New Media and Identities
In this paper I seek to discuss the role of New Media and Blogging in shaping contemporary identities. I will begin this discussion with a look at the concept of identity from various theoretical standpoints and the role technology plays in the construction or acquisition of identity. I will then narrow down the discussion by looking specifically at the link between new media and identity. I also thought it would be interesting to look at the role of new media in constructing identities both from the perspective of the producer/author and from the consumer/spectator, i.e. from construction of self to communal identity. Throughout this paper, I shall make reference to examples of currently live sites.
The Concept of Identity
From a social theory standpoint, the concept of identity ranges from the purely socio-psychological notion of identity being made up of our personal characteristics (essential self) and inter-relationships, and our position within a social context, i.e. racial, national etc, in Freudian terms, the id, ego and super ego (Tajfel, 1981), to a social-constructionist notion that identity is constructed or “practiced,” or “performed” and more recently, the post-modernist notion of identity being historically defined by our reactions and adjustments to what is happening around us (Hall, 1986).
The move from the “essential” notion of self to the subsequent post-modern deconstruction and defragmentation of the notion of identity such that it becomes a constantly changing according to the cultural systems and power discourses that surround the self. Hall calls it a “movable feast” which is historically defined as opposed to biologically (Hall, 1986).
According to Wikipedia, “The rise of new media has increased communication between people all over the world and the Internet. It has allowed people to express themselves through blogs, websites, pictures, and other user-generated media” (Wikipedia). Essentially, this means there are less and less geographical boundaries between people and the speed and reach of communications has increased exponentially, which means the notion of a network society becomes somewhat amplified. It follows from this that identity construction in a network society acquires different dimensions because of the distinct reconfiguration of the environment in which it takes place (Castells, 1997).
Technology and Identity
According to some, online communications or NCT’s have proven to be a significant factor in the development of fragmented, fluid patterns of individual identity (Hodkinson, 2007). Here, the notion of removing the identity from the physical self opens up opportunities for individuals to assume different personas in different online spaces. In other words, using new media technologies such as social networks and blogs, authors can take on different identities to fit their objectives (Stone, 1996).
On Facebook for instance, despite its beginnings as a social network platform for students, it went from requiring members to sign up with their real names and school/college email addresses (hence real identity) to currently allowing people to sign up with preferred user names. This opens up opportunity for people to sign up as their preferred personas rather than using their real identities (Acquisti & Gross, 2006).
Blogs also offer people the opportunity to reimagine themselves, and to become subjects – as opposed to merely playing with identities. In both cases above, the author/producer become the subject. Reed’s work looks at how blogs are structured around ‘I’ narratives, referring to Gell’s terminology of the subject being a prototype or the entity being depicted in the blog (Reed, 2005). Becoming a subject requires the acceptance of difference and multiplicity within oneself, but also managing to retain a sense of precarious togetherness.
Romeo Razali – The Ladies’ Man
One particularly good example of this that comes immediately to mind is a blog by fictitious character “Romeo Razali” [http://romeorazali.wordpress.com], a supposedly well-travelled fellow who fancies himself as quite the ladies’ man and has a tremendous track record with women both at home and abroad. Here’s a sampling of his discourse: “And as luck was on my side, that lady had parked her car just next to mine! A simple smile later, and to cut the story short, she got my number. Yeap, you got that right, she got my number! Don’t ask me how, entrapment perhaps.” (Razali, 2007)
Belle du Jour – London Call Girl
The other side of the coin of course is where reality meets online persona albeit in anonymity. An example of this, which has recently caught media attention, is Belle de Jour’s or as recently revealed, Dr Brooke Magnanti’s, Diary of a London Call Girl (Magnanti, ). This site was essentially a secret journal which Dr Magnanti kept during the time she worked as an escort in London between the years 2003 and 2004 while she was doing her PhD. Part of the allure of her site was, in addition to her beautiful writing style and the realism of her experiences, her anonymity. Dr Magnanti’s identity remained hidden for quite a number of years and would have remained hidden had it not been the threat of it being exposed.
