Analog Identity in a Binary Age: Computers and the Construction of Self

       Postmodern theory has shown a marked fascination with emerging computer technologies - how they affect our writing, our interaction, and our very sense of self. The social-epistemic theories of James Berlin argue that, since language is the medium by which writer, audience, and text are perceived and the medium for communication, language in effect constructs the self. Also, since the individual is a product of the interaction between the individual, community, and real world via language, identity is never fixed, but is fluid. In a world such as the Net that is constructed almost purely of language, and where interaction is speeded up, both reality and identity are even more fluid and subject to conscious control. This has led to a very relativistic approach to identity issues, especially in an online environment, but it is a relativism that seems to rely on binary oppositions. People are described as being able to be either male or female, young or old, black or white... and so on. It is a relativism that claims unlimited freedom of identity for the online participants, but sets certain boundaries around that freedom at the same time. I would like to suggest an alternate view of online identity, wherein the categories are subject to an analog, sliding-scale approach, and in which the postmodern, wholly relativistic view does not in fact take place.
      What follows is a case-study approach to the problem of online identity and its construction. The scope of this article is not such to allow an examination of a statistically large cross-section of the online community; what I hope to do here is open up a few lines of inquiry, and perhaps provide a few examples of the directions in which that inquiry can take us. 
       Just how clean a slate is the Net? Most enthusiasts of online communication will quickly point to how the Net makes everyone equal by eliminating all appearance cues - race, gender, physical handicaps, and so forth. Even scholarly critics such as Lester Faigley pretty much take this equality as a given (Fragments of Rationality pp. 181-182). The assumption seems to run that with no visual cues for discrimination, identity is completely in the control of each individual person, and anyone is free to be anything they desire. But what composes our identity?
       Allucquere Rosanne Stone proposes a way of looking at identity that she calls “the socially apprehensible citizen.” This citizen consists of physical and “virtual” elements - the body on the one hand, and the various social tags and relationships that associate the physical body with a place in the socially-constructed reality around it. An I.Q. score, a telephone number, any psychological diagnosis, a street address - all these are examples of what Stone would call “virtual” elements. They are the tags by which a social community transforms a Body into a Self, which can be located and acted upon by that community.
       This theory is not wholly new. Michel Foucault has in several works drawn a connection between categorization of identity-factors and the exercise of control over the individual. “In this way dimensions of personal life are psychologized, and thus become a target for the intervention of experts.” (Sawicki, p. 22) Jana Sawicki takes some of these Foucaultian ideas farther, and argues that this sort of categorization is one of the factors in the social construction of identity. Society gets to define the categories in which our identity-components fall, thus influencing how we ourselves view identity. To Foucault, there are two possible responses to this sort of identity-construction: adherence or subversion. I’d like to add a third possibility - that of ignoring the categories.
       Since Foucault usefully examined various institutions (prisons, mental hospitals, etc.) as a way of developing his points, I’d also like to ground my discussion in a particular institution, namely the Internet Service Provider (hereafter ISP), and more specifically America Online. AOL, as it is commonly known, is currently the nation’s largest single ISP, and one which targets “middle America” as its preferred customer base. Like any institution, it sets certain rules and practices which the members are obliged to follow, or else be barred from the institution; it likewise has conventions which, though not enforced the same way, nonetheless are followed to a greater or lesser extent.
       To answer the question, “What composes our identity?” in the offline world, we rely on visual cues for our first impression of others’ identities.  Online, all cues are visual to an extent, but the physical body that provides them is absent. What AOL substitutes in place of the body is the Profile. The profile consists of several predetermined designators, with varying amounts of space for a response after each. The form looks something like this:

Your Name:

City, State, Country:


Sex: o Male o Female o No Response

Marital Status:


Computers Used:


Personal Quote:

