Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Blogging Identity

Over at is there no sin in it?, A White Bear has raised some interesting questions about how blogging intersects with real-world contexts. The post begins with a reflection on blogging ethics – is it problematic to blog about our lives, when it’s essentially impossible to do this without bringing in the lives of those around us? It then moves to a discussion of blogging identity: how similar is the “you” of the blog to the “you” in various real-life contexts? What happens when people who know the “you” from one context suddenly encounter the “you” from another? Specifically, A White Bear asks:

So when, if at all, do you tell people you meet that you blog? Do you like it when your new friends read it, or is that kind of creepy, for them to have so much intimate information at their fingertips when you have so little? Do people report back to you in person with their thoughts instead of commenting? Do you ever get super-paranoid that maybe it’s not okay to be talking about your life, which necessarily intersects with the life of others? Then do you get super-extra-paranoid that maybe that’s the wagging finger of the inner “you’re a bad girl!” voice talking?

I’ve replied to the original thread, but wanted to reflect a little more on the issue here. A number of A White Bear’s commenters are passionately anonymous, and committed to not allowing their blogging to be traced back to their in-person community – even if this ultimately restricts what they can blog. Others perceive their blogs as opportunities to experiment with the production of a specific online persona – so the blog might be a refraction or a dimension of their life, or even a fictionalisation loosely based on their life, always understood to co-exist with other expressions of their identity in other contexts.

What interested me is that I’m not sure that my blog fits into either of these categories. Instead, this blog is, in many respects, an experiment in exposing something like my private voice in a public space – not completely without constraint, of course, but no expression of identity is ever without constraint. But what I write here is closer to my internal voice than I generally express, either in formal academic writing or in most everyday interactions.

I realise the fundamental oddness of this statement, given that I generally blog on social theory and teaching practice – in what sense are these “private” things? And, really, they aren’t. Except that the amount of time I spend thinking about things like this – the way I reach automatically for theoretical concepts to orient myself to new situations, the way philosophical categories map onto practical problems for me, my orientation to “abstract” questions – is something that I don’t often have in common with people I know in person. Relationships in which it has been possible to share these interests have been somewhat rare – and this experience casts a shadow over what I write here, because I associate this kind of discussion with private interactions…

To some degree, the decision to blog about these topics, in a way that keeps my thought process fairly close to the surface, is an experiment in learning to use this private voice in a more public forum – without the protection provided by a small collection of friends familiar with how I think. More recently, the blog has also perhaps become a bit of an experiment in interacting with others who might like to think in similar ways – this has been an unexpected pleasure, which I didn’t anticipate when I started writing.

I don’t know what effect all of this has on the people who know me in person, who also read the blog. The people I know in person who are definite regular readers are all people with whom I’m comfortable speaking freely, in any event, so I wouldn’t expect them to be particularly surprised by anything I write here (some of them have expressed surprise that I write publicly, but not specifically at the content of what I say). There are, however, a number of casual readers who make occasional reference to the blog in personal interactions, but where I have no way of knowing how much they read, or what they think about it. I worry most, of course, about casual readers’ interactions with a post like this one, which discusses issues that might not otherwise occur to a reader who doesn’t know me reasonably well… ;-P I lose a bit of de facto camouflage when I write a post like this… But this is part of the point of the exercise…

I do struggle with fairly regular impulses to tear the blog down. Impulses to dismantle the blog wax and wane – there have been a few specific occasions where I’ve come very close to acting on them (to avert possible misunderstandings, I should note that this is not one of those occasions). On balance, though, I like that I have persisted with the blog, even if I often dislike, or feel too exposed by, what I have actually written… I think that the process has reacted back, in positive ways, on my more formal work – and the interactive dimensions of blogging have confirmed a long-felt sense that it would be far better to think through important concepts against the friction and tension that only interaction can provide. My personal hope is that I stick it out – that I keep the blog going, that it continues to develop in unexpected and productive directions, that I perhaps develop a bit with it over time…

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15 responses to “Blogging Identity

  1. A White Bear December 3, 2006 at 3:48 am

    You remind me, here, of one of the reasons I started my current blog that I almost forgot about. None of my friends wanted to talk about work. When we went out for drinks, they wanted to talk about anything but “school,” so I started this blog, in a way, to start a casual, fun conversation about the thing I care most about. Maybe it’s easier to take all that theory/lit talk when it’s readable and nonrequired. If someone gets bored with me on the blog, they can stop reading. If they get bored with me in person, it’s a lot harder to walk away.