Her post after she revealed her identity drives home the point about blogs being a projection of one’s true identity and showed that the difference between her online and offline personae were not that great after all:
“Looking back over my diaries is sometimes embarrassing, sometimes hilarious (often unintentionally so). After a page or two I’m right back there – living in London, keeping up a double life, with all the effort that entails…
Which is just too difficult to do long-term. I suppose I always thought that the part of my life I wrote about would fade away, that I could stick it in a box and move on. Totally separate it from the ‘real me’.
What it took me years to realize is that while I’ve changed a lot since writing these diaries – my life has moved on so much, in part thanks to the things that happened then – Belle will always be a part of me. She doesn’t belong in a little box, but as a fully acknowledged side of a real person. The non-Belle part of my life isn’t the only ‘real’ bit, it’s ALL real.
Belle and the person who wrote her had been apart too long. I had to bring them back together.” (Magnanti, )
We can see here that although technology offers new and exciting possibilities to rebuild our identities (because online there are no set rules or norms), I am in agreement with Castells when he attests that this sort of experimentation with different identities is mostly reserved for the younger generation (Castells, 2001).
Reed, in his anthropological study of British “journal bloggers” refers to the identification of the blog with the self, or as the bloggers he studied commonly put it, “My Blog is Me”. (Reed, 2005) This is where the blog is seen as an online projection of the author’s offline persona. However, this identification of the blog as ‘I’ is not without its flaws because quite often, it can become “we” as I shall illustrate later when I talk about the audience.
Dr Mahathir Mohamed – From Prime Minister to Blogger
A good example of this is the blog of former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, better known on his blog by his nickname; Che Det. Dr Mahathir has always been an outspoken critic of the west. To illustrate, this is what he had to say about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President George Bush in one of his posts concerning a media article:
“If people like Bush and Blair are allowed to escape any form of punishment for the brutal crimes they have committed, then others who may lead powerful countries will continue to war and to kill and destroy even when there is no justification.”
This is so typical of Dr Mahathir and one can almost hear him speaking the words in his blog just as he does in his many brilliant speeches when he was Malaysian Premier (Mohammad, (a)).
Whilst journal blogging is a kind of “brain dump” where the author tends to unload whatever is on his/her mind at that very moment in time, photoblogs different in the sense that they are a visual representation of the world through the blogger’s eyes. According to Wikipedia, “A photoblog (or photolog, or phlog) is a form of photo sharing and publishing in the format of a blog. It differs from a blog through the predominant use of and focus on photographs rather than text. Photoblogging (the action of posting photos to a photoblog) gained momentum in the early 2000s with the advent of the moblog and cameraphones.” [Wikipedia]
To illustrate this I shall take the example of my own photoblog, anakbrunei.org (Malik, ), which is one of the most popular photoblogs in Brunei and was voted photoblog of the year in 2008. Over the last few years, this blog has accumulated over 1,300 posts and 4,400 comments. A large majority of the posts on this blog are a visual (and historical) record of life in Brunei as seen from behind my camera lens.
Blogs as a historical record of identity
Reeds, in his study concluded that bloggers view the weblog as a form of chronicle; they post entries with their own future reception in mind as well (Reed, 2005). However, I would add here that bloggers also post entries with a view towards collective recollection for the public at a future point in time. For example, my posts on Brunei’s National Day celebrations have become a visual and historical record of the atmosphere during those events, which will allow future generations of Bruneians to see how National Day was celebrated in the early 21st century. See:
The archival nature of blogs also means that they can act as repositories of historical events. Some have argued, however, that their existence constraints the blogger, as archived content potentially remains there forever. I think in my case, it works in my favour since it can act as a permanent “exhibit” of sorts for future generations to refer to on the history of my country.
A-List and Blogger Celebrity Status
In addition to projecting ones identity onto cyberspace, blogs and other social media also allow one to attain a much higher degree of visibility both on and off line. Being visible as a blogger is important to some bloggers, but also implies blogging hierarchies, along with the creation of strategies to increase visibility/popularity.
