Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Duelling identities, part 1

I'm not sure how much stock we should put in an article that claims “Youngsters not happy oldies going online”, from an Australian News Corp. affiliate, which I must assume is a tabloid, given this photo of Britney Spears on their front page (I recommend you don't follow the link). The piece cites no sources or even unscientific polls, though the author seems to have interviewed several “youngsters” and a “youth market researcher” from California. Is there in fact a trend—a spreading ageism or gerontophobia among the youth? Or is this article meant to reinforce the contemporary stereotype of lost kids in the digital age and to promote an “us vs them” attitude?

In any case, while the article may be a tabloid fluff piece, it does bring up some interesting talking points. In particular the Generation Gap, which for a while seemed to be growing wider as it coincided with the Technological Divide; Divergent Identities; privacy; the extension of adolescence; and the arrogance of youth.

According to the article, young persons - presumably those of university undergrad age and younger—are often displeased when their elders, particularly their parents and their parents’ friends, find and befriend them on social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. Being online friends with these “oldies” causes alarm among young folk because it prevents them from communicating openly with their peers for fear of having their adolescent antics exposed.

Though it shows no clear bias—that is, it makes no explicit argument—the article is mostly rubbish. But I do find the idea of Secondary Identities very interesting. Underlying the emptiness of it all, the author (perhaps without knowing) points out that many people (certainly the young are not alone in this) do or say things online that they would not do or say in “real life”, and definitely not around their parents or other adult members of society. People post pictures of themselves and their friends doing things they would not do or discuss in polite company; they post inflammatory comments on web forums that they would be too frightened to say to someone’s face; they offer personal details that they might think twice about before mentioning aloud; all voluntarily, and apparently mostly without regret or fear of repercussion. In the process, regular internet users are creating secondary identities, without even realizing it. And these alternative identities don't seem to match our daily lives.

One might consider it positive that people are expressing themselves honestly through their online identities. That's fair; but why are we unable to reconcile our real and virtual lives? And is it really honest to say something in one place that we would not say elsewhere (particularly when that “one place” is the world wide web)? I don't think it's simply a question of public and private, though that certainly plays a part. Generally, my real public acts are the ones that I want to show others, or rather, they are the things I don't mind others discovering. These acts demonstrate the person that I want others to believe I am. Real private acts are the ones that perhaps more accurately represent my true or hidden character, such as binge drinking, drug taking, excess gambling, vandalism, passive aggression. Indeed, there is a grey area that includes those daily acts that I have no interest in making public, but which should cause little embarrassment if they did become generally known. These might be certain “small-v” vices (smoking tobacco, listening to Yanni, et c.), bedroom activities, or shopping habits. These are truly public acts, because I make no effort to hide them from anybody. The behaviour of my virtual personae should more or less line up with the real. The difference is that it is so much more difficult to keep things private on the internet. Public and private behaviour converge here.

Much has been made in the last couple of years of prospective or current employers discovering their candidates or employees engaged in undesirable behaviour (perhaps even while at work). And several schools have expelled students for inappropriate behaviour discovered on the web. The media tell us: “Your stellar résumé won't save you if there’s a video on YouTube of you throwing up on a stripper, even if it was your bachelor party.” (Unless you're a celebrity.) Actually, in the technological age, where many pray at the altar of celebrity, we seem to revel in playing a part and acting as both celebrities and paparazzi within our own private cliques. On the internet, we can be the stars of our own lives, emulating our favourites and showing off the pictures to prove it.

Stay tuned for part 2.


Anonymous said...

Yeah I not so sure about your comments here. I would be surprised to hear someone say that people saying things online they wouldnt say in real life is good because its "expressing themselves honestly." Then I would remind them we are social animals and thus anonymously posting crap online (see this comment) has about as much to do with being yourself as vandalism has to do with your "true" character. Just because something is anti-social (I know that some vandalism is pro-social and creative -- I'm just saying) or harmful to oneself doesnt make it a more accurate representation of self. You keep it private cause your friends would disapprove and judge you. And you fear their judgement cause hey we're social animals. We keep certain things private because as social animals we try and keep the other animals from getting agitated when we hang around. You pretending to not like Yanni is the true you too.

"The behaviour of my virtual personae should more or less line up with the real. The difference is that it is so much more difficult to keep things private on the internet."

First sentence is right on if we are to have our virtual communities grow, adapt and reflect the world we want. Not so sure about the second sentence. Quite frankly, if you are trying to line up your virtual self with your real self you dont need that anonymity. And if you choose to join social networking sites or not attempt to police yourself (email: "hey asshole, take that video of me puking off your site, I'm a fucking pediatrician!") then you have chosen to do shit in the public sphere that is gonna get you judged.

paganharlot said...

"funk, the deformed cousin of jazz." - The Mighty Boosh

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