The Blogging Identity

Christina Harview's picture

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?

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

a sense of two selves

Christina--
Following DAR's suggestions regarding our communication methods , and so trying to "hone in" a little more...

I'm curious that you're unsatisfied with my comments; I'd have thought having an engaged reader saying "more, more, more" would have qualified as a proper uptake for your work. Would you prefer a response that expressed complete satisfaction with what you had done, and so ended the conversation?

(Assuming not, and continuing on....)

To two spots:
I do not, as you say, use the word integrity to introduce a sense of twoness or incompleteness.
What I was referring to what your claim that when "a person's integrity sometimes demands something more...[than a] real-life social identity," she can used the "the perceived anonymity of the internet...to construct another identity," a "disposable" one. That sounded to me like an argument that having integrity (=being an integer/"one") requires making up a second identity (being "two"). Did I not understand the logic?

My second question arises from the warning in your final paragraph: not to "be fooled by thinking that the internet is not private." Let me try to understand this better: because everything you say on-line is a construction, I can't know what is "really" you? How is this different than anything you say in person? Where's/who's the "real"? (I ask this because of all you say, above, about the constructed self...) Does DAR's quote from Skinner--about the self having a sense of "two selves," when "one is aware of the activity of another" apply here?
Anne Dalke's picture

Deliberate Chameleons, Wandering the Banks of Archeron….?

Christina—

The topic you are pursuing here—what does it mean, for individual psychological development, for social interaction, for education--to construct an on-line persona, is one that interests me a lot, and one about which many scholars have begun to theorize. If you’d like to explore these questions further, you might look @ Sherry Turkle’s now classic Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet; also @ Roseanne Allacuquere Stone’s “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up? Boundary Stories About Virtual Cultures,” in Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. Michael Benedikt; and perhaps too @ Brenda Danet’s “Text as Mask: Gender, Play, and Performance on the Internet,” in Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, ed. Steven G. Jones.

If it really is the case, as you say, that “the internet automatically filters out 93% of the information that we would normally be transmitting during face to face communication,” that leaves lots of room for role-playing, re-construction, projection and misunderstanding. But I’m not quite clear, yet, just how you understand this process. On the one hand, you describe “breaking out” and “breaking away.” You speak of the “disposable nature of an on-line identity” and of the internet, which you describe as a “world from which one can escape @ any time.”

On the other hand, you speak of a “sense of constancy with the constructed persona,” and claim that “the blogging persona must not be broken.” You argue, at one point, that a “person’s integrity” might demand some expression that “may not fit in with our real-life social identity”; but since integrity=integer=1, your use of the word “integrity” intrigues and puzzles me: you use it to introduce a twoness! I really don’t understand how constructing an alternative identity can help to fulfill a sense of integrity.

Is what you are exploring here the difference between the unconscious and a consciously constructed self? If so, you might find useful the fascinating study akeefe's just begun, on How the Mask Works. She says, in part, that "once the mask was put on, the 'social mask' we use for interaction is covered up. We are not concelad, but rather the character we play daily is....expanding identity comes from slipping the 'social mask.' The performers now have acess to all the persons they could present themselves as..."

Your deepest question, I think, is whether “an author can tell a lie if the reader does not expect truth?”—though I was puzzled by your evocation of a “white lie,” generally told in order not to offend, and I think really not the rationale for what you call Laura’s “purposeful and targeted concealment.” I’m not sure, given the constructedness of the self, both on-line and in meatspace, that “finding our own truths” is exactly what you are exploring here. Especially given that the internet only grants us the perception of anonymity. How important is that caveat, if our impression of privacy on the net is only a mirage?

I end, as always, wanting more data….
Christina Harview's picture

Masked Mirage

Although the concept of integrity is a complicated one, my definition was built up in my ethics class freshman year and my biomedical ethics class last semester. I see integrity as a person’s life story and identity. It implies the uniqueness of every individual’s life, person hood, and morality. Both the mental and corporal factors of a person are strongly linked to his/her integrity. It addresses the unity of self and knowing who you are as a person. Integrity is also considered as something that is not to be violated or broken. It is a person’s integrity that makes up who he/she is based on his/her life experiences. A person’s integrity is linked to the time and space in which he/she resides and defines his/her character, personality, dreams, hopes, emotions, expectations, morals, etc.

