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Negotiating Id/entity in Internet-Mediated Contexts

Adam D. Bohannon

March 31, 2008


Negotiating Id/entity in Internet-Mediated Contexts

ABSTRACT People create their identities through their relationships with others.

These relationships are necessarily mediated through a variety of media that shape

the structure and practice of these relationships. It holds that a shift in media will

have certain social externalities through their modification of human relationships.

The advent of print in fifteenth-century Europe begat certain social externalities—

some of which still exist today, albeit in different form—that helped transform

European society by modifying relationships between people. Internet-mediated

communication, in its ability to compress time and space, modifies relationships

between people by facilitating more horizontal exchanges of information across

contexts. As our economies and societies become increasingly networked, and

more of our interactions are mediated by the Internet and Internet-related

technologies, we will come to see ourselves and others differently. By extension,

our new perceptions will modify our cultures as we (re)create ourselves in a

continuous cycle of praxis.


As human beings, we create and maintain our identities through

interactions with others. According to Charles Horton Cooley, we imagine

the ways in which we must present ourselves to others, and we internalize

what we perceive to be their judgments of our appearance. Thus, we learn

to see ourselves as others do. Our webs of relations serve as mirrors from

which we may perceive ourselves through the eyes of others (Yeung and

Martin 2003). However, the reflections we receive are not constant across

contexts. Different contexts highlight different webs of relations and

therefore different identity reflections. As a result, our identity may not so

much exist inside ourselves as an internalized abstraction but rather outside

ourselves as a multiplicative and fluid concept contingent upon the

judgments of others as we interact in multiple situations. Media are critical

in mediating these interactions. Media possess the potential of transforming

human perception but are intrinsically structured in ways that influence the

nature of the information we wish to convey and thus affect our relationships

with others. Essentially each medium of communication is its own language

that creates its own symbolic environment (Lum 2006). It follows that a

change in media will change the nature of our relationships as well as our

conception of identity. Not only that, changes in media can contribute to

resounding macrosocial shifts as well. Eastern Europe experienced changes

in the 15th century that culminated into a communications revolution

following the advent of the printing press. Today in the 21st century we are

experiencing our own communications revolution with the rise of Internet-

mediated communication and digital media.

Currently, over 100 million people actively construct, maintain, and

communicate their virtual identities using Facebook and other online social

networking services (Chapman 2008). If you think this number is

substantial, you will find it interesting to know this number is growing; an

estimated 250,000 new users are registering virtual identities each day

(Facebook 2008). In addition, last year more than 125 million Americans

watched over 7 billion online video streams per month on sites like YouTube

(comScore 2007), MetaCafe, and Dailymotion (Techcrunch 2007; Wikipedia

2008). And according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project (Rainie

2008), this audience represented almost a twofold increase from the

previous year. YouTube itself, considered the largest online video library in

the world, was estimated to hold over 70 terabytes of data back in March

2007. Some suspect this number has grown at a rate of 18 terabytes a

month (Business Intelligence Lowdown 2007; Wall Street Journal 2006). If so,

that would mean today YouTube hosts approximately 286 terabytes of data.

That’s four times the size of the Library of Congress, the largest physical

library in the world (Library of Congress 2007)! This is not such an

outrageous claim, however, as anyone with the ability to record video on

their cell phone can upload their ad hoc production to YouTube via the

Internet to try their chances at online fame.

Outside the walls of these sites, virtual strangers freely swap enormous

amounts of “pirated” data—everything from copyrighted music to expensive

computer software—via free downloadable programs available to everyone

with an Internet connection. Something is happening to the nature of

business as well. Untapped computer processing power is being distributed

and harnessed on a global scale, giving small start-up businesses who are

unable to invest in multimillion dollar computing equipment a chance to

compete for a piece of the global market. Companies like SunGard (formerly

VeriCenter), Amazon, and Google have created services based on this idea of

utility computing. Their ambitions threaten to upset the foundations of not

only the IT market, but the nature of business altogether (Carr 2008).

What is the impetus behind this shift? It is difficult to peg a singular

force as entirely responsible, but indeed digital media and Internet-mediated

communication have played their part. Internet-mediated communication is

connecting machines, businesses, and most importantly people. More and

more of our interactions are occurring through what Nicholas Carr (2008)

calls “the World Wide Computer” and at speeds never before experienced. It

is perhaps passé to talk of our ability to pick up a phone and call someone

across the globe with no hassle, or our ability to have synchronous

conversations with them over the Internet via messaging clients such as

GTalk or AOL Instant Messenger. However, it is not just these rather simple

exchanges we should be concerned about—indeed, they are in themselves

quite amazing—but the very foundations of our economies and societies are

becoming absorbed into what is cryptically referred to as “the cloud.”

Imagine for a moment a time when our entire lives, every piece of

information about ourselves and every piece of information we desire to

know about other people and other things, are floating around our heads

twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Now imagine that if only we

had the right tools, we could reach out and grab this information as we

please. Population statistics, credit scores, world news, consumer reports,

conversations, GPS locations, weather information, concert music from our

favorite artist, Do-It-Yourself video, phylum information for a class


assignment, and facial recognition information for criminal identification

(Rheingold 2002). In sum, practically the entire vastness of human

knowledge, at our finger tips. Well, that time is upon us. We are not just

passively consuming this information, either. By interacting with it,

performing web searches, adding to it by contributing to and editing articles

on the enormous free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, or forging new links on

our own personal Web logs, we organize it and influence it in fundamental

ways (Kelly 2005).

As a cultural anthropologist, I am interested in the ways such changes

in communications media are shaping us as human beings and how this

extends to our cultures. Symbolic interaction (i.e. the exchange of

information) is paramount in the creation and preservation of human

relations and culture. Thus, any radical shift in the structures of

communication will have resounding effects on human relationships and all

areas of culture. As mentioned earlier, 15th century Europe experienced this

with the advent of the printing press. We are experiencing a similar change

with Internet-mediated communication and the increased cultural saturation

of digital media. But, as Michael Wesch (N.d.) points out, like any medium,

Internet-mediated communication has its own inherent rules, its own biases.

