The Blogging Identity
The use of a constructed blogging identity has recently become high fashion in the computer world. With computers between the faces of those who converse online, we can create a veil to conceal the truth, a mask to construct a new truth, or a magnifying glass to focus in on whatever we please. In this paper, I will discuss the nature, use-value, and appeal of a constructed blogging identity. With references to two specific blogs, I will talk about how bloggers perceive their personal blogging identity, how it constrains them, and what it tells us about the nature of internet communication.
A blogger is a filter of his/her own life. Albert Mehrabian pointed out in the 70's that communication is broken down into three unequal parts: body language, tone of voice, and words (which account for 55%, 38%, and 7% of communication, respectively). According to Mehrabian's breakdown of communication, the use of the internet automatically filters out 93% of the information that we would normally be transmitting during face to face communication!
However, in a true Derrida sense, using language to communicate will always merely be a form of representation of the truth. There will always be more to convey than what can be represented-that does not necessarily mean that all communication is a lie. Another important distinction here is the line between lie and truth, mask and veil; fiction is merely an expression of the creator for whatever purposes he/she sees fit-it is when it is presented as truth that it becomes a lie. So, on which side of the line do constructed online identities stand? To answer this, we must first consider how a persona is presented online; to assume truth in all blogging would be to condemn it all to deceit and to assume lies in all blogging would be to demean the sense of trust that exists within some blogging communities. So, can we sift out the veils from the masks and, more importantly, should we?
During a visit to our class, Tim Burke spoke briefly of the "deliberate chameleons" that surface sometimes within his blog Easily Distracted; they cannot be understood, have no pattern, have no truth value. Yet, when their questions arise, the persona he has created within his blogging community must not be broken, no matter how much the real Tim wants to tell them off. Ironically, this communicates a sense of truth and constancy within the constructed persona itself, demonstrating the preservation of two separate but intertwined personalities by a single sentient being. Yet, the fact that the two personas are in conflict does not necessarily mean that a distinction can be made between the veiled Tim and the masked Tim; to do so would be to assume that a truth exists in the fist place.
Clearly we cannot, from the outside, make accurate judgments of others, especially in the blogging community where so much information is concealed and all information is derived. But we do make judgments; we read Laura Blankenship's blog GeekyMom and assume that the stories and thoughts which she shares are not merely constructed lies and deceitful falsities with an ulterior motive; that sense of trust between blogger and reader is upheld by the verisimilitude with which her story has developed since the creation of GeekyMom. And yet, even Laura has noted, during her conversation with us, that the blogging persona presented as GeekyMom is merely a veiled representation of herself. Laura has decided to keep descriptions of personal life to a minimum on her blog; this deliberate concealment of truth reveals a different breed of lie-the so-called white lie. This kind of concealment is very different from Derrida's concealment of truths that inevitably come with the use of language. This purposeful and targeted concealment demonstrates the vague definition that separates fact from fiction within the blogging world.
The level of perceived anonymity on the internet has turned personal blogging (and the blogging identity that comes with it) into a genre that is not seen as having a factual basis of science or history. Indeed, readers of blogs do not expect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But, a certain level of credulity is important to the extent that charlatans are in low demand. The online blogging identity thus presents itself with a dilemma that is inescapable; the nature of words prevents us from communicating the complete truth, and the nature of a lie assumes intent by the writer to deceive. Yet, how can an author tell a lie if the reader does not expect truth? Thus, the genre of the blog seems to exist inexorably between fact and fiction-destined to wander the banks of Archeron until the evolution of the blog genre takes it elsewhere.
But, if the words of the blog are neither truth nor lie, what does that tell us about the identities that the bloggers have constructed for themselves? The purpose of the identities is blurred by this incomplete distinction; for, is there any use-value in something that is neither fact nor fiction? The bloggers must say yes because that middle ground is the place where their online identity resides. And indeed, to shrug them off as useless would be to disregard its effect; online personas can express opinions and emotions, can state facts, can cite and incite others, can respond and think, and consider and ignore. We as readers can even find our own truths in the words written in blogs (whether they are veiled representations, masked falsities, or vivid exaggerations of the blogger's own truth). Unless you know the blogger personally, it is nearly impossible to make distinctions between online true personas and false personas, the use-value of either should not be underestimated. When thinking about the use-value of a constructed identity, remember that lies can inspire and incite just as much as truths.
This discussion of identity has brought us to an interesting place in the theory of genre. The emergence of the blog as a genre has been followed closely by the mass hysteria that is the personal construction of an online identity. Does the appeal of participation in blogging come from the expression of thoughts and opinions, the enjoyment of a mass audience, and the endeavor for response, or does the appeal merely lie in the allowance of an expression of self without destroying the already constructed persona of our real-life character? We work hard to fit in once we hit adolescence. As social creatures, our need to feel accepted into and understood by a group is extremely strong. It takes time, effort, and self-control to construct a persona that other people see as constant and reliable. The faith that our peers, friends, lovers, and families place in our identity is satisfying and to break that faith by sharply altering our character at a whim would alienate those people from the person they once felt they knew. Thus, we stay true to our image and generally keep a stable social identity.
Yet, I think that a person's integrity sometimes demands something more; some of our deepest personal dreams, hopes, emotions, and expectations may not fit in with our real-life social identity. It is here where the perceived anonymity of the internet can allow us to construct another identity; one in which we can think, feel, speak, and act differently than our real-life self would without breaking down the identity that we spent so long constructing. The real bait on the hook, though, is the disposable nature of an online identity-use it, abuse it, toss it; there is no face attached to this identity and it is a world from which one can escape at any time. The same cannot be said for the ‘real' world that we live in.
The anonymous nature of blogging as a filter of all levels of physical communication makes it impossible to determine the extent of truth behind any given blogger's persona, so the need to sift out veil from mask is naïve. Part of the appeal of blogging is allowing the self to integrate the real-life identity with a disposable constructed one. This allows bloggers to construct an identity that helps to fulfill their sense of integrity. To say that it matters whether someone presents their real-life identity as their online one is assuming that one identity or the other is the ‘true' identity. Which, then, is the true one and which is the false one, or are they both one in the same? Indeed, the complexities surrounding the blogging identity are somewhat paradoxical; the revolution of the World Wide Web has certainly created an amazing and complex new genre with an unlimited number of possibilities for expressing and developing one's identity as a whole. The construction of an online identity seems to me almost like a sub-genre of blogging. In what ways does it fit this description?