Identity crisis?

flickr photo by Reese Saenz. shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

My naivety has once more gotten the better of me. A term which I have been encountering regularly in my reading has been ‘identity,’ and I’d failed to appreciate how big a deal this is for social scientists. I’d always assumed identity was a binary concept; the identity as a sense of ‘who I am’ versus that ‘which I portray’ to others. As I read I learn that there are in fact multiple manifestations including personal, social, collective, cultural, professional and others. In fact the identity of an individual can be considered both multiple and fluid. Fearon (1999) offers over a dozen definitions of identity pulled from a variety of sources, but then usefully distils them down into just two:

(a) a social category, defined by membership rules and allegedly characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or

(b) a socially distinguishing feature that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential

How does this relate to my research? At first, I wasn’t sure that it did. My experience of Twitter is that the majority of those I follow are who they say they are; I’ve met many of them in real life and the impression I have of them based on their online persona is invariably close to that I experience when face-to-face. Many people (including me) tweet under a pseudonym because their name was already taken or simply for amusement, however I do know of several accounts where people (they’re usually people behind the accounts, though not always!) are tweeting under an assumed identity, their true one being completely hidden. Sometimes this is because they want the freedom to say what they want without fear of reprisal from their employer, because they need to be hidden from their students, or simply because they wish to act out a different identity (this is a common behaviour in virtual worlds like online game environments, MUDs and MOOs).

This presents a problem for the online researcher. If someone is not who they purport to be, whether they’ve chosen a completely different identity or are simply playing slightly out of character, how can we ascribe any degree of veracity to anything they say? This issue is discussed in all the texts covering online research I’ve read so far, but its significance depends very much on the focus of the research being undertaken. Are you conducting research into the online environment itself? In which case the issue of identity performance may well be one of the concepts under scrutiny. Or are you seeking to investigate a particular phenomenon – how teenagers discuss eating disorders? With sensitive issues, it is understandable that someone might wish to conceal their identity, but does that mean we must treat what they say with a greater degree of circumspection? When what we are seeking relates to feelings and opinions, does it matter that that information comes from behind a pseudonym? There are those who argue that data gathered in the online world is of less value because of this potential lack of authenticity because of the missing facial and other cues we use to judge veracity, but who is to say that data gathered in face-to-face settings is some how more authentic? People also perform different identities in the offline world too; isn’t the persona you portray to your boss different than that you portray with your family?

I remain open-minded to discussions of these issues, but it has pressed me into reflecting on the ways that I judge the information others pass online. My starting point is the profile, bio or About Me section ; here is one place people people have an opportunity to perform an identity. What they write here provides an insight into that character; is it serious, playful, abrupt, business-like? Do they provide a profile pic and is a portrait photo, an activity they’re involved in, a cartoon or a logo? From there I’ll go on to read what they write and use the theme(s) they choose to discuss, their writing style and (though it shames me to say) their punctuation and grammar, to help form an impression. The question then is, how does that cause me to act? Do I click quickly away or do I pause, absorb and reflect? Do I bookmark it should I need to do so for future reference and to share with my social bookmarking service network? Am I sufficiently motivated to reply or inspired to write an additional post? Do feel the need to share it through social media channels? Add a comment/critique even?

I feel as though I’m now treading on the toes of actor-network theory before I’ve done it the courtesy of fully understanding it, but at least I’m far enough forward to appreciate that it might have something to say here. I’ve also begun to think that identity might be of greater significance than I originally thought.

Fearon, J.D., 1999. What is identity (as we now use the word)? Unpublished manuscript.

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