Contrary to much utopian sentiment, the Internet is not the free-form

information conduit often posited by early adopters where anything goes and

everything is possible. It is governed by the rules of its infrastructure which

limit the modes of available expression and interaction; indeed, to


paraphrase Joshua Meyrowitz (1985:79), throughout history the vessels in

which knowledge is stored and transported often come to define the nature

of knowledge itself. Lawrence Lessig echoes this sentiment, but for different

reasons, when he comments on the potential of network owners to

determine the transfer of content over their networks. Specifically he

mentions the recent AOL-Time-Warner merger which effectively merged large

cable infrastructures that make up a considerable portion of the Internet. “As

cable providers consolidate ownership,” Lessig says, “they are increasingly

asserting their right to decide how people can use the network” (Rheingold

2002:54). This is not to paint a dystopian picture of Internet-mediated

communication but rather a recommendation not to underestimate the

power of new communications media (and those who end up controlling

them) and their subsequent effects on humans.

The Power of Media

For a century, electronic media have helped shape society as we know

it today. The effective channeling of electricity revolutionized business and

brought electric appliances into the home (Carr 2008). The ability to channel

electricity into people’s homes changed how they perceived and interacted

with one another, creating certain social externalities. Certain social

situations collapsed while others were created. As the electric iron came to

replace the flat iron, new perceptions on what it meant to be well-dressed


emerged. For example, wrinkled clothing came to signal laziness or poverty.

Additionally, the vacuum cleaner also contributed to a new perception of

cleanliness while modifying existing gender relations. The cleaning of large

floor rugs was traditionally a joint activity performed by spouses once or

twice a month. Since the weight of large floor rugs typically exceeded what

was manageable by a single person, a husband would assist his wife in

dragging the rugs outside to beat them. With the adoption of the vacuum,

this joint activity was no longer necessary. Women could clean the rugs

themselves without the help of their husbands. And instead of freeing up

time for leisure activities the new pressure to constantly vacuum the rugs in

order to keep them clean effectively consumed any leisure time that may

have been awarded by the electric appliance (Harris 2004). danah boyd

(2007) illustrates another example of social externalities produced by new

technologies when she mentions the collapsing of certain aspects of social

community space with the adoption of the air conditioner in places of intense

summer heat such as the deep south. Those without air conditioning would

sit in “social space” on their veranda and communicate with others doing the

same. The air conditioner increased opportunities to stay inside during hot

days, thus contributing to the collapse of the social space of the front porch.

These examples demonstrate how seemingly innocuous inventions can

have tremendous effects on social and cultural contexts. When electricity

contributes to the formation of a new communications medium, the effects

can become even more substantial. Consider radio and video. Presently,

dispersed indigenous groups in northern South America are using radio to

communicate over long distances with other tribal groups. One result is a

massive social movement—a “retribalization” to play on McLuhan’s metaphor

—to let the world know that not only do they exist and have existed for some

time but that they are resisting large energy companies who are threatening

to destroy their native lands by sequestering resources for countries like the

United States (BBC 2005). This movement is then broadcast over radio

frequencies, television channels, printed in newspapers, and written about

on the Internet, creating a global audience that would have been difficult to

form before the existence of electronic media. Other groups are using video

as the primary medium for raising awareness and preserving their culture,

such as the Kayapo of the Brazilian Amazon.

Suddenly, vast networks of knowledge and relationships are formed at

incredible speeds. Information is available to many more people than before,

and boundaries between groups begin to collapse. Global information

exchanges that occur at the speed of light call upon us to rethink our ideas of

“context.” Studies of the nature and impact of context on human behavior

have typically focused on face-to-face interactions that take place in physical

locations (Meyrowitz 1985). However, electronic media expand our notions

of context by creating virtual “places” unbound by the rules of every day

physical social interaction. When we experience situations like those just

mentioned we are temporarily transported from our physical location to

someplace else as our perception meets the message coming through our

television, radio, or computer screen. We interact on some level with the

information we are receiving, in this case information about the mobilization

of indigenous groups in South America, while never leaving our couch. From

this vantage point, our consciousness travels to the city of Quito to protest

oil companies alongside a mass of colorfully dressed Shuar Indians. But this

experience is, of course, entirely different from the actual experience of

being physically present. Our entire self presentation is different. No one

can talk to us, therefore we are freed of our responsibility to respond or make

eye contact; our sense of proxemics is altered in that we do not have to

adjust our positions relative to the positions of those around us; and our

choice of clothing is entirely undetermined by the situation (It is hard to

imagine attending a human rights rally dressed in holiday boxer-shorts). In

other words, who we “are”—our expression of identity (and the interpretation

of the identities displayed for us)—is modified by the mediated context.

With the Internet, the shift in orientation is similar as we adjust our self

presentation to virtual contexts. The nature of interaction in physical

contexts is markedly different from interaction in virtual ones. We come to

see ourselves and others differently when we are not presented with the

familiar cues of physical interaction. However, the physical context—Erving

Goffman’s (1959:238) “fixed barrier to perception”—is not the only influence

on our perceptions and behavior; rather, it may be considered a sub-

category. Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) argues that “it is not the physical setting

itself that determines the nature of interaction, but the patterns of


information flow.” Barry Wellman (1999b) sympathizes by emphasizing a

focus on “social exchanges rather than on spatial proximity” (649). This can

be illustrated using the example of theater. With regard to theater, a

rehearsal and a performance are two completely different situations that

take place in the same physical context. What distinguish them are the

presence of an audience and the accompanying ambience of a typical

theater performance. The physical context remains constant; however the

patterns of information flow do not and it is these patterns that ultimately

define the situation. If we can accept Meyrowitz’s definition of contexts as

“information systems,” or Wellman’s “social exchanges,” we can begin to

explore the differences between the physical and virtual presentations of

identity and what these differences might imply when thinking about the

emergence of a new communications medium such as the Internet.

