Identity and Identification in Online Discourse

... a quick look at how identity online is a dialogue, not a monologue.


       A good deal of ink has been spilled at this point on the subject of online discourse: how helpful it is in the classroom, how it’s changing the way we write and interact, and so on. Most people seem to agree that online discourse is faster, easier, and more liberating in many ways than traditional forms of conversation; the disagreement is in the “why”. I’d like to explore a possibilty that I think might have been overlooked - that of how the construction of online identity affects identification.

      Scott McCloud has a very useful explanation of icons and identification in his book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 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.

      In online discourse, we have very little to go on to gauge the identities of others. Screen names are rarely a person’s complete, proper name; visual cues are removed; identity is constructed entirely through language. Most online services have a feature known as a “profile,” which can be used to provide further information about one’s self. In this discussion, I’ll be using the format and terms of America Online, since that company is the United States’ largest internet provider.

       The AOL profile consists of an electronic “form” which the user fills in. Spaces are provided for name, location, date of birth, sex, marital status, occupation, hobbies, type of computer used, and a personal quote. The user can fill in any or all of these blanks as desired; some choose to leave certain categories blank, and some subvert the categories entirely, using the “hobbies” space for example to provide more of a physical description. (Note that for the purposes of this discussion, the actual truth of the information contained in the profile is not under discussion, since there is usually no way to verify or discount the information in another’s profile.) Whether the categories are accepted or not, however, space limitations require any particular user to restrict his or her profile to a few key elements - in effect, providing a verbal “cartoon” of the self to be presented to the rest of the online community.

      As an experiment, I once created a deliberately ambiguous screen identity (hereafter called “Stef”). I carefully omitted or blurred all gender-references, provided vague answers to questions such as location, and presented a physical description that was as androgynous as possible. What resulted, for me, was a sharp increase in how often people initiated conversations with this screen persona. Typically, those interacting with “Stef” had an initial conception of “Stef” as someone very friendly and likeable, very easy to talk to, and it was usually assumed (no matter what the discussion forum) that “Stef” shared the same basic opinions as the person initiating the conversation. Invitations to various discussions were fairly frequent, and “Stef” received a good number of compliments along the lines of “Great profile! I like it!” from total strangers - compliments which were usually followed by lead-ins to further conversation.

       By contrast, my own actual profile is fairly specific and situated. I give definite answers to the age, sex and location questions, include specific interests, and have a concrete self-description that is as clear and realistic as I can make it. In the same discussion forums that I visited as “Stef”, with the same groups of people, I found that I had to initiate more conversations. It was not that “Alex” was perceived as more “hostile” or “unfriendly” than Stef; I would suggest rather that the more “photo-realistic” profile left less to the imagination, and thus was less open to identification, more “other”, than the deliberately-vague profile of “Stef”.

       This focus on “key elements” of a persona is aided on AOL by another feature: the Member Directory. This directory is accessed via a search engine which allows a user to specify one or more keywords, and have the computer provide a list of all profiles which contain those words. This search engine, in other words, allows a greatly speeded-up method of identification by not only abstracting key elements of an already more or less abstract persona, but by placing control of which elements are considered key in the hands of each individual user. It is worth noting that such searches are rarely performed on keywords considered “other” by the searcher; the search is usually made in order to identify members that have things in common with the searcher.

       I want to stress that this “identification through abstraction” only holds at the level of initating discourse. Continuation of discourse depends on a good many factors, and one of them I think is seeing the “other” as a separate person. It is, after all, difficult to hold a conversation with one’s self. Also, different discourse communities demand different things of their participants, such as technical vocabulary, or familiarity with certain discursive conventions set by the group, which do not allow for continued vagueness. But Burke and others have shown that identification between the rhetor and the listener is an important part of the rhetorical process; I would contend that such identification is enhanced and speeded up by the nature of perceived identity online.

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