This is illustrated by what is commonly referred to as the blog celebrity status or A-list bloggers. The number of hits or visits his/her blog receives and the number of subsequent comments the posts on his/her blog draws usually measure the level of celebrity or fame. It is not uncommon to see some of these blog celebrities draw millions of visitors daily for example celebrity gossip blogs like Perez Hilton [http://perezhilton.com/] and news blogs like the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/].
The notion of hierarchy is apparent when we look at the various blogger awards, which are based on reader votes and/or number of hits/visitors. Much like the glittering and glamorous show business awards such as the Oscars and MTV music awards, the blogger awards such as the Bloggers’ Choice Awards and the Nuffnang Asia-Pacific Blog Awards [http://awards.nuffnang.com/winners.php], place recognition upon top bloggers who are chosen by their audience and peers with suitably glitzy award events as part of the package. It is possible to conclude here that a majority of the top bloggers will devise their own strategies, which include in some cases, shifting their identities and blogging about what will please their audience, in the case of Perez Hilton, juicy celebrity gossip, and hence garner their votes.
What about the audience?
Blogs and social networks are tools in the construction of this larger than life identity of some of these authors/producers. In addition to this, the “audience” which is the readers and commenters of a blog and the “friends” or “fans” in a social network like Facebook also contributes to the identity of the author/producer. For example, an A-List blogger would have a very high number of readers, but more importantly, a high number of comments as well. Dr Mahathir’s posts in his blog will invariably attract a large number of comments. The post about Tony Blair had no less than 143 comments the last of which was on 22nd November 2009. Another post congratulating President Obama on his victory in the election drew 389 comments the latest being on 4th December 2008 (Mohammad,(b) ).
President Obama’s election campaign was one of those watershed campaigns in terms of usage of new media to create this “project identity” among Americans during a time of great discontent with the current leadership and a strong call for “change”. Thus the campaign was aptly named Change.gov. Barack Obama’s Internet-energized run to the U.S. presidency was hailed at the time as the world’s most technologically advanced election victory.
This is what Richard Edelman, CEO of PR firm Edelman had to say about the Change campaign:
“Consider this single statistic from the recently completed Obama for President Campaign. Three million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations on-line […] His email list has 13 million addresses. A million people signed up for the text-messaging program. Two million profiles were created on MyBarackObama.com, his social network, plus 5 million supporters in other venues such as Facebook and MySpace. […] The mass is the new class.” (Edelman, )
The Kutcher – CNN Twitter Challenge
Another recent example is of how Hollywood A-List Celebrity Ashton Kutcher beat CNN to becoming the first Twitter user to reach 1 million followers (Ashton kutcher beats CNN in twitter challenge.). This is where Castells’ project identity i.e. “new identity that redefines their position in society and, by doing so, seek the transformation of overall social structure” comes into play (Castells, 1997). Kutcher was able to beat CNN because of the cause that he represented during the challenge, i.e. Malaria No More. Here we can clearly see the role of new media in the collaborative construction of communal identities beyond territories, i.e. the collective action by 1 million people to allow Kutcher to win resulting in the donation of 10,000 anti-malaria bed nets. Cerulo’s suggestion that “collective agency includes a conscious sense of groupas agent [and] is enacted in a moral space” becomes apparent here as well (Cerulo, 1997).
Over the last few pages, this paper has looked at the various roles that new media are playing in shaping contemporary identities both from an individual and a collective perspective. Examples have been used from the current Internet landscape to illustrate the points made. I have endeavoured to use examples both from the east and the west to make the point that there are no borders on the web.
Blogs and new media can offer new platforms both for collaborative construction of communal identities beyond territories, and the means by which such identities organize and act upon their demands. (Castells, 2001)
The main argument here is that despite the assertion that many of the current crop of scholarship make about new media and blogs allowing identity play and multiplicity, I would still argue that by and large, new media plays the role of projecting one’s actual identity onto cyberspace for an audience to consume, and bloggers generally, will still maintain a coherent overall identity both on and off line.
As Turkle puts it so eloquently, “Cyberspace opens the possibility for identity play, but it is very serious play. People who cultivate an awareness of what stands behind their screen personae are the ones most likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal and social transformation. And the people who make the most of their lives on the screen are those who are able to approach it in a spirit of self-reflection.” (Turkle, 1999)
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