  2. N Pepperell December 3, 2006 at 7:27 am

    This is one of the things I like in general about electronic communication – the greater potential for nonintrusiveness (I realise this is a somewhat ironic statement, given the googlability of everything written in a forum like this, but I’m talking here about wanting not to be intrusive on someone’s time or attention). It’s good to know that if I prattle on and on about something, it’s at least easy for someone to vote with their mouse and go do something more interesting… It strangely frees me to prattle… ;-P

    At the time I started this blog, I literally had no other avenues for discussing the sorts of things I talk about here. This is actually no longer the case – I now do know a number of people locally who enjoy shop talk, both about teaching and about philosophy. The blog remains the only place I can discuss certain specific things – strangely, I still don’t really know anyone locally with whom I can have in-depth conversations about the dissertation (and isn’t that a topic likely to bore someone to death…), and the more detailed theoretical discussions I’ve been classifying under the “conversations” category on the blog also fall outside the background of people I know in person. But I suppose, at the same time I started the blog, I also started trying to cultivate in-person relationships with people who like to talk about similar things – all part of the same process, in some way…

    And there are now spillovers – the reading group is, for me, a really important place for shop talk – and so the discussions that have gone on there have now very literally also come to occupy a space here. Trying to bring my communities into some contact with one another…

  3. hipparchia, et al December 3, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    i could write at length on this [and have, in bits and pieces, largely by e-mail].

    rather than attempt to explain myself, at least at first, i offer myself up for analysis:

    me
    me
    me
    me
    me
    me
    me
    me

  4. N Pepperell December 3, 2006 at 8:14 pm

    Spam filter got you at first…

    It’s one of the wonderful things about the net – the auto-archiving nature of our lives…

  5. hipparchia, et al December 4, 2006 at 6:03 am

    i noticed that. my apologies. i don’t especially want to turn into a spammer.

    i’m endlessly fascinated by other people’s discussions on the topic of internet identity vs real life identity: anonymity, good or bad? multiple identities, good or bad? whether cyber relationships are “real” or not. etceterblah etceterblah etceterblah.

    unfortunately, the time and energy i can devote to participating in such discusssions are sporadically available, at best. therefore, i mostly lurk, no matter what the forum.

    [and i agree with you on the nonintrusiveness.]

  6. N Pepperell December 4, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    It’s no problem, really – the only danger is that I won’t notice that your comment is in the moderation bucket, and I might accidentally delete it!!! What triggered this one was the number of links in the post.

    I’m very laissez faire on the whole issue of internet identities – I’m happy for people to be anonymous, for them to play out personas, for them to be their truest selves, etc. I’ve occasionally seen very strong opinions expressed, particularly in relation to academic and political blogging, as if it’s somehow unethical for people to choose to be anonymous. I personally find this a bit bizarre (unless an anonymous poster is making ad hominem attacks or digging into the real world life of the person to whom they’re speaking – then I have some sympathy).

    I’d generally rather play the position, not the person, so to speak – I’m happy to interact with the self and with the ideas someone puts forward in an interaction, without getting tied up in metaphysical worries over whether I’m interacting with someone’s “real” self – the interaction has its own meaning and its own reality – possibly not the same for me as for the other person, but surely this is true of in-person interactions, as well…

    I also have to admit I find the whole worry over whether online relationships can be “real” somewhat odd. Admittedly, I tend to have fairly intellectualised relationships with the people I know in person, and this translates relatively effortlessly to the web… And I certainly know people who erect a strong emotional barrier around their online interactions and, for them, it’s certainly the case that they will be very unlikely to feel as close to anyone they know only in online space. But it’s always possible to wall ourselves off from specific kinds of relationships, if we want to do this – this is just a specific kind of wall…

    I’m also puzzled by the anxiety around the potential to fictionalise one’s life online – not because this doesn’t happen, but because it happens in face-to-face relationships, as well. We meet people in specific contexts – and, when we meet them, they are the creatures of those contexts, and are very likely to express very different selves in other times and places. This can be an issue for developing certain kinds of relationships – but this is a case-by-case thing, depending on how much a particular relationship depends on interacting with someone across multiple contexts, and on how problematic someone finds a different expression of someone else’s identity… I don’t really see this as specific to online interaction, although interacting online might provide the benefit of foregrounding the cultivated and contingent nature of the selves we present to others…

  7. Edward Yates December 4, 2006 at 4:55 pm

    Well I guess I hold different identities at different moments of time mediated by different contexts, the net being one medium, a coffee shop being another, being the only ‘white person’ in a rural Cambodian village being another.