Everyone has a different integrity because no two people can go through the exact same life from the same point of reference. Integrity is an integral part of who we are. A person’s integrity can be violated or changed against their will. Integrity is constantly being changed through an individual’s life; new experiences and emotions shape and mold his/her integrity. Yet, life changing experiences can severely alter a person’s integrity. For example, rape or amputation can change a person’s integrity both mentally and physically. In these cases, the individual may no longer feel as though what has happened to him/her is really his/her life story. This disconnection from and violation of his/her original physical integrity can lead to a disconnection between his/her physical and emotional integrity which can lead to negative side effects such as depression.

Integrity is a person’s realm of character and individuality. It can be broken, it can be bruised, but it stays with us until death.

The key part here with relation to this paper is the invisibility of the emotional integrity; we cannot know a person’s dreams, hopes, or morals without them telling us. and even then, we cannot know If those are their real dreams, hopes, and morals. What I brought up in my paper about integrity was referring to those secret dreams and wishes that many people may have. For example, the person who has an erotic fantasy that is unacceptable to follow through with in reality can fulfill that dream with an online identity who is not constrained by the social expectations of the community.

Maybe the word fulfill confused you here; I was using the word not with the insinuation that integrity was not filled already, but that some of the dreams and hopes of our integrity are not realized (definition 3a in Merriam Webster). I do not, as you say, use the word integrity to introduce a sense of twoness or incompleteness.

With concern to the white lie, I clearly used the wrong term. I, for some reason, believed a white lie to be not telling the truth, but not saying anything at all. Maybe if you re-read that paragraph with this edited, but incorrect definition of the word, the statements therein will make a little more sense. I never meant to use it in the sense of the real definition, especially with relation to Laura’s blog.

I end unsatisfied with your comments... I feel that you had absolutely nothing positive to say about my paper. I wonder what kind of data you require from me.

Also, this concept of privacy only being a mirage is a mirage in itself. You may think that this is Christina, but you can really only guess. You may think that anything can be tracked back to the real person, but that is false. IP numbers and video cameras can be utilized, but not by you. I could be an imposter writing from Christina's computer. In that case, I am anonymous. Do not be fooled by thinking that the internet is not private. It, in fact, can go both ways.

DAR's picture

Communication Methods

It appears that Anne Dalke took issue with what she perceived Ms. Harview's words to mean. Perhaps, instant responses should be added to Albert Mehrabian's definition of communication so that a give-and-take flow between speaker and listener will constantly hone in on the true meaning of the speaker's words. In addition to the difficulty that distance and time bring to this genre, it is impossible to know what the reader will think of the words the author conveys.

Although Ms. Dalke appears to this reader to take issue with Ms. Harview’s posting, perhaps Ms. Dalke is actually being defensive of "Laura". Ms. Harview’s post was thought-provoking and Ms. Dalke obviously was intrigued and made pointed comments. In this way, the blog posting served it’s purpose.

Ms. Harview asks “which side of the line do constructed online identities stand?” The self that builds an image in blogging cannot own that image or force that exact image on a reader because each reader brings their own psychological history to the moment when they read the written word. If the original blogger portrays herself in total truth and honesty, the reader can never accept the image in the manner that it was given. There is no method to “know” the blogger’s history to have a reckoning and accurate understanding of the words. My (rhetorical) question is, does the reader make a lie out of the truth by altering the meaning of the author’s words? No, there is simply a difference of comprehension involved. Ms. Harview asks if “We sift out the veils form the masks and, more importantly, should we?” To this I suggest that this is a matter of semantics. Hiding or projecting oneself as something other than what you are is deception. (Although, I would like to point out that hiding personal information [deception] is safer on the internet.) As always, the context of what an individual says is as important as the source.

“How can an author tell a lie if the reader does not expect truth?” This question of Ms. Harview’s intrigued me to write and to think – and so it has served it’s purpose. Can an author be accused of deception (or lying) if deception is what is expected? I believe that in the genre of blogging, online dating, and many other internet forums the truth is not expected. Omission is unavoidable, a lack of known communication methods is inherent and the dramas will continue. Two individual images can appear not only as two halves of a whole but also as two wholes.

I leave you with a B. F. Skinner quote (1953)

A mere inconsistency in conduct from one moment to the next is perhaps no problem, or a single self could dictate different kinds of behavior from time to time. But there appear to be two selves acting simultaneously and in different ways when one self controls another or is aware of the activity of another.

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