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.


  1. An excellent expository post; you very clearly lay out your point of view. I wish you'd more explicitly back-posted to some of your prior entries, since at first I didn't think you'd done any conventional research on identity, then found an earlier post on Freud.

    Consider adding in images to break up a longer post and add interest. A still (or video) from Joy Luck Club? How about the cover of that book that you reference on Groupthink?

    One problem with this kind of re-cap post is that you can forget that readers haven't necessarily been with you all along your research journey. In this case, you probably should have touched on examples of the multiple identities online that you refer to rather than taking it for granted that everyone knows about these.

    I think that some will argue with you that online identity, rather than deepening or unifying a sense of self, is a dangerous game one plays with oneself by living too much within a fantasy mode. How do you answer the argument about online identity being a lot about escapism? Isn't it unhealthy at some point to inhabit another mindset? Don't people sometimes have a dichotomous mindset rather than multiple identities, and couldn't that set up a kind of Jekyll and Hyde problem?

    Your post concludes weakly (identity issues are not new and I'm sure we can work them out). Where are the stakes? If it isn't a big deal, why are you even talking about it?

  2. You mention "single visible identities," and make a sound argument, theoretically, for how that works. But I wonder if getting more specific with the mechanics would make it even more concrete - how do myspace, facebook, online shopping accounts all link together? And do they form a "visible identity" only for someone who goes to the trouble of finding all the personal traces of a person on the internet? Or is each of us somehow more aware of another person even if we aren't stalking them?

    Also, I might be interested to see the limitations of the analogy between Amy Tan's characters and the digital ideas...I think your arguments are good, but I might go with you even further if I can see that you acknowledge where "going too far" might be.

    Lastly, you mention Patricia Wallace's statement that after all, “if we don't try things out, we don't know what fits best.” You then say, "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 might argue with this, in the sense that when you find that something does not fit, as Wallace describes, there will still be online the trail for people to piece together, perhaps erroneously.

    So, maybe you can make a distinction about a "single identity" for the individual, that may not be fully understood by outsiders.

  3. I'm thinking these "stakes" Dr. Burton is refering to is like the plot of a book.

    For example, in your case it would be "somehow, if people don't come to understand digital identity they risk something or other which will have devastating consequences on some level." Something gutsy, but not too controversial - sort of like a Born-Again Christian revival sermon. Like what happens if we don't completely understand identity? Why should we care? I think this idea of "stakes" is key to a paper that does or does not make impact and is something a lot of us could work on.

  4. Thanks for your comment on my blog.

    I ended up writing a long riff/response from some of the ideas in this post on Caucajewmexdian: http://caucajewmexdian.blogspot.com/2010/06/digital-and-ethnic-identity-my-response.html

  5. Heather, we discussed the ability of individuals to find opposition to their online personas. Dr. Burton talked a bit about profiling done on the internet, which ties in very well to my research on government monitering of the "online individual" in China. It made me think of situations where individuals in China face government backlash against their online presence, and not against any action done in the physical world.

    I'm attaching an article to diigo called "China's Orwellian Future" which lists many instances of individuals' online identity being persecuted by the government. See specifically Stainless Steel Mouse under the subheading Big Brother is Watching.

  6. http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2004/10/Chinas-Orwellian-Internet

    Here's a direct link to the article