    It comes down to whether there is an essential identity attached to ‘me’. I suspect that there is.

    Obviously we also hold different identities in relation to different people. My identity is viewed or ‘read’ differently by my students in social science, my colleges at uni, my friends, my brother, and my partner. It is also going to be viewed differently again by people ‘reading’ my identity within a blog or on an online forum.

    I also have the socially constructed benefits of particular physical identity markers that act as a source of immense privilege. I am a Tall, White, Man, with Blue eyes and Blonde hair.

    Other attachments of identity and privilege are a lot more slippery. When am I a working class person (my background) and when am I a middle class person? I can navigate either class setting, but feel comfortable in neither. (Middle class people just don’t get this at all.) Likewise I couldd talk about hetero-dominant society and my ‘heterosexuality’ being a source of privilege rather than oppression.

    The net removes some of these markers to some degree as a medium of communication. Yet the majority of net users are actually: white, middle class and most likely Western European extraction. But I’m the first to admit sometimes people wear ‘their identity’ as a badge of honor online as well.

    People like to get all ‘tricksy’ saying ‘well all identities are fiction’. But we could equally say that all identities are ‘real’ if we wanted to. Certainly an online identity is no less valid in terms of opinion offered within a text, nor if that online ‘persona’ commits an ‘online crime’ then is going to be equally prosecuted if the online identity can be traced to an actual person. I’m thinking in terms of governments now attempting to prosecute online offences the same way that they prosecute ‘real world’ offences. I’m pretty sure in this manner that either way if I commit some offence online or otherwise I well could be tracked down and brought to trial.

    In terms of posting on a blog or forum or within a chat room I can see the benefit to anonymity in terms of personal security. But I see this as no guarantee that your ‘identity’ cannot be “discovered” by another person.

    I guess the question is in terms of a blog how much a person reveals about themselves. I would say that the rule of comfort somewhere between telling ‘a friend who I have known for a few years’ and ‘a stranger who I know nothing about’.

    So I guess my roundabout position on online and other identities is that sure both are equally fiction, that is to say ‘constructed’, but that does not make them any less real.

  8. N Pepperell December 4, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    I’m conscious that there are ways this discussion can resemble our glass-half-empty discussion from earlier today… ;-P

    I think what interests me about discussions about online identities is the anxiety the discussions often reflect about the need to pin someone down, in order to have a relationship with them – as though the relationship you develop in a particular context might somehow not be “real” unless the person can somehow be fixed in the form in which they have related to you. There are of course limit cases – someone can set out deliberately to deceive you, etc. Leaving aside the issue of someone deliberately abusing the premises of a relationship, however, I guess my confusion – not really an intellectual confusion, but more an emotional one – is over the need to hold the other person constant, so to speak, in order for your relationship with them to be valid or “real”. (I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you hold this position – just trying to tease out what seems sometimes to make people uncomfortable about developing relationships – particularly friendships – online.)

    I’m conscious that I may be overextrapolating from weird aspects of personal biography. I do tend to view myself as relatively consistent between different contexts, because I’m usually seeking a particular kind of intellectual interaction – this has been constant even when I used to post anonymously, pre- and early internet… I’ve certainly, however, known many people – and here I’m speaking of in-person contexts, rather than online ones – who construct themselves in radically different ways in different contexts. Their interactions with me were clearly not expressions of the entirety of themselves – and often, this was a good thing… I’ve also had wonderful friendships with people, where the relationship was nevertheless unexpectedly transient – I suppose the experience leads me to adopt a strangely present-oriented attitude to friendships, which, if nothing else, translates well to contexts in which there may be high uncertainty… I tend to adopt the perspective that I lack both the ability and the right to hold another person constant in particular way – although I can enjoy what they are, for and with me, at a particular moment in time… This may make some of the debates over determining the identity of participants in online interactions a bit more puzzling to me than they should be…

    I agree with your more meta-theoretical point that, when people make statements like “all identities are constructed”, they often assume that it automatically follows that “all identities are random” or “no identities are real”. These are separable claims – and I tend personally to think: that the parameters for the construction of identity for an individual are generally reasonably constrained by a whole range of individual or social factors; and that there is no necessary conflict between recognising the constructed nature of something, and acknowledging its practical “objectivity” – its reality for us.