To gain some perspective, it is worth considering the impact of the

printing press on culture in early modern Europe. During the 15th century,

the emergence of printing presses in large urban centers displaced scribal

culture and redefined existing information-systems. Print, through

standardization and repeatability of typefaces and books, helped foment new

senses of privacy and individualism. It also homogenized vernaculars which

helped give rise to modern nationalism (Eisenstein 1983; McLuhan 1963).

But among the other changes intensified by the advent of print—such as

assembly-line production, heightened sense of social divisions, and

Copernicus’ heliocentrism—print culture “encouraged new forms of cross-


cultural interchanges” (Eisenstein 1983:23) and “the creation of entirely new

systems of thought” (44, my emphasis).

As the efficient and easy process of print came to eclipse the slow and

tedious process of manuscript writing, a knowledge explosion occurred that

lent itself to the exchange of diverse systems of ideas. Widespread

collaboration occurred between persons of assorted backgrounds and

occupations; contradictory views were presented, disseminated, cross-

referenced, and discussed (Eisenstein 1983); and it is probably not an

overstatement to claim that as order (Wesch N.d.) and progress became core

values (Eisenstein 1983), the climate surrounding the advent of the printing

press helped shape the Renaissance, inspire the Scientific Revolution, and

spur the Enlightenment.

The increased availability of printed books also allowed for more

private introspection and abstract thought (Eisenstein 1983; McLuhan 1963;

Meyrowitz 1985). This initiated a shift from public to private space.

Interestingly, as information became more public, the act of consuming

information became more private. Elizabeth Eisenstein notes the differences

between scribal and print culture in her book The Printing Revolution in Early

Modern Europe when she writes,

“…no precedent existed for addressing a large crowd of people who were not

gathered together in one place but were scattered in separate dwellings and

who, as solitary individuals with divergent interests, were more receptive to


intimate interchanges than to broad-gauged rhetorical effects.” [Eisenstein


One way print created a new information-system was by diffusing the

audience of the author. Marshall McLuhan (1963:130) comments similar to

Eisenstein when he states, “Scribal culture could have neither authors nor

publics such as were created by typography.” As printing spread and

became associated with “rebellion and emancipation,” scribal culture lost its

authoritarian hold on knowledge, which effectively collapsed previous

hierarchies of power (Eisenstein 2007). Printing helped democratize

knowledge and fundamentally change the structures of power in Europe at

the time.

It is not my intent to provide and exhaustive history of printing

technology, but rather to point out the powerful impact a new

communications medium can have on culture and the perceptions we as

human beings hold. Eisenstein points out many historical examples of the

impact of print on European society, business, and religion. In a slightly

different approach, McLuhan makes conjectures about the possible

psychological effects of printing. McLuhan states that every medium is an

extension of a human sense. Therefore, when we come to favor one medium

over another, we create a sensory imbalance that reorganizes our senses

and by extension our consciousness (McLuhan 1994). Indeed, his

assumptions correspond with cognitive psychology research with regard to

the carpentered-world hypothesis and repetition-priming effects (Benjafield


2007); both approaches state in their own way that repeated encounters

with a task—in this case, tasks associated with print technology such as

repeated linear information processing—can affect consciousness and

behaviors in the absence of conscious recollection. According to McLuhan,

print culture represents the second period in human technological history,

that of printing/writing. Currently, humanity is moving into a third,

electronic, period. Each period is characterized by changes in sense ratios

(McLuhan and Powers 1992; Meyorwitz 1985). The 21st century emphasis on

electronic media creates an environment of “all-at-onceness.” Walter Ong

(1982) mentions a similar technological progression—orality, literacy, and

secondary orality—and remarks that only recently have we been able to

reflect upon the impacts of our technological past; “Contrasts between

electronic media and print have sensitized us to the earlier contrast between

writing and orality” (2-3). In reference to impacts of media, he continues

“The shift from orality to literacy and on to electronic processing engages

social, economic, political, religious and other structures.”

One characteristic of a shift from acoustic/oral space to visual/literate

space appears to be an increased affinity for the consumption of information

in private. This is what McLuhan means when he references the civilized

man as “detribalized”; he has been detached from the collective group. He

no longer needs to gather in public places alongside his peers to listen to the

recitation of folklore or the reading of manuscripts from an ordained

authority. His patterns of information consumption come increasingly under


his own control due in large part by the nature of the new medium. If we

reconsider the printing press, the private reading of the Bible may have

contributed to the splintering of Christianity into numerous and at times

opposing denominations. This is the consequence of many factors, one

being the bias of the printed medium. It calls for different behavior in

consumption and interpretation compared to the oral recitation of scripture.

This is important. Information is not static across all situations and “when

technology extends one of our senses, a new translation of culture occurs as

swiftly as the new technology is interiorized” (McLuhan 1963:40). The biases

of media shape the messages they are relied on to transmit. Hence the

disappointment of many with the cinematic representation of their favorite

book; the printed medium allows for more breadth of coverage and more

detail, but also many other things the cinematic form fails to offer.

Conversely, the cinematic form offers certain characteristics that print

cannot effectively mimic. So next time you watch a theatre performance—

an event originally intended to be observed in person—on television, think

about the ways the performance is being mutated as it passes through the

filters of the television medium. Can you still appropriately call it a “theatre

performance”? Or does the performance become something entirely

different as you are capable of perceiving, through the disembodied eye of

the television, the actions occurring on stage in a degree of detail

unimaginable (and certainly unintended) from the vantage point of the


New media allow us to think in new ways. The history of the printing

press, arguably the last major communications revolution, has shown us how

new media can transform the way civilization operates and by extension the

way humans think, behave, and interact. Howard Rheingold (2002) reminds

us that innovative uses of printing presses—which led to an increase in

literacy, a focus on the scientific method, and the formation of new social

contracts—helped transform feudalism into modernism and eventually

“represented a step toward a more democratic and humane world” (208).

