Lost in the interaction society: are identities altered when socializing in cyberspace
Cyberspace has come to be widely understood as a practical deconstruction of essentialism. Out there, bodies and identities alike may lose their connection to terrestrial limits, extending through a new range of possibilities, and in the process may reflect back upon the supposed naturalness, givenness, reification or territorialization of real life bodies and identities (Don Slater 2000, p.150).
Many begin their travelling from offline life into cyberspace as individuals. In front of a computer monitor, reading the glowing words and seeing animated and flash images, people confront their quality of being singular before building a sense of others in the electronic digital world. People must merely connect to cyberspace by logging in, almost surely involving the individual entering their online name and their secret, personal password to be given their new identity and place in cyberspace. The truth is that online identities do not have to correspond to offline identities.
This essay explores the implications of cyberspace and cyber culture for the ways people think about who they are: for their identities. In particular, it will be highlighted how identities are altered when socializing in cyberspace. Arguments about specific aspects of human identity – those main sociological and cultural traits, race, class, gender and sexuality will be considered. The logic of this point upon which attention in this essay is directed is that examining how ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ identities are altered through the lenses of race, class, gender and sexuality very well illustrates the issues generated in the conditions that are relevant to cyberspace.
Identity in Question
The most optimistic views of cyberspace’s effects and changed identities flow from cyber power of a single member of cyber organism. Cyberspace performs as a place in which individuals can ignore and disregard many of the inequalities and stereotypes of offline life, simply because no-one knows if they are ‘really’ female, old or physically challenged. In a place in which any ideas can be said and no physical power can prevent them being read by other people, any policies are simply minor, local damage. Cyberspace comes to be a place that wears away the base of the identities of offline life. In this place different hierarchies that come to exist depend on the character of thought and writing—even the destructive behavior that is peculiar to it, expressive and passionate, is still only writing.
There are a number of digital resources through which online identities are created and changed. People have opportunity to create different identities online to offline that are steady in position and seem to have a life of their own. First, avatar is becoming an accepted word for online characters that have a graphical representation and can be extended for many purposes to cover all online identities. Second, cyberspace identity is reflexively represented through the creation of particular cyber cultural artifact: the personal homepage. Describing the personal homepage as “a website produced by an individual (or couple, or family) which is centered around the personality and identity of its author(s)” (Cheung 2000, p. 44), Cheung examines how these homepages stimulate people to present their made-up self. Combining the identity-marking digital media the web provides, personal homepages present the self through a number of means: biography, links, images, up-datable ‘news’ or blogs, and continuing similarly. Experience and ability with programming (‘machine skill’, as Haraway (1995) defines it) is demonstrated in the quality of the site, and a hits-counter measures popularity rating. Absolute control over the organization and presentation of the site (digital media) corresponds to total presentation of the self, therefore – although that cannot make secure the ways it is comprehended, surely. Personal websites present their creators with the opportunity to ‘expose to view’ before-hidden appearances of their online identities. In this way, homepage creators claim that it is the ‘real me’ that it is produced on a site.
Identities are also created by the addresses, names, self-descriptions and more that indicate contributions to cyberspace. They all in some way make possible the messages users send, the software users contribute, the emotions or ideas that users express, to be related to user’s avatar. Stable avatars must have some quality of being stable in their names, otherwise anyone they communicate with will not know that all the things they write originate from them. Clearly, this also makes possible multiple avatars with various identities. But for each identity to be more than a short-lived creation its interventions into cyberspace have to relate back with some logicality to a name or identifier. Identifiers can be categorized according to the extent they are chosen or imposed. One example of these is an email address and of the second all the various self-designations that MUDs and online chat make possible, and these will be examined in the following paragraphs.
The most used identifying element of cyberspace is email address. Almost every participant who has access to cyberspace has an email account and an email address. Moreover, many forms of communications on the net allow users to see other users’ email addresses. When someone writes a message to a Usenet discussion group their email address usually comes into sight at the top of their message. If someone participates in a ‘listserv’ discussion group then they are informed of everyone’s comments and replies as email, including the email address. And, certainly, if the user receives email he usually has the email address of whoever sent the email to you. One can see how this simple label marks people in different ways. For instance, imagine someone’s reaction on receiving an email from the address [email protected] The .com means it is most probably to be a commercial company, while microsoft signifies famous software company, and could b.gates really mean one of the richest persons in the world has sent a mail? One can imagine different reactions if someone received a message from address [email protected] The .nl is the domain name for the Netherlands and, having a wide understanding of cyberspace, one is aware that Hack Tic is the name of a widely known group of Dutch hackers. The user might well suppose that he has now been emailed by the Dutch hacker dark.knight.
Email and personal pages provide a number of important clues to identity. As users use email and the Web more and more, they are likely to become more skilled at interpreting these addresses. Having many email addresses can make such identities more complex: there is nothing to stop anyone opening email accounts at a number of providers, though they then have the problem of paying for and keeping track of all their email.