  9. Sarapen December 8, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    Edward, while it may still be true that the majority of Internet users are white, middle class, and of Western European extraction, their numbers are no longer so overwhelming. This site estimates that it’s an almost even split between Internet users from North America and Europe and those from the rest of the world (and note that not everyone from the former regions are white anyway).

    However, it is certainly true that on the English-language Internet, the unmarked identity is still white, male, and middle class. Lisa Nakamura points out in Cybertypes that “identity tourism” (i.e., passing as another gender, race, or sexuality online), far from being free play with identity, instead relies on the same unequal power relationships that make offline tourism conceivable. That is, it is the privilege of those with power to play at being fetishized Others, and it is the lot of the less powerful to serve as objects under the tourist gaze.

    To return to the original post, my Internet activities can actually be split into pre- and post-blog periods. Before I got a blog, I was mostly anonymous and usually a lurker on forums I was a part of; after I got a blog (and because it was a research blog) I began to freely share my name online. No one besides me will ever be able to find out what I did online before setting up Sarapen, and maybe not even me, since I’ve forgotten a lot of stuff.

    Since my blog started as a way for me to disseminate my research to my participants, I was quite public with my real name (it’s Jesse de Leon if you’re too lazy to click through). I felt a bit iffy about it at first, but then I realized nothing I wrote was really that problematic in the first place. Even when I kept an actual physical journal that I hid in a place only I knew, I still censored what I wrote. The really private stuff will never leave the confines of my skull; otherwise, blog and coffee shop are both equal environments in terms of my forthrightness. If I’ll say it in public offline, I’ll say it in public online.

    And since I don’t blog about personal relationships, mostly because I think they’re really interesting only to people who already know the persons involved, then I don’t have to say squat to anyone I meet. I’m just not interested in that kind of blogging. Similarly, I could care less about trying to figure out degrees of authenticity regarding online relationships. Real, not real, does it actually change anything at all?

    Actually, I think the real/virtual dichotomy is not a very useful one. What does it mean to say that this is a virtual dialogue? Does that mean that no dialogue is actually taking place, no ideas being exchanged? Or that this conversation is imaginary? In what way is this dialogue virtual, i.e., not real? I realize that in a functional sense, labelling online interactions “virtual” allows them to be devalued as being superficial, and I also realize that in many ways “virtual” simply stands for “online” nowadays, but I still try to avoid referring to the dichotomy. In Internet studies it’s already taken as a given that yes, the Internet exists, and yes, it has social impact (after long, long debates in the literature about the issue), but popular discourse still has to catch up with these ideas (if it ever will).

  10. Edward Yates December 12, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    I think we are agreeing on a number of points.

    I would agree with your point that you cannot automatically assume what a ‘typical’ internet user’s identity is. But in terms of communication in English that does tend to narrow this down somewhat.

    Also your link shows that while the % of total number of internet users on a Western vs the rest of the world is about a 51/49 split. But in terms of % total population who has access to the internet Africa and Asia are still in the minority, it is just that obviously if even a tiny fraction of a huge population has access to the internet it still adds up to almost the same as a large fraction of a smaller population.

    In terms of online identity I do not think that online identities are any less valid in terms of the narrative that is created around them. I am not sure what particular popular discourse you are referring to? But I certainly take your point that an online dialogue is no less real in the sense that two human beings still have to be typing and that it is just another form of mediated communication, like dance or like theatre or like song.

  11. Sarapen December 14, 2006 at 5:00 am

    Sorry, I had several tabs opened up and got kind of mixed up as to which writing went where (note to self: look for literature on implications of tabbed browsing on online communication). So if there’s a leap in logic somewhere, the missing part is probably on another blog, which I know is rather unhelpful to the present discussion but I’m just offering it up as explanation. Also, the “if you’re too lazy” remark was meant to refer to the plural you, not the singular.

    What I meant by popular discourse is that while virtual vs. real is seen as already passe in Internet studies, the dichotomy is still taken up in regular speech online: IRL (in real life), “in the real world I’m an accountant”, etc. The online is still positioned as inconsequential despite the existence of Amazon, eBay, online scams, and so on. Or perhaps people split the Internet into different conceptual domains based on economic consequences: if it can affect your wallet, of course it’s real, if not, then it’s just virtual. Hmm, I need to check if someone’s already written about this, I can’t have been the first person to think this.

