Twitter and Facebook, can be “stifling” and encourage “groupthink,” basically a tendency to identify with opinions shared by the masses at the expense of personal moral judgment. While this article does not directly articulate opinions about the formation of online identity, I think it is a clear indicator that the digital culture has caused some people to wonder if singular identity—or any “identity” at all—is being crushed by social media. Perhaps less apocalyptic is the article “Keeping True Identity Becomes a Battle Online,” shared with me by a classmate Amanda, which highlights the difficulty of maintaining personal identity in a era that allows “digital squatters” to claim vanity website addresses attached to one certain name. In his study on the Bloggernacle, another classmate, Ben, brought my attention to the blog Mormon Feminist Housewives where women worried about the online identity that they were presenting in their blogs. One women commented, “it concerns me that I'm too split,” when speaking about her blog identity versus her offline identity.

So, identity is an issue, and a concern, a concern that used to be written about in print literature, but is now resurging as we face the implications of the digital age. But, if Lindo Jong really did have a singular definition of self through her multiple definitions of self, might the same thing be possible for us today?

Multiplicity of Identity Leading to Singularity of Identity

The first chapter in the book Born Digital, a seminal text about the digital age and digital natives that my professor, Dr. Burton, brought to my attention, is entirely focused on identity issues for youth who spend a considerable amount of time in the online world. This chapter argues that “the conventional understanding of identity holds that, over time, one can create multiple versions of oneself.” Certainly, the digital world makes the creation of multiple identities easier than ever before. However, this text argues that the digital age allows these separate identities to “converge—and converge even more than identities ever converged before the digital age.” This convergence of identities is not necessarily tied to how an online user wants to be perceived by others. However,
from the perspective of the onlooker, much more of the Digital Native's identity may be visible at any one moment than was possible for individuals in pre-Internet eras. If the Digital Native has created multiple identities, those identities might be connected to create a much fuller picture of the individual than was possible before, spanning a greater period of time.

So, the digital age is actually able to aid in the construction of a singular identity simply because multiple identities are able to be linked and seen together. The tension that Lindo Jong experienced is still present—but like Lindo Jong, one identity is formed by a multiple of different identities. The only difference is that that newly formed identity is much more visible for an online user than for Lindo.

The Desire for Singularity of Identity

In her book Psychology of the Internet, which I have blogged about before here, Patricia Wallace acknowledges the fact that is it almost a necessity for people to experiment with different identities. After all, “if we don't try things out, we don't know what fits best.” However, this kind of experimentation and reinvention of identity, which is easily accomplished online, does not lead to the establishment of identity that is fragmented, contradictory, or detrimental. Rather, experimenting with identity online leads to “a deeper sense of self.” I think that this sense of self could certainly be called a singular identity that is, again, formed from multiple identities. This kind of singular identity is much like the one that was discussed in Born Digital, except for the fact that it is more intentional. Wallace claimed that when experimenting with identity online, "many people stay close to their home self and just tinker with a few traits they wish they could improve." This statement is in-sync with Born Digital, which claims that “young people tend to express their personal and social identities online much as people always have in real space, and in ways that are consistent with their identities in real space." So, while manipulation of identity is certain on the internet, most people tend to express the fact that what they are looking for through the creation of multiple identities is the sense of singular identity. Furthermore, if a singular identity can be extrapolated through the internet easily, there is also a pretty good chance that this singular identity is very much in-line with the person's nature in reality. And, in large part, that identity is what people want to express.

So What?
So what is the point of this knowledge? Why argue that multiple identities can be aggregated into a singular identity on the internet? Why use literature to understand these things?

Because this discussion is not going to go away. The digital age will grow—perhaps even be entirely replaced by an age that we cannot even see on the horizon. But the issues surrounding identity will not drastically change or disappear. We do face uncertainties in how to approach the identity debate in the digital world—but we've faced these issues before. I hope that in realizing that, we can be better equipped to deal with identity issues in a well-educated, open way. Identity issues in the digital world may not be completely understood—but we are capable of trying to find ways to understand them, and through understanding, find positive implications and new hope in what the digital age can accomplish.