Presently, Internet-mediated communication coupled with digital media

promise to transform culture in similar ways as they become technologies of

cooperation. Expanded networking capabilities allow culturally marginal

groups the opportunity to interact and form stable communities more easily

than before (Alstyne and Bryonjolfsson 1997; Bower 1998). Attitudes of open

sharing contribute to more horizontal exchanges of culturally relevant

material and information, creating a movement that rivals even the most

monolithic economic entities such as the RIAA (TorrentFreak 2008); a

situation resembling the defiance of scribal authority by individuals who once

gathered in printing workshops to collaborate and share knowledge. It

makes sense then that during the advent of print the printers were the ones

most severely punished for their acts rather than the authors whose work

was being reproduced and disseminated (Eisenstein 1983, 2007).

Technologies of cooperation rely on their ability to form networks

across contexts. During the rise of printing, the wide dissemination of


knowledge that promoted so many cultural transformations was an effect of

print culture’s ability to collapse existing contexts and create new ones. If

we recall Meyrowitz’s reinterpretation of contexts as information-systems

and apply this to our understanding of not just the effects of print but also

the effects of Internet-mediated communication and digital media, we have

more room for interpretation. I am interested here in how changing contexts

impact identity formation; how certain technologies as they advance through

time are able to change the way human being conceptualize the world and

themselves; and how, ultimately, this will change culture. In this paper I take

the abstract concept of “identity” to be the culmination of developmental

experiences over the lifespan coupled with the situation-relevant expression

of the different aspects of one’s personality. Simply, that the experiences we

encounter growing up shape our sense of a “core” identity, but that the

different situations we encounter call upon specific aspects of this identity.

Therefore, it cannot be assumed that we possess a singular identity, but

rather many different identities that share certain characteristics. Certainly

the constitution of these assumptions has been different in the past. I am

not implying that my view of identity is or has been the only correct

perspective. I am only suggesting that this model appears to be the most

relevant given the current technological climate and for the particular

analysis I am attempting to make. I also do not intend to make a conclusive

argument for the effects of digital media and the Internet. It is far too early

for that. My explorations should only serve as an attempt to call to our


attention certain aspects of what Yochai Benkler (2006) calls the “networked

information environment,” and how the technologies of our time represent a

powerful communications revolution that, to paraphrase Wesch (N.d.), calls

upon us to rethink many aspects of our lives, including ourselves. In order to

discuss the negotiation of identity in a networked information environment,

however, I must first discuss the environment itself and outline its

characteristics before inferring its effects on self presentation and


Living Networked

In 2005, in a quaint town in northern Oregon, Google clandestinely

closed a multimillion dollar deal to build two enormous warehouses each the

size of a football field that would house hundreds of thousands of computers,

all working together as a single sophisticated computing machine. Google

has dozens of these so-called “server farms” all over the world and they

provide the computing power necessary for each of us to perform highly

relevant web searches—web searches that require “tens of billions of

microprocessor cycles” and “the reading of hundreds of megabytes of

data”—in a fraction of a second (Carr 2008:64-67). But not only do these

“information-age nuclear plants” (64) deliver desired search information at

unprecedented speeds, they also are responsible for delivering commodities

of value; in 2003, Google acquired the popular blogging service, Blogger

(McIntosh 2003), and three years later acquired the online video sharing

website YouTube for a staggering $1.65 billion (Google Press Center 2006).

This business behavior is not unusual and Google certainly is not the only

company flexing its prowess at ventures of this kind. Heeding this, many

have suggested the future—especially in business—lies with utility

computing. Instead of wasting millions of dollars on computing hardware

and software, companies can lease these services from companies like

Google and Salesforce (Salesforce 2008) and challenge some of the largest

businesses with hardly any comparable cost. How this works is companies

invest in thin-client computers; bare-bones computers that boast little more

than a monitor connected to the Internet. Through this connection the

company can draw all of its computing hardware and software needs directly

from the grid, all without needing to store and maintain the expensive

machinery themselves. Intel’s Gordon Moore predicted this in his 1965

article published in Electronics magazine when he claimed that as we

attempt to fit more and more components on computer chips, their size will

diminish thus facilitating their use in personal computers—Moore’s article

was written 10 years before the first personal computer was invented

(Roberts and Yates 1975)—or “at least [in] terminals connected to a central

computer” (Moore 1965).

As clients, we can opt to participate in utility computing (also referred

to as distributed computing) ourselves by lending the untapped processing

power of our computers to projects such as SETI@HOME, an initiative

searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence (Rheingold 2002), or


folding@home, a Stanford University Chemistry Department project that

uses your unharnessed computing power to calculate complex protein

folding sequences in hopes of finding cures for disease (Stanford University

2007). Distributed computing is being used in the areas of mathematics,

astronomy, climatology, and medicine; all through the voluntary and

seemingly altruistic participation of people all over the planet.

“I have said on numerous occasions, and I still believe,” remarks John

Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “that with the

development of the Internet, and with the increasing pervasiveness of

communication between networked computers, we are in the middle of the

most transforming technological event since the capture of fire” (Barlow, et

al. 1995:36). Certainly, Internet-mediated communication is a powerful

technological development. Groups of individuals are able to interact and

exchange information—and processing power—without regard to age, race,

religious affiliation, socio-economic status1, educational level, or geographic

distance. Capabilities of collaboration have reached a point never before

possible in the history of humankind. This collaboration is not just happening

between individuals sitting at their desktop computers or with their laptops,

but also with populations armed with cell phone technology. Some people

have speculated the extent to which electronic media contributed to the fall

of the iron curtain by undermining controls guarding information flow, since

This is not to overlook the glaring divide in access to digital technology between first and
third-world countries, nor is this to overlook the fact that lower-income households tend to
have less access to computer and Internet technology (Madden 2006).