Race in Cyber Culture
Exploring some of the questions concerning race identities in cyberspace, it would be useful to draw on Jennifer Gonzalez’s (2000) work. It focuses on two artist-created websites, both of which work with avatars problematically concerning the topic of racial difference and digital media. The UNDINA site plays a virtual version of the Surrealist parlour-game ‘exquisite corpse’, combining body-parts to create new personalities. At the same time, the Bodiesc INC site invites visitors to select body shape, texture (‘skin’), masculine or feminine category and so on to create their personal avatar. The avatars created on the sites, Gonzalez claims, bring race into state of a consumer-object. They make unclear the histories of different representations and positions realizing the fantasy of becoming the other (in the tempting freedom of cyberspace). Both sites provide the visitor with ‘a new transcendental, universal, and, above all, consuming subject . . . as the model of future cyber-citizenship’, and give freedom to choose racialized ‘appendages’ establishing ‘a new form of colonization . . . on the level of symbolic exchange’ (Gonzalez 2000, p. 49).
Cyberspace also adverts to fantasies of racial otherness and deployment of stereotypes. In games, for example, racial difference comes as an ‘identity-choice’ for gamers. Images of ‘pretechnological’ cultures and landscapes are often used as backdrops to set against representation of high technology – Arabs on camels with lap-tops, for instance. These images are demonstration of ‘identity tourism’ in cyber culture – a term used to enclose the various ways that racial and ethnic identities are appropriated, accepted and consumed.
Gender in Cyber Culture
While academic work pays little attention on race identities in cyberspace, the same cannot be said of gender identities. Work on gender in cyber culture has, by contrast, been fruitful and diverse. Probably a central question one needs to keep in his mind here concerns the possibility that cyberspace has created a ‘new space’ for providing the gender-technology relationship with new wiring. Really, this has been a central concern for many of the researchers of gender identities in cyberspace. The most popular story, then, concerns women’s access to, use of and experiences with digital media- the problematic equating of technology with men, the male and the characteristics considered typical to a man, and the associative exclusion of women from what one might define as the ‘circuit of techno culture’. After domestic technologies, computer technology represents yet another sphere of exclusion of authority, rule, and control for women. Another point of view, however, is that CMC can come to be as a ‘new space for women’ (Light 1995).
Probably the most appropriate example concerning the issue of gender is multi-user domain is LambdaMOO. This site has attracted a lot of attention from researchers interested in gender in cyberspace, especially since it provides participants with the opportunity to choose one of ten genders to use in their online relationships (participants are required to post a ‘desc’ – a self-description that must contain their gender). These ten genders include male, female, spivak (indeterminate), neuter, splat (a ‘thing’), egotistical, royal, 2nd, either, and plural – that then present the on-screen pronouns used by the program: he relating to male, she relating to female, it relating to neuter, we relating to royal, they relating to plural and continuing similarly. The purpose behind these many genders is to give participants freedom from real life categories, to make experiments with ‘virtual cross-dressing.’
Cyberspace allowed people to experiment with self-identity as transgendered. Cyberspace has become a resource of considerable importance for transgendered individuals, making easier support networks and political groups of people, as well as offering ‘safe’ space to make experiments with gender. Indeed, Stone (1995, p. 180) goes as far as claiming that ‘in cyberspace the transgendered body is the natural body’ – an idea also neatly considered in many other discussions of the transsexual body as technology. In this case, then, one sees gender plays a personally and politically productive role – it is enabling new bodies, identities and relationships that go far beyond cyberspace.
Clearly, forms of gender-play are context-specific and open to different explanations, then. One of the instances is a virtual love story from LambdaMOO, initially between a real life heterosexual man playing a female persona (Jel) and a real life lesbian playing a virtual version of herself (Plastique). After their brief online affair came to end, Plastique began a relationship with a male persona, who turned out to be Jel, too – and he assumed that the ‘virtual woman’ he was seducing was a real life man. This complex story, then, suggests that for some users LambdaMOO presents a safe place to make experimentations with gender, sex and sexuality. It actually brings out the cases of fantasy/reality and trust/deception. Virtual sex, MUD sex and its numerous online versions have, in fact, attracted a lot of media attention, so it is interesting to discuss sexual identities in cyberspace in the following paragraphs.
Sexuality in Cyber Culture
Actually, the subject of ‘virtual sex’ has been one of the hottest topics of discussion about cyberspace. People of all sexual orientations around the world have used the Internet for ‘cybersex.’ This involves participants telling each other what they are doing to each other (within their shared cyber creative ability) as they are searching their way towards sexual satisfaction and realization of their fantasies. Virtual sex may be defined as ‘compu-sex’ as ‘a curious combination of phone sex, computer dating, and high-tech voyeurism’. To meet the evidently growing demand for various forms of virtual sex, a whole online sex media has underwent evolution to provide every possible format of cybersex (or, at least, every format capable of existing within the capabilities of the medium). On top of these formalized ‘industry’ sites, certainly, there are innumerable ‘amateur’ spaces – homepages, websites, BBSs and so on – though the boundary between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ is often made vague, as in the growing webcam culture.
