hugo :: brainstorms in sociable media (mas.961 '03)
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture
::: identity :::
"Identity is at the core of all social interactions. We care about how other's perceive us - and devote considerable energy (not always consciously) to conveying a particular identity. And, our perception of other's identity is an essential context for understanding their words and actions."

monty tagger picture

On the relationship between identity and the meta-self

It's hard to believe that the whole of Western philosophy, born with Plato and culminating in Hegel, was once fixated on a view of the self as an atomic ego, an immutable and apriorian character. Like a character in a classic fiction like a Greek myth, each self was thought to have one genuine core, and thus, each self could only portray one true identity. Straying from one's apriorian, God-given nature was often treated as a treasonous act. Fast-forward to the post-structuralist, twenty-first centurian, "age of the web." The online world is like the Wild Wild West of the social world. In addition to web surfing, members of online communities identity surf -- Pornography spam-bots lurk in chat rooms posing as DD females, nerds portray themselves as jocks on online dating sites in hopes of attracting their dream date, and every instant messenger user maintains a handful of different handles, or monikers, to portray very different identities centered around their different interests. Indy500Rac3r and TLebowitzAttorneyAtLaw are different as night and day, but live in the same body. So what happened that caused such a change? Has the world gone mad? Not in the least. If anything, we got less idealistic about human nature, and a lot more empirical, unrooting stubborn notions of the self from the context of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Identity surfing in the online world is not an anomaly, but merely an amplified reflection of the nature of people and social behavior in the real world. We learned that self does not equal identity, but rather, the self is dynamic, always in flux, and capable of portraying a wide repetoire of identities. In this paper, we reject the notion of a stable, fixed self, and re-construct in its lieu, a portrait of a crafting meta-self -- a painter who paints and repaints her own identity using a palette of social roles and characters from common cultural models, to suit any given social context. The meta-self painter, in turn, uses her own palette to interpret and represent the identities of others.

The notion that identity can exist not as an apriorian phenomenon but as a dynamic painting painted by the meta-self is supported by many keen observations from contemporary sociologists. The German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote about the fragmented and dually public and private nature of an individual's identity. According to Simmel, "we cannot know completely the identity of another," because individuals only portray themselves publicly to others using a vocabulary of commonly known social roles. There is a particular economy of representation in communicating identity using commonly understood stereotypes, because it allows others to quickly generalize and understand our intentions. Simmel makes the distinction between an individual's public, sociate nature, and his private, non-sociate nature. This "differentiated ego" of the non-sociate individual equates to the meta-self, as both Simmel's notion of non-sociate individual and the meta-self nuances and exercises control over the expression of the sociate identities. For Simmel, the existence of a non-sociate meta-self outside own's sociate identity is crucial, as "to be one with God is conditioned in its very significance by being other than God". While Simmel recognized that social roles are a part of the meta-self's palette for painting identity, his theory doesn't directly extend to less clearly defined social categories. Dorothy Holland and Debra Skinner extends the identity palette from well-formed and well-defined social roles like "priest" and "police officer" to more culturally defined social types, such as "jerk" or "sweetheart" in the gender type domain. Whereas social roles are rather explicitly defined types, culturally defined types exist as a part