electronic media are more difficult to regulate than print media (Harris

2004). In 2001, thousands of Philippinos took to the streets in a

demonstration that ultimately resulted in the deposition of President Joseph

Estrada (TIMEasia 2001). Indeed, it is amazing in and of itself to see large

collective action of this kind, but even more amazing is the fact that the

demonstration was primarily organized using short text messages via cell

phones (Rheingold 2002). Rheingold (2002) writes about a less volatile but

equally fascinating phenomenon among teens in Shibuya, Japan. Using text

messages, Japanese teens are able to construct new information-systems

that effectively side-step boundaries to communication set up by parents in

the home. The results are the formation of loosely knit, fluid, and

spontaneous communities that can assemble with ease or successfully

organize a plan of action without ever physically meeting. Called by some in

Tokyo oyayubisoku—“the thumb tribe” (Rheingold 2002:4)—these

technologically adept teens are redefining what it means to grow up in Tokyo

by reshaping the power-dynamic of the Japanese household and society (Ito


These ad-hoc communities call into question traditional assumptions of

authority and power. Following the arrival of print technology, the wide

dissemination, easy reproduction, and permanence of information eroded an

economy that relied on information scarcity. The economy of scarcity placed

a considerable amount of power in the hands of scribal authorities, since it

was they who were responsible for directing information flows. The printing

press shifted this dynamic by increasing horizontal, rather than vertical,

exchanges of information; printing demystified the authority of scribal

culture and altered physical and intellectual boundaries to knowledge. The

situation in Shibuya is similar. The thumb tribes are taking the regulation of

communication out of the hands of their parents and placing it in their own.

An analysis of the relation between power and media can be made by

examining “who knows what about whom” (Meyrowitz 1985:70) and

Japanese youth, through the use of text messaging, are creating information-

systems where parents know less and less about their children’s social


Shibuya teens are only one example of how electronic media are being

used to create virtual communities and facilitate communication over vast

networks. As post-industrial economies all over the world become focused

on information, cultural production, and the manipulation of symbols, and

electronic media continue to increase in power, decrease in size, and are

connected via large networks such as the Internet, social production of

culturally relevant material will increase (Benkler 2006) creating once again

a phenomenon of increased horizontal information exchange. I have

mentioned how the cultural saturation of print media resulted in the

undermining of scribal hierarchy. This outcome was beneficial for many

people, as more people had access to information. Nevertheless, printing

caused the creation of a new hierarchy, one based around literate and

illiterate publics. By extension, this division displayed itself in terms of


education level, income level, and relative proximity to urban centers that

possessed printing technology. In this way, print media may be said to be

socially and politically biased in that through their form the media of print

effectively limited who could access the information as well as shaped what

it meant when someone actually had such access. During the nascent

stages of computer technology, such was the case as programmers had the

critical knowledge necessary to manipulate the new medium while others did

not. The same may be said of the Internet until relatively recently. Blogs,

vlogs, wikis, e-mails, IMs, tweets, are all elements of the Internet that

require, to varying degrees, complex back-end coding but which are

popularly used by millions of people all over the planet thanks to a more

user-friendly Web environment commonly referred to as “Web 2.0”. Where

before it was necessary to know HTML code in order to create a web page,

today anyone can instantly claim their own space on the web by signing up

for a blog; none of this requires any coding knowledge. Indeed, the World

Wide Web itself, created by Tim Berners-Lee and programmers at CERN in

1991, entailed a vision of a more user-friendly Internet which allowed users

to publish information, incorporate multimedia formats, and navigate

between distinct clusters of information in new and exciting ways that did

not require the specialist coding knowledge needed prior to its creation

(Moschovitis, et al. 1999; Turner 1995); we have them to thank for the easy-

to-use graphical interface that many people associate with the Web/Internet

(two terms often used interchangeable although they each refer to unique


To further illustrate this leveling of informational worlds we may turn

briefly to the example of television. Where it takes many years of formal

schooling and difficult cognitive and physical coordination training for

children to learn the complex skills of reading and writing, they can begin

watching and understanding—on their own cognitive level—TV programming

as young as two years of age; although at such an age much of the content

may be beyond their comprehension, they do attend to the formal features

of TV (Harris 2004; Meyrowitz 1985). As they develop, only a small degree of

print literacy is needed to understand much of TV’s programming; they find

themselves, to paraphrase McLuhan, in acoustic space—a media

environment defined primarily by the spoken word (McLuhan 1992). In this

way, TV is far more inclusive and non-elitist compared to print. This means

that the millions of illiterate individuals in the United States can still have

access to culturally relevant information and share similar media experiences

with the literate population; the informational divide between certain groups

is much narrower than with the exclusive political and social biases of print.

Internet-mediated communication promises to level informational worlds in

similar ways as the Internet ascends to metamedium status. If we

compound this with the potential of cheap thin-client computers connected

via a utility computing grid the situation becomes even more interesting and


Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Internet-mediated

communication is the potential of anyone connected to the Internet to

contribute to the network’s content as well as modify its structure by simply

participating. Commenting on this and its difference from the industrial

complex that preceded it, Benkler offers:

The rise of the networked, computer-mediated communications environment

has changed this basic fact [that communicating over large distances

requires huge investments of physical capital]. The material requirements for

effective information production and communication are now owned by

numbers of individuals several orders of magnitude larger than the number of

owners of the basic means of information production and exchange a mere

two decades ago. The removal of the physical constraints on effective

information production has made human creativity and the economics of

information itself the core structuring facts in the new networked information

economy. [Benkler 2006:4]

A result is thousands of people collaborating on the large open-source online

encyclopedia, Wikipedia, or people noting their approval (or disapproval) of

news articles on social news sites such as Reddit and Digg; groups are

gathering at sites like Kaltura.com to collaborate and edit video and audio

projects together, online; and others are using social bookmarking services

like Diigo and Delicious to collectively tag and organize the vast array of Web

content. All of these tools are free and open to anyone connected to the


In effect, everyone with an Internet connection has access to their own

printing press, recording studio, and broadcast television station. This

statement, however, is not entirely accurate. We cannot simply compare a

blog to a personal printing press or Windows Movie Maker and YouTube to our

own private television station. The digital technologies of today dwarf the

previous potential of these technologies. The “aggregate effect of individual

action” (Benkler 2006:4) infused with the incredible velocity of message

transfer and the enormous communication potential of being connected to

the Internet creates an environment defined in part by the ability of

individuals to inform and share with people across physical boundaries via

weak ties to an extent never before possible. Whereas order and progress

were central values during the age of print; connection, collaboration, and

creativity are central values in the networked information economy.