A great number of such sites do not concern themselves directly with themes of sexual identity. They also are stretching the boundaries of sexual activities and identity in new and productive ways. However, there are many cases where such possibilities are also excluded. For example, men claim to be women to attract the attention of ‘real’ women, who are in reality themselves other men claiming to be women. The practice of such cross-dressing does nothing to change the assumption and practice of cyberspace as a process of sexual relations between persons of the opposite sex.
This double-coding of online identities and real life identities makes virtual relationships like those in LambdaMOO a complex parlour-game, with endless attempt to anticipate or predict and an overall climate of mistrust. Even with the growing use of visual media in cyberspace, photographs are considered to be electronically enhanced and modified (‘Photo-shopped’) or just plain imitation designed to deceive, and webcam downloads are considered as suspiciously self-conscious (and as a result fake) artistic production.
Class in Cyber Culture
As can be seen from above discussion online identities that are constructed online are not necessarily close to offline identities. Cyberspace has provided participants with cyberpower that can be utilized to impose their will. Moreover, there appeared new class formations in the digital economy. According to Graham (1998) three main groups can be identified:
• The ‘information users’: an elite of transnational service workers, who have the skills and knowledges to achieve positions of dominance in the digital economy (the digital elite).
• The ‘information used’: less affluent and less mobile workers, whose main connection with the digital economy is as home-telematics consumers (the digital shoppers).
• The ‘off-line’: marginalized underemployed/unemployed and ‘technologically intimidated’ groups who lack the financial resources to participate at all in cyberculture (the digital underclass).
This form of social polarization is particularly connected with the Internet’s morphing into an ‘information superhighway’, which is seen by many people as reducing the democratic, participatory ideals of many-to-many communication in favor of corporate production and niche consumption. This particularly has effects on the ‘information used’, who do have access to the technology but who find themselves recast as passive consumers by the new ‘information infrastructures’ (Graham 1998, p. 65).
Thus far, then, new classes have been formed in cyberculture. This produced information inequality and the system that can be called ‘virtual capitalism’.
All the factors that produce different forms of identity and hierarchy exist in cyberspace are touched on daily by the individuals who make their journey there. The difference cyberspace makes to the individuals is, certainly, continually felt and experienced by them. Sharing information in cyberspace allows the creation of avatars, self-descriptions, signatures, styles because all are constructed by digital media used by people. If one thinks about all the aspects that are relevant to the nature of individual cyberpower, one can see they all embody a notion of both personal empowerment and complexity.
This essay has attempted to discuss and analyze certain aspects of individual and collective identity – race, gender, sexuality and class – in the context of cyber culture. Drawing on issues of social identity in contemporary societies more broadly, this essay has located cybercultural identities in the context of the so-called ‘the altered self’. A brief look at personal homepages, emails and avatars led the reader into the issues, by showing how self-identity is self-consciously changed and crafted in cyberspace, and how websites are used by their authors to project an image of the self. Focusing in on particular aspects of identity allows then to build up a picture of the interaction society and the key issues and questions. Frequently encountered themes include the visibility or invisibility of identity in cyberspace, the forms and styles of self-presentation used by users, and issues of ‘otherness’ and ‘passing.’ Examination of particular sites gives helpful contextual insights into these contemporary issues, as the discussion of gender-play in LambdaMOO, for example. Ultimately, what should be concluded from this essay is that identities do matter in cyberspace; but that their relationship to real life identities is complex, inconstant and intricate.
Bodies© INCorporated avatar site – discussed by Jennifer Gonzalez (2000). http://www.bodiesinc.ucla.edu/frames2.html
Cheung, C. (2000) ‘A home on the web: presentations of self on personal homepages’, in D. Gauntlett (ed.) Web.Studies: rewiring media studies for the digital age, London: Arnold.
Don Slater (2000) The Internet: an ethnographic approach, Oxford: Berg.
Gonzalez, J. (2000) ‘The appended subject: race and identity as digital assemblage’, in B. Kolko, L. Nakamura and G. Rodman (eds) Race in Cyberspace, London: Routledge.
Graham, S. (1998) ‘The “crisis” in the urban public realm’, in B. Loader (ed.) Cyberspace Divide: equality, agency and policy in the information society, London: Routledge.
Light, J. (1995) ‘The digital landscape: new space for women?’, Gender, Place and Culture, 2: 133-46.
Stone, A. R. (1995) The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
UNDINA avatar site – discussed by Jennifer Gonzalez (2000). Available from: http://digbody.atlant.ru/undina/!planets.htm