       The categories are preset, and there is no option for a user to add or modify categories. What one does have are the Foulcaultian options: adhere to the categories, subvert them, or (my addition) to ignore them. Identity construction on AOL, then, begins as a dialogue between the institution setting the parameters of identity, and the individual response to those parameters.
       It is my contention that this dialogue is going to be influenced by purpose - both the overt purpose of the individual when constructing the profile, and a more unconscious purpose inherent to the profile system. The primary, obvious purpose of the profile is to enable the user to present an identity to the other people online. I say “an identity” rather than “his/her identity” because the information that a user places into the profile is not necessarily true or representative of the user in question. The limited space makes it impossible to convey a total picture, so what emerges is a sort of verbal shorthand, a rough sketch of identity. AOL has established what it feels are the salient aspects of identity: age, gender, marital status, physical location, and so forth. (It might be worth noting that these identifiers neatly combine Stone’s “physical” and “virtual” elements.) In filling out the profile, though, some members choose to ignore certain categories by leaving them blank. Some subvert the categories entirely, substituting their own information, their own ideas of what composes an identity. Frequently this will take the form of including details of physical appearance; even so, space limitations programmed into the system will not allow a description of great length. What emerges is essentially a textual “cartoon” of the chosen identity.
      Scott McCloud has an interesting explanation of cartoons as they relate to identification. Greatly summarized, that explanation runs as follows. The more detail a picture provides, the more “realistic” we perceive it to be. However, the more detail a picture includes, the less universal an image is. The simpler an image, the more people it can be said to describe. Thus, a cartoon achieves universality through abstraction of detail, letting us focus on a few key elements. McCloud goes on to theorize that when interacting with another person, you see their exterior self in full detail. You also retain a sketchy awareness of your own self during that interaction - what your eyes, mouth, and hands are doing, perhaps - in other words, key elements. A detailed, realistic photo represents the “other”; a simplified image (a cartoon, in McCloud’s work) invites identification with the self. (McCloud, pp. 28-37)
       This brings up the other, more unconscious purpose of the profile system. Coupled with the profile itself is a search engine which allows a member to search the profile database, looking for any key words or phrases the user desires. If the chosen phrase is found in a profile, that profile is listed for the searcher. This not only allows, but encourages the use of the profile as a tool for identification. The Net is in large part a social arena. In constructing a persona, entering a chat room, or joining a listserv, one has the expectation of interaction; implicit in the act is a search for a community of sorts. Given the large membership of even just one internet provider such as AOL, the user needs a way of focusing that search; thus, the textual “cartoon” of the profile, which limits identity to manageable, searchable key elements. In this way, the profile becomes a tool for both construction of identity and identification with a group.
       But if all identity is socially constructed, if identity is always fluid and relative, how can such a system possibly work? One might argue that, if there are no essentials on the Net, then identification can never truly occur. There is so much false information out there, with no verification possible, that any imagined identification that takes place is itself false and conditional.
      Stone delivers the story of Sanford Lewin, New York psychiatrist, who adopted the online persona of Julie Graham (Stone, pp 71-78). Julie differed in nearly every respect from Sanford - different gender, different physical abilities (Julie was parapalegic), different basic personalities (Julie was far more outgoing than the reserved Sanford.) The dilemma that resulted would seem to perfectly illustrate the above point - people reacted very harshly when they found out that the persona they had been interacting with was false, was a role created by Sanford to enable the psychiatrist to interact at a more personal level with people. Was “Julie Graham” totally divorced from Sanford, though? Is this an example of the “clean slate” idea of the Net, wherein one can assume an identity with no connection to the offline self?
       Online roleplaying, as Stone points out, has been around for a good number of years; almost as many, in fact, as synchronous online communication itself. People take advantage of the fluid nature of online identity to create personas that frequently diverge significantly from their true selves. (One widespread phenomenon in this vein is the frequently-noted incidence of “cross-dressing” - taking on the persona of someone of opposite gender while online.) On AOL, a member’s account has the capacity for five separate screen names, ostensibly for the use of family members, each screen name carrying a separate profile and with no visible relationship between the names. This allows a member to have more than one online identity, an opportunity which some use to experiment with multiple roles, multiple identities and points of view. What I have done is to gain the permission of four such users to analyze their respective profiles, and see whether total fluid relativity does in fact apply in online identity. (Voluntary permission was necessary not only out of courtesy, but also because there is no way to otherwise trace which screen names belong to which “socially apprehensible citizen,” to use Stone’s phrase.) The sets of profiles analyzed belong to two men and two women, of varying ages, and pseudonyms are used to protect those involved.
       Kelly has three separate profiles; each one represents a fully separate persona. They are of different ages, occupations, and appearances, but there are some common threads that can be pulled out. The names are all exotic in nature, not likely to be encountered in daily life. The “Location” item is always filled in, but usually vague. In the one profile in which it is not ambiguous, it is accompanied by a derogatory comment. Birthdate is never given as such, though the age is given as early 20s in each case; sex is always filled in and always female. The striking similarities come in two places. “Marital Status” is never answered directly, but in each case, a comment is made such as “Men are unnecessary.” The same phrase, in varying wordings, recurs in all three identities. And then in the “Personal Quote” field, there is always a quote from the musical RENT.
       Diane has a somewhat similar set of profiles. Again, the personae are distinct, but with common threads joining them. The persona names are again exotic, but in this case each one has a family or lineage designator attached. The location given is always vague, and in each case includes a reference to wandering. The “Birthdate” field is always vague or omitted. “Sex” is never filled in, though the Diane’s descriptions are always unambiguously female; Marital Status is always given as single. Two other threads are of note: the persona is in each case described with feline qualities to a greater or lesser extent, and Diane includes in each profile one or more jargon words specific to the game system which she prefers.
