I’m at the Association for Internet Researchers in Denver at a discussion on “identity.” The discussion starts off in somewhat predictable questions about media shapes “the creation of the self.” What is a self? Can you create it? I think both words should be analytical red flags for us new media researchers grown up in a petri-dish of technoutopianism, resist as we may.
Nicole Ellison complicates the conversation: “For people looking at the profile, what body, what self do they feel like they need to express?” Nicole Ellison asks of the others. She explains that in her research, interviewees understood the profile as a promise of who they would be in the future rather than who they were right now. It’s one step from this insight — that the profile hails people, and asks people to complete themselves in the database — to Illouz’s findings that dating website profiles materialize a literal market where many profiles can be evaluated in parallel. Illouz also finds people describing their profiles as their best, most authentic self — where authenticity is not at all innocent or liberatory, but an idea we are held accountable to and enabled by. She locates the authentic, communicative individual agent in half a century of corporate human resources management, psychological scienecs, and even feminist practices of liberation through communication. Identity here is the idea of a self that pre-exists power that must be given voice to be liberated, that must communicate well to live among others, and whose capacities can be tapped in markets of commerce and affection.
Pretty quickly you get to Nikolas Rose’s work on the powers of freedom, and governmentality that produces individuals who can be responsible and risk bearing. And you get to Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism‘s argument that contemporary France (at least), capitalism had to incorporate the 1960s artistic critique that work was uncreative and unliberating, and capitalist forms have done so by allowing for non-hierarchical management and creative class job roles (that still need low-paid janitors and temp workers). Venture capitalists and cultures of cool capitalize on those selves, those tastes, those countercultural and subversive ways of mining culture for forms that can be made into exchangeable commodities.
Identity as something people express and perform outside of fields of power pretty much is just celebrating this subject and trying to figure out how social media helps them be better authentic individual subjects. If social media profiles are identity, what are we being called to identity with?
There are a lot of commentators in the panel who get this and are raising these issues (search #ir14 and identity to get a sample of the amazing contributions). Lisa Nakamura points to how Time Warner very much markets and collects twitter handles, Facebook profiles, and the influencers that are tied to them. Holly Kruse asks us to look at the social construction of “authentic identity” as a concept. Alice Marwick’s comments suggest that one way into this might be to look at how “authenticity” is constructed and policed, as she has found that fashion bloggers attempt to construct a line between authentic taste and a presumedly commercial outside. Tom Boellstorff warns us not to take people’s accounts of identities as data about the relationship of people to subject-positions formed in power. Subject-position takes us from identity to an analytic that is formed in relations of power. Christo Sims then advises that we need to look at the histories of how particular subject-positions come into being so show the simultaneous contingency and sedimentedness of those categories.
But there are still folks out there who are worried about how people perform “themselves” and express themselves, maybe multiply, through these media. It is those projects that I worry reify an actual self inside the body shell that needs to be liberated out.
Is “identity” a critical project for internet studies? I think there is still a role to the extent that identification suggests an active social process that is one way of producing a larger collectivity — one that can do things. It is least interesting to me when identity is about indexing the self. This might be more like what Hall calls “identification” in “Who Needs Identity?” or Haraway’s “ironic allies” that can dissolve Western selves in the interest of survival.