What are the consequences of placing the means of production in the

hands of individuals? What are the conduits for creative collaboration? A

study investigating the strength of Internet social ties reveals some

important characteristics of computer-mediated human interaction on the

Internet. The study supports what Barry Wellman calls “networked

individualism” and represents an organizational shift from group-based to

network-based society. The study demonstrates how the Internet is used by

many primarily as a multimodal medium for maintaining and cultivating their

social networks. Rather than eroding the core ties of close friends and

family, in many respects the Internet strengthens these core ties while also

having the macrostructural effect of increasing an individual’s weak ties by

positioning them within a sparsely knit social network (Boase, et al. 2006).

The strength of weak ties lies in their fluidity and their ability to bridge two

previously separate social networks thus increasing the amount of

knowledge and innovation potential accessible to both (Granovetter 1983).

The transactions that constitute weak ties between two groups are typically

performed by one or a few individuals, not the entire group. As video

bloggers (vloggers) communicate via asynchronous video messages, they

are bridging social networks with weak ties. Every time a user updates their

status on the social networking site Twitter, or checks the statuses of others,

they contribute to the formation of weak ties. And when someone adds a

friend on Facebook or MySpace that is outside their intimate circle, or

comments on the posted media of another, they also promote the creation of

weak ties. Bob Metcalfe recognized the significance of this phenomenon

with Metcalfe’s Law which states the power of a network multiplies rapidly as

the number of nodes increases. Because of its spatial and temporal biases,

Internet-mediated communication renders boundaries more permeable, thus

facilitating the merger of information-systems. Turning from Metcalfe’s Law

to Reed’s Law—that the power of a network multiplies even more rapidly as

human group diversity increases in the network—we may gain perspective

on the future of Internet-mediated communication as it becomes more

pervasive worldwide (Rheingold 2002).


Because of the ability of Internet-mediated communication to open up

sets of situations to many different people, the nature of information

exchange becomes more egalitarian while at the same time blurring

previously distinct group identities as others are able to easily escape

information-systems and enter others (Meyrowitz 1985); In effect, Internet-

mediated communication compresses both time and space. With this

compression comes the need to negotiate newly merged information-

systems. As I will now discuss, a consequence of this merger is the

formation of new behaviors (and sometimes the pruning of old behaviors). I

now turn from the social and economic impacts of Internet-mediated

communication to its effects on identity expression and formation.


As individuals, we create our identities through relationships with

others. What people we associate with, what groups we belong to and even

the physical places in which we choose to spend our time, all define to some

degree who we are. It also helps define who others are. Symbolic

interactionist theory posits that “Identities are strategic social constructions

created through interaction, with social and material consequences” (Howard

2000:371). Thus, our identities are embedded in the social structures in

which we are a part and that which we ultimately created; to invoke Max

Weber per Clifford Geertz, “man is an animal suspended in webs of

significance that he himself has spun” (Geertz 1973:5).


Although he does not align himself precisely with symbolic

interactionist approaches to sociology, Erving Goffman is arguably the most

well-known theorist in this area of sociological discourse. His dramaturgical

metaphors make what would otherwise be dense theory easy to colloquially

understand. Goffman (1959) claims we all possess multiple selves that we

“perform” depending on the particular “stage” we happen to be on. These

selves, or perhaps here more appropriately called “roles”, are complete with

costumes, lines, and behaviors that further define the role we happen to be

playing. For instance, a professor has her stage (front of the classroom)

complete with all the props necessary (blackboard, projector, computer,

chalk) and she is wearing the proper costume (some variation of semi-formal

to formal dress) that distinguishes her from the audience (her students). She

recites the lines for that role (e.g. theoretical knowledge of physics) and

behaves in a way that clearly defines her as an authority. This is what

Goffman implies when he talks about the “presentation” of self. Moreover,

our presentations of self come with “front stage” and “backstage”

dimensions. This is an example of a front stage performance, while after

class when the professor returns to her office, kicks off her shoes and places

her feet on her desk to talk to a fellow instructor would be considered more

of a backstage performance.

As mentioned earlier, exchanges of information are paramount in the

creation and preservation of culture and by extension the identities of

individuals as well, the smallest active agents of culture. Media are critical in

mediating these exchanges. Extending the example of the professor, she

cannot play her role without communicating her lines via speech, writing on

the chalkboard, or using any of the other media present in the room; indeed,

even her body language sends a message and should also be considered.

One way to think about media is as environments that require different

sensory modalities. Print, radio, television, and the Internet all use different

sense ratios, thus altering how we perceive the world (Lum 2006), those

around us, and ourselves. With regard to Goffman’s ideas, each medium

offers us a new stage performance, complete with new ways of presenting

ourselves. Before the advent of electronic media, the presentation of self

was closely tied to physical locations—physical information-systems;

however, primarily through their temporal and spatial biases, electronic

media have modified the relationship between self presentation and physical


Internet-mediated communication is unique in that it is rapidly

becoming a medium of many media—a metamedium. It is changing our

previous modes of communicating and therefore our reliance on previous

manners of self presentation. According to Manuel Castells

“the Internet’s integration of print, oral, and audiovisual modalities into a

single system promises an impact on society comparable to that of the

alphabet, creating new forms of identity and inequality, submerging power in

decentered flows, and establishing new forms of social organization.”

[DiMaggio, et al. 2001:309]


As we come to rely more on Internet-mediated communication, our creation,

preservation, and presentation of identity will change. Thus, the logical

question to ask is how will we define ourselves and others in an Internet-

mediated world? The relevance of this question cannot be overstated.

Keeping the core tenets of media ecology in mind, we must remember not

only are media not value-free conduits for information, but that human

beings also exercise some agency over the creation and use of media. This

should give us some hope, granted we choose to recognize the nature and

biases of media environments and their impact on every facet of the human


With the development of dynamic coding languages like AJAX that gave

programmers more leeway in designing web applications more and more

people are now able to create their own mediums for communication—often

referred to as “widgets”—on the Internet. Consider Facebook. Granted, the

platform itself was created by computer science students, but today the

average user has to ability to create applications that help distill who your

“top” friends are, or that let everyone know where you have traveled or what

books you are reading. But before I discuss particular Facebook widgets, I

would first like to explore Facebook itself as a medium for communication

and its relation to self presentation.