       Chris has fewer obvious similarities. Two of his profiles are male, and two are female. Marital status varies, as do occupation and interests. But again we can detect certain commonalities. The name in all four cases is given as first, middle, last. The location is again vague, but in this case always includes a reference to shadows. The “Birthdate” field gives various ages, but the date itself is given as “Devil’s Night,” a bit of Detroit-area slang for (I believe) October 30th. The remainder of the profile in each case is dominated by physical description. All four personae are well-dressed, with careful attention given to clothing details; “The click of bootheels” figures in 3 of the 4 descriptions, with the fourth persona being boot-wearing but without sound effects. Each persona is described as being “otherworldly” and having a “sixth sense” for danger.
       The last set of profiles has perhaps the least in common on the surface. Steve’s persona names are alternately prosaic and exotic; location is sometimes given, sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes left blank; the “Birthdate” and “Marital Status” categories are treated similarly. The sex is given as male in all cases, though one persona is identified as gay in later description. What does run across all the profiles is careful language use - capitalization, complete sentences, and educated vocabulary, all of which are treated with a certain disdain in the online community at large. Steve also uses full, visual descriptions in each case, presenting build, face and hair, demeanor, and clothing. Also, there is an artistic theme to the occupations - one persona is a writer, one is a musician, and one is an actor.
       At the risk of indulging in a little armchair psychology, I would say that we can glean some insights into the people behind the personas through looking at the common threads that run through those profiles. Kelly does not seem to have a strong interest in or identification with place. She either is in her early 20s or identifies with that age group (we cannot simply assume that she is in her twenties, since the profiles are consciously constructed roles - the common age might just as easily be the age Kelly sees as desireable, rather than representative of her offline reality.) One can safely deduce that she has some rather definite opinions on marriage. Likewise, we can guess that Diane places a certain emphasis on family, identifies with cats to a greater or lesser degree, and desires to interact with a particular gaming community, since she uses in her profiles terms that only that community would understand. Similar common threads can be drawn from the profile-sets of Chris and Steve.
      So does this show that the essentialists are right? Are Foucault, Stone, and the other relativists misguided, and there are in fact basic, unchanging qualities in a person that are purely generated from within? To put it bluntly, no. That is not my argument. The very careful line to walk here is that all the information in all the profiles above does not necessarily reflect the “socially apprehensible citizen” behind the profile. Any one of the profiles for a particular person might reflect the real individual behind it, or none of them might. What I would argue matters is that the individuals constructing the profiles perceive certain things as essential, consciously or unconsciously, and those perceived essential qualities form the “anchor points” which root the persona in ground which the user feels comfortable. As Stone has pointed out, few people are comfortable with total relativism, total fluidity. What I think is taking place in the construction of online identity is that people are taking the opportunity to depart from their socially apprehensible selves, and take on a new identity to a greater or lesser extent, while using a set of “anchors” to keep these identities connected in some fashion with their base selves. To turn back to the example of Julie Graham for a moment, one of the things that was often said about Julie is how helpful her conversations were to various people, that she provided insight and support for folks who needed it. Isn’t that desire to help also present in Sanford Lewin, psychiatrist? As radical a departure as Julie might have been from Sanford’s base identity, that desire to help was, I would argue, the anchor that tied the two selves together. Similarly, one could reasonably deduce in Steve’s case that the persona identified as gay is a departure from the base self, since that one profile is the only place such orientation is mentioned, but the artistic outlook and attention to visual appearance are anchor points which keep this persona tied to the person behind the persona. I would view identity, particularly online identity, as an analog, sliding-scale affair, and each scale is calibrated with reference points that vary from individual to individual.
      I also would like to point out that this whole concept of "anchor points" which I am developing here is a bit tricky.  I point out that Kelly might not be in her twenties, even though all her personae are.  What the individual sees as essential identity tags might not be represented in that person's actual physical or social life.  A person whose online personae are all under 5' 2" might well be 6' 6" in actual physical fact; the identification that person makes, though, is with shortness.  That person's self-image might be one which does not match the physical self. This fluid nature of online identifiers is both liberating and nightmarish -  liberating, because a person online can break free of accidents of self with which he or she does not identify; nightmarish, in that determining whether a given online identifier has been chosen from an experimental impulse or an essential one.
      Let me stress, by the way, that I am denying neither relativism or social constructivism. The “anchor points” that the above four people display are not necessarily all deliberate, conscious choices. As I mentioned earlier, Foucault and Sawicki would see the consctruction of identity as a dialogue between institutions and individuals. In the profiles of the above four people, we can see that some of AOL’s identifiers are casually accepted, while some are ignored or subverted. Not one of the four people above, for example, have gender-neutral profiles. Even Chris, who is the only one of the four to play with gender, has distinctly male or female profiles. The validity of the identifier is not itself challenged, the way that “Computers Used” is. “Computers Used” is, I believe, the single most ignored or subverted field in the whole profile; the majority of profiles I examined either left it blank or used the space for other purposes. Not many users feel this is an identifier with any significance to them. The preset categories do not force profiles into a certain mold, but they do require the user to make a choice about acceptance or rejection of the given identifiers. In addition, given the role of the profile as a tool for identification, the information in the profile might be tailored so as to appeal to a certain online community. Conventions are almost certainly forming among various online sub-groups that will influence both the content and form of the profile, certain accepted ways of subverting AOL’s preset conventions.
       Obviously, this study is far from exhaustive; what I hope I have done here is to bring conversation about online issues of identity back into some sort of middle ground, away from extremes of either essentialism or relativism. A reasonable next step in this sort of discussion might be to conduct some sort of study to see how far online personas diverge from the socially apprehensible citizens behind them: are there any patterns to that divergence? I also limited my study to that information which is contained in the profile itself, which I think we can agree does not comprise the whole of even a perceived online identity; another approach might be a sort of anthropological or cultural study of identity as expressed through online interaction. Both of these approaches fall somewhat outside the scope of this paper, but I believe they might yield valuable insight into the question of online identity issues.

