The Construction of Multiple Identities
The advent of the internet and the rise of social networking has provided an opportunity we did not have before – the opportunity to construct multiple identities. For some, the real world is good enough; for others, it is not.
A few years ago I listened to a program on NPR (National Public Radio) about the rise of local churches. This was not so much about religion as it was about people who obtained papermill degrees in Theology, Ministry, or similar and then started a church placing themselves at the head of that church with their name prefixed with Doctor, Pastor, or similar title of authority. In an institutional church, for example, Lutherans or Catholic, it takes many years to earn a degree with these titles. But heck, if someone can send in $10 and get a degree – to get that identify – then why not?
People need self-validation. For some, self-validation, a sense of worth, comes from inside – intrinsic. For others, validation has to come from outside – extrinsic. The challenge of extrinsic validation is that one needs to find an external environment, community, or organization where this can be accomplished. If the door is closed in one environment, community, or organization you can always try to find another. For example, a local condo or home-owners association can provide titles of President, Board of Directors, or similar titles and these can be filled by people who, in the real life of their jobs, have never earned – or have been granted or entrusted with – any real management responsibility. One night you’re on the Board of Directors at the home owners association – the next day you’re sitting in a fabric cubicle at work like Milton in the movie Office Space.
The real world is hard. It does not comport itself to the easy wishes of those who desire extrinsic validation by titles or positions of responsibility in a real environment, community or organization where these titles and positions require a demonstrated competency and history of creating measurable results in order to get this positions or titles.
The world is more or less malleable depending on circumstances. In the case of the local non-denominational church one can buy a divinity degree on-line, open a storefront church, and install oneself as minister. The individual has complete control. In the case of the home-owners association one must get elected as President, as a Board members, or other officer of the organization. To accomplish this, one must win a popularity contest. This is somewhat harder than the example of the storefront church where you simply install yourself by fiat. In a large corporation, to the extent that the culture is a meritocracy, to get a title of responsibility one must win a sort of competency contest. In all these examples, individuals who want to construct an identity have to do it against some sort of real world constraints.
The advent of the internet and the rise of social networking communities provides an opportunity, unparalleled in history, to easily construct an identity – in fact, to constrict multiple identities – multiple “I’s – without having to deal with any messy restrictions or constraints imposed by the real world as the examples above show.
On a social networking system such as Facebook, one can literally “write oneself into existence”. One can “cut and paste” snippets of accomplishments (fabrications) into a Facebook profile page. One can even experiment with multiple identities and see what community of Facebook friends (“Friend me”) will accept them.
Similarly, if your real life is not to your liking, you can get a Second Life.
Fascinating interesting? Or, fascinating disturbing?
Here are some snips on the History of Identity formation from a popular book –
Identity formation is a complex process. Some might argue that, fundamentally, we are all unknowable mysteries. The psychoanalytical tradition from Freud to Lacan posits that our identities are essentially illusory. There is little disagreement, however, about one powerful fact: our identities are socially constructed. The social construction of identities is based on institutionalized values – family, community, church, profession, nation and so on. For most of us, our identities have been assembled and shaped by dominant values given social expression by institutions…
During the Roman Empire, identity construction was simple: you were either a Roman or a Barbarian. True, within the empire there was a distinction between citizens and slaves, but the most significant identity distinction was a sharp us-and-them dichotomy between Roman citizens and the uncivilized hordes beyond the limits of empire – Germans, Celts, Britons, Huns, Vandals and Visigoths…
In Christendom, identities were no longer constructed according to notions of citizenship. They were fashioned by the spiritual values of a religious community. If you asked someone in medieval Europe the question, “who are you?”, they would not have replied French, German, British, Spanish or Italian. Those concepts did not even exist. Identities in the Middle Ages were complex and multilayered, integrating sacred and profane. Most people considered themselves, above everything else, to be “Christian”…
After modern nation-states overthrew the medieval order, states based their authority on legal-rational forms of domination exercised through strong, centralized bureaucracies. When modern states first emerged in the 17th century, with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, what we today call “national identities” did not exist. Identities were based on a fusion of feudal loyalties and religious devotion. Nationalism as we know it today would not finally emerge until the end of the 18th century with the French Revolution…
In his classic work, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson observed that modern nations are essentially mythological constructs. They are “imagined” because their members do not know most of their fellow citizens; they never come into contact with one another. And yet, thanks to a strange psychosocial alchemy called national identity, nations are forged by a common image that joins people in feelings of common loyalty and purpose.
States proved remarkably successful at identity construction. All manner of rituals and symbols – including flags, anthems and folk heroes – were cobbled together, and sometimes fabricated, in the cause of nation-building. It was an extraordinary achievement, especially since some nations – like Belgium – were in fact artificially invented and held together by national symbols that were either concocted or borrowed. Yet it worked. For the past two or three centuries, most people have maintained a primary self-concept fused with an essentially national sense of belonging. The Olympic Games are organized according to these national identity constructions. So is World Cup soccer. When you land at a foreign airport and present yourself at customs, you are asked for a passport – a document attesting to your national identity. Warfare is the most violent, and tragic, expression of national identity. Think of how many millions have laid down their lives for their country. During the 19th and 20th centuries, patriotism had real consequences on many battlefields.
That challenge to state power was laid down, perhaps over-dramatically, in 1996 when self-styled cyberguru John Perry Barlow flew to Davos to make his unilateral Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone,” he announced. “You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather . . . Our world is different. Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”
Virtual reality is an ideal sphere for personal identities. The quest for uniqueness on online social networks, as we have seen, can sometimes inspire highly imaginative forms of self-presentation, including fabrication and invention. Virtual identities are multifaceted and chameleon-like. For some, it must feel liberating and rebellious in a way that reconnects with the hippie culture of the 1960s when John Perry Barlow was writing lyrics for the Grateful Dead. No longer dependent on socially defined values of established institutions, young people on MySpace and Bebo are free to cultivate, albeit narcissistically, highly personalized notions of self.
In virtual reality, the coexistence of real and false identities has been instinctively integrated into online social interaction. People actively want to construct and manipulate multiple identities in the virtual world. Any attempt to ban it, or meddle with it, will alienate and trigger mass defections…
In the real world, we have less control over our own identities because, as noted, they are socially constructed. Social norms tell us who we are supposed to be. The personal fabrication of identities in cyberspace, on the other hand, affords more control on who we wish to be and how we present ourselves. Cyber-sociologists describe the fabrication of self on social networking sites as “writing yourself into being” . As the authors of our own personal identities, we have control over the construction of the cyber-personality we fabricate and display in the virtual world. On MySpace or Facebook, people make up who they are, possibly in multiple personas, with a keen eye on what kind of impression they wish to create. In the real world the self is presented ; in the virtual world it is invented.
In sum, online social networking is a virtual catwalk. Impression management involves constantly changing identities, much like fashion models switch outfits. Except that, in the virtual world, the curtain never comes down on the ritual of identity fabrication and self-exhibition. The popularity contest is a moveable feast where all “friends” are invited. And when it’s time to vote for your “TopFriend”, the I’s definitely have it.