Facebook is interesting in that it presents both front stage and

backstage behavior, but without clear divisions between the two. For

instance, as Meyrowitz (1985) points out, one main difference between print

media and electronic media is their different “stage” biases. Print is well

suited for the formal presentation of ideas, hence why newspaper articles

and books are more information dense than television programming and

often regarded as more authoritative. Print allows for the use of complex

syntax and more appropriate but more complicated vocabulary. Such

behavior would not bode well on television. Imagine a television program

using as a script a professional peer-reviewed article analyzing the

complexity of a particular kin network; it would be deemed “out of place.” In

this way, we can think of print media as having a front stage bias. This front

stage bias dominates someone’s Facebook profile page. Much of the

information presented is textual, formal, and public2. However, Facebook

also provides server space to upload and host digital photographs. Here we

see a shift in bias from front to back or middle stage, depending on the

person. The formal and communicative nature of the main profile page is at

odds with the stage position of an individual’s digital photo album. In these

albums it is not uncommon to see pictures of binge drinking, borderline

illegal activity, and frankly childish behavior; while the entire time the front

stage public profile is suggesting the said individual is an assistant teacher at

a local elementary school, a conservative Christian, and is 20 years old. The

Profile sections that list religious affiliation, political preference, etc. can be considered
backstage information since in physical reality this information is not usually readily
available to others. On the Internet however, and in comparison with the visual and
expressive form of digital photographs, it may be better referred to as front stage behavior
because you have more conscious control over these messages than the often uninhibited
messages delivered in photos.

backstage bias of the photo album is at odds with the front stage bias of the

main, public, face. Now many people realize the public nature of the photos

they choose to upload; therefore, the pictures you view may not be the

entire story of the evening they depict. Thus, the Facebook photo album

may be more appropriately deemed as having a middle stage bias. When

different stages collide, problems arise, hence why Facebook is under

constant scrutiny from its users regarding the improvement of the platform’s

privacy features; Facebook users desperately want to have control over their

presentation of self on the Internet and they recognize the anxiety that can

be produced when different social stages collide.

Recently regarding Facebook, users and political activist groups voiced

their disapproval over a controversial advertising platform called Beacon that

notifies users’ friends when they make purchases on Beacon affiliated sites.

Originally, the default settings were such that everyone was participating

without knowing it. This raised obvious concerns among the Facebook

community, who felt their privacy was being trampled on (Schiffman 2007).

This debacle raises serious questions about the nature of privacy and self

presentation on the Internet. It would suffice to say that Beacon was

received with such apprehension because users feel they do not have

sufficient control over their personal information. With service open to

anyone, Facebook users encounter their parents, co-workers, and bosses all

in the same “place.” The result is a collision of stages, where roles and

boundaries are not clearly defined (Ladner 2007), and by extension neither is

identity. Anxiety is an obvious result. Just think of the teenager or couple

who makes an online purchase from a novelty shop with the intent of

exploring their sexuality. In many instances, such a purchase is best kept


Facebook possesses other dimensions, such as video and link posting

capabilities, which an individual can use to manipulate and modify their

presentation of self. It is thus this self that they use to communicate with

others on Facebook (whether or not someone’s Facebook identity comes to

overshadow their identity in the physical world is a question for further

inquiry). To cite a personal example, recently I received a friendship request

on Facebook from an old friend whom I had not had any contact with since

elementary school. Assumedly, she found my profile, skimmed over the

information I had chosen to present and then decided to request to add me

as a friend. This has also happened to me by people I have never physically

met. The most accurate presentation of my identity for these people is my

Facebook profile, an identity I craft with care to present information I deem

most relevant to my personality (or to the personality I want people to

believe I possess). As a medium, Facebook has altered my relationships with

other human beings. Had the friend request occurred over the phone or in

person somehow, the interaction and perhaps the outcome would be very

different. When someone views a Facebook profile, they receive a rich array

of information about someone that in a physical encounter would take

considerable time to educe. As I mentioned with the front stage versus


backstage example above, a person can gain information pertaining to your

religious affiliation, music taste, your home town, what you are studying in

school, and much more just by skimming your profile. Of course you decide

what information to present, but hypothetically someone viewing your profile

and learning such information can then tailor their behavior the next or first

time they meet you to ensure the encounter goes smoothly (or abrasively if

they choose).

Self presentation on Facebook goes further than mere textual input and

the uploading of pictures and videos. In recent months, there has been a

deluge of user-generated applications called widgets that users may choose

to display on their profiles. Through these widgets users communicate their

interest of books, movies, rock-paper-scissors, and even the classic computer

game Oregon Trail. They can rate books, write reviews, and recommend

them to friends. Like the other information presented on a Facebook profile,

these widgets modify self presentation by aligning people with a particular

activity or interest. Consequently, through the Internet’s ability to compress

time and space, people are able to form virtual communities around their

similar interests instead of their physical location or kin networks. Since

these relationships are constituted by weak ties with miniscule investment

they are transitory and can easily change as interests change (Wellman


To cite another example, the online video sharing website YouTube is

another place where the traditional presentation of identity is confounded by

the characteristics of the virtual environment. On YouTube there exists a

considerable community of individuals who communicate asynchronously per

short digital videos. Just as a web log (blog) is usually an ongoing textual

commentary of a person’s daily life, video blogs (vlogs) are similar

representations in visual form. This difference in medium—visual versus

textual—changes the nature of self presentation; visual media allow for more

expression and thus can be more intimate than textual media (Meyrowitz

1985). It is often evident when observing the behavior of a person’s first

vlog that they are uncomfortable. They usually have trouble pinpointing a

particular topic to discuss and thus their language is discursive and flighty.