Alex Weirich
Northern Arizona University

Works Cited

Faigley, Lester  Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition  1992, University of Pittsburgh Press

McCloud, Scott Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art 1993, Tundra Publishing Ltd.

Sawicki, Jana Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body 1991, Routledge, Chapman, and Hall

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age 1995, MIT Press

Links to Other Sites

Links to Berlin-related Sites

James Berlin's Social-Epistemic Rhetoric : A paper by Dennis Ciesielski of Peru State College which focuses on how Berlin's theory emphasizes dialogic practice.

Links to Stone-related Sites

Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) Stone's Homepage : A homepage chock full of everything you might possibly want to know about the author of The War of Desire and Technology, including links to some of her shorter essays.

Links to Faigley-related Sites

Excerpts from Fragments of Rationality : A few selections from Faigley's book, in which the author examines views of postmodernism.

Lester Faigley's Home Page : Information about the author himself, as well as links to some of his additional works.

Links to McCloud and Comics-related Sites

Understanding Comics : The Invisible Art : A review by Alessandro Bertolucci in Switch, an online magazine. The review includes hyperlinked excerpts from the work itself.

Comic Books Go Digital : An article from the New York Times Cybertimes on the interaction of comic books and Internet technology, which includes a few thoughts from McCloud himself on the future of the form.

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