  12. Edward Yates December 22, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    I’ve been reading Erving Goffman’s ‘Stigma – Notes on the Managment of Spoiled Identity’. Goffman begins by making a distinction between a ‘virtual identity’ and an ‘actual identity’. I thought this was interesting as it was written before the advent of the notion of ‘virtual identities’ in relation to the internet and online identities. Hence I then thought of this thread.

    While written back in 1963 Goffman talks about ‘passing’. ‘Passing’ according to Goffman is essentially where one aspect of identity that carries a social stigma can be concealed. Goffman gives examples of a prostitute concealing her identity to her family and of gay men concealing this fact within marriage. There is always a tension with doing so according to Goffman, and cites a prostitute’s account of running into her two cousins who were with other call girls.

    Here I began to wonder further about the internet providing a far greater medium for concealing social stigmas, such as disability or epilepsy for instance. Or aspects of ‘real world’ identities which may be attached to particular social stigmas to do with ‘otherness’ within Western society such as a young Muslim woman from the horn of Africa. And hence offer far more opportunities of ‘passing’.

    Then I began to think about the dichotomy between a ‘real world’ and ‘virtual or online’ identities. Part of Goffman’s argument being that people are often imputed within the ‘real world’ identities that are ‘virtual’ from various signs that signify points of difference from what Goffman describes as ‘normals’ that allow normals to differentiate themselves from deviance and hence hold a position of moral superiority.

    So a ‘virtual identity’ in an online sense being viewed from outside may perhaps be far more free in terms of social stigmas, but may be imputed other attributes which are a ‘virtual’ and do not correspond with the ‘real world’ identity whatsoever. For instance people have viewed some of my posts on online forums as being ‘rude’ or with a particular tone, which albeit when some of my posts are polemical in form this is easy enough to see why this may happen, and have imputed that online identity of say ‘rudeness’ to my ‘real world’ identity.

  13. N Pepperell December 22, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    Hey Ed! Before I respond substantively, just a quick apology for not catching up with you guys yesterday – my meeting ran way, way over time, and everyone seemed be trickling back to the office by the time I was done…

    To take just a small bit of your comment: simple issues like voice tone and affect are vexing issues for net discussion. This issue came up in a discussion at I Cite the other day, and has come up previously at Acephalous and other spots… My personal sense has generally been that I tend to be regarded as a sort of calming interlocutor in face-to-face exchanges, but as more… er… uncalming in net exchanges – which, given that I perceive my affect fairly similarly in the two environments, must come down to some degree to the flattening that occurs via written communication… (Or maybe I just need the written equivalent of finishing school… ;-P)

    Passing is a very interesting topic – but something I spent so much time doing in various forms in face-to-face environments (not now, particularly, but in the past) that, while I do recognise your point about the net can facilitate the practice, it doesn’t surprise me that the concept of a virtual identity would have a strong resonance pre-internet…

  14. Edward Yates December 22, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    Perhaps then based on Goffman’s ideas there is a ‘virtual-virtual identity’? That is to say one online ‘identity’ that is imputed particular attributes by those viewing that identity online. Hence another layer is created ontop of the online identity in terms of attributes others ascribe onto particular identities. Hence worrying about whether an identity is ever essentially ‘true’ or ‘false’ is a pointless exercise.

    But while a person may hold multiple identities in relation to different people and have varying levels of acceptance by those people, these identities are all essentially connected to the same person. So while people could say that all identities are false in relation to virtual identity, on the other hand you could say that all identities are inherently true just constructed differently at different moments around the same person.

    P.S.
    No problems regarding the function. I largely talked with a few post-grads and only one tenured staff member from the school, who I have still some time for. I also managed to avoid making any Christmas party blunders.

  15. N Pepperell December 22, 2006 at 5:47 pm

    My blunder was, I think, in not attending any of the holiday functions (I had honestly intended to attend at least a couple of them, but it’s generally not all that difficult, I’m afraid, for me to decide that something else take priority… ;-P). The consequence was some alarmed emails, and people looking very startled that I seemed to have been walking around campus hale and hearty, while also not attending any of the parties…

    I’ve never liked the truth or falsehood angle on identity, I think – outside of certain limit situations and strategic interactions, where it becomes more relevant. Part of me thinks that, if the worst thing I’m doing is taking someone seriously when they understand themselves to be playacting, is this such a serious consequence?

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