Sunday, August 12, 2007

Blogging my comprehensives


Avatar-Achariya, dancing in Caledon Tanglewood, Second Life

For my comprehensive exams, I'm pondering identity and why it's such a concern in online spaces. I think it's so important because when you're online, big categories of meaning that pertain to identity disappear, like physical appearance and social class and in fact everyone's embedded social identity. In fact, you can start out from scratch on the web, building yourself as whoever you like.

A few cases come to mind of people who've built their own identities that were quite different from real-life identities. One case happened to a friend of mine at Theonering.net. For a long time she remained friends with an autistic boy, gently helping him along and sending him things and becoming quite attached to him, until it was suddenly revealed that he was in fact someone else entirely in real life. Another case happened to me -- someone on my LiveJournal turned out to not really have life-threatening cancer after all.

Or this used to be the case.

Nowadays, in "web 2.0", there are huge networks that attempt to reintegrate RL identity back into the web. Facebook, MySpace, all attempt to join you to networks of people that you really know, verifying how you know them before you can be their "friend." (Or, as the front page of Facebook says, "Facebook is a social utility that connects you to the people around you.")

Facebook has an interface that lets you write notes on other people's pages, both signifying connection to a vast social network and acting as a check to behavior that people might identify as out-of-character. This gridwork of connection reinserts RL into OL, complete with photos, music, movie taste, and other markers of affiliation.

However, there are still spaces online that allow you to express different identities than your RL ones, and express several identities simultaneously. Instead of attempting to deal with your entire social identity at once, special interest sites (and fandom sites in particular) allow you to interact in a specific way that does not need to take real life into account.

Abstracted even further from this is the world of MMORPGs, where avatars seem to distract people from RL physical appearance, and gameplay becomes as important a part of lived reality as real life. (Examples of this are the South Park episode in which the South Park boys play WoW; another is the NYT article where people take photos of themselves next to their avatars).

Anyway, enough, although thinking through this informally has really helped.
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