And it is not uncommon for the individual to be overly self-deprecating and

self conscious of their own speech and behavior. It is as if they are unsure of

how to present themselves. This is due in part to the biases of the visual

medium. The vlogger is not awarded the temporal leeway that is granted by

print. Their capacity to think about and revise their message is considerably

less and more spontaneous. This and the expressive nature of the visual

medium can cause tremendous anxiety because viewers are catching a

glimpse of the backstage of the vlogger’s life. Most people have difficulty

embellishing their expressions, facial or corporeal, and thus each behavioral

nuance informs the audience of the idiosyncrasies of the performer.


In physical space this is not an issue for many because an audience is

immediately present, where you can observe them as they observe you. In

this way, you may alter your behavior depending on the situation and the

responses from those around you. Indeed, much of our social interactions

occur in this fashion. However, on YouTube, the audience is not physically

present and if someone is recording a vlog for the first time, they are not

even sure if an audience is present at all. As I have said before, much of our

identity and presentation of ourselves comes from the web of relations we

are embedded in. Those around us are constantly reflecting images of our

self back upon us and we use these reflections to negotiate our identities

(Meyrowitz 1985). However, what happens when no one is present to reflect

that image back to you? What part of your self do you choose to present?

Not only that, but we choose to present different facets of our self in different

situations. We behave differently when in the presence of our parents than

in the presence of our friends. So what are the consequences of having

these people, or situations, present all at once? How do you behave when

your friends, parents, teachers, children, and boss are all together in the

same place? This is another dimension of the situation in which vloggers find

themselves, a situation of “all-at-onceness.” Surely, one self presentation is

bound to alienate a certain section of your audience. Do you try to satisfy all

present situations by homogenizing roles and presenting a middle stage

behavior? Do you risk alienating part of your audience by choosing a distinct

role, perhaps one you are most comfortable presenting? Or do you create a

new behavior? These are the reasons for the ostensible anxiety of first vlogs

on YouTube; the negotiation of a situation of “all-at-onceness” where multiple

previously distinct stages are encountered together in the virtual space of

the Internet.

These are only two brief examples of a broad phenomenon unfolding

on the Internet. In all likelihood, these cursory analyses can apply to any

Internet-mediated environment, especially those where people choose to

gather and interact. I agree with Sherry Turkle when she writes “today’s life

on the screen dramatizes and concretizes a range of cultural trends that

encourage us to think of identity in terms of multiplicity and flexibility”

(Turkle 1999:643). As Internet-mediated communication matures,

multiplicative identity and cognitive flexibility will become central issues of

concern. “We have as many lives as we do points of view” (Berger 1963:57);

how will we manage our lives in an environment characterized by the

merging of information-systems, where each new merger offers us a novel

perspective on the world and on others? Our lives are increasingly becoming

defined by increased experimentation, especially with respect to Internet-

mediated environments where we are offered the ability to create our own

communications media thanks to the creation of user-friendly coding

languages. If we can entertain the idea that each medium we use to interact

on the Internet presents a particular facet of our identity, then we have a

situation similar to perhaps the most formative period of human

development, that of Erik Erikson’s adolescent moratorium (Turkle 1999). A


period of intense interaction, idea experimentation, and identity play, the

adolescent moratorium nourishes the formation of a healthy self. And as the

informational worlds between children and adults are brought closer together

by electronic media, as children learn more about their parent’s backstage

behavior and begin acting more like adults as a result (Meyrowitz 1985), the

extension of the adolescent moratorium to Internet communication may be

necessary. However, my point here is not necessarily to argue the

displacement of adolescent developmental stages, but that experimentation

is crucial to our development as human beings. The Internet presents us

with an environment in which we may experiment with our identities

relatively consequence-free; an “always-available window” into the

experimental moratorium (Turkle 1999:645).

This leads me to my conclusion. Will the new networked information

environment, as it redefines our conception of business, cultural production,

and human relationships, inspire us to appreciate the fragmentation of

identities, the performance of multiple roles on different stages, and the

practice of identity experimentation? Or will we desire singularity over

complexity and seek a reconciliation of this fragmentation in the form of a

homogenized role that attempts to satisfy multiple roles and stages at once?

Perhaps such a binary choice is misleading. Increases in interest-based

interactions (Alstyne 1997), niche marketing, search engine optimization,

and the limitations of human cognitive abilities certainly favor a hypothesis

in line with the latter query. There is already a movement on the Internet

towards creating more efficient methods of organizing information. But will

this ultimately lead to isolation and single-mindedness (Carr 2008)? What

about the tremendous ability to communicate across information-systems at

a rate never before possible? Will we not embrace the informational

diversity brought by such a possibility? On the other hand, there is the

reality that in spite of attempts to organize the vast array of information,

people still participate in multiple information-systems on the Internet. It is

not uncommon for Internet users to possess multiple accounts (read:

identities) on multiple social networking platforms and actively maintain

them all. So although there is a desire for more information control and

singularity, there is no broad trend of refusal to negotiate multiple identities.

As cultural beings, humans are in a constant process of creating and

recreating themselves (Bourdieu 1977). This also extends to their cultures

and media are a primary means through which this occurs. The relationships

between individuals are modified in certain ways according to the biases of

the chosen media of communication. It holds that different forms of media

will (re)present the relationships between people in different ways, altering

their webs of relations and thus their cultures. The transformation of 15th

century Europe was accelerated by the advent of the printing press. In the

21st century, the Internet promises a transformation much larger in

magnitude. Media, however, are not created in a vacuum. Humans are

responsible for their creation as well as their use. Our negotiation of merging

information-systems and the symptoms of ambiguity associated therein will


depend on how we choose to use media and how we ultimately choose to

understand their effects on us as human beings and how these effects

extend to our cultures. Through its ability to compress time and space,

Internet-mediated communication alters our conception of identity by

colliding information-systems. This calls for increased cognitive flexibility as

we negotiate the merging of stages, roles, and information. Whether this

ultimately necessitates a homogenization of roles, the development of and

acceptance of a faceted identity, or the (re)creation of a new identity is yet

to be known. One thing is certain, however. Our approach must become

more proactive rather than reactive with respect to Internet-mediated

communication because, as Howard Rheingold (2002:215) appropriately

points out, what we do in the mediascape matters, and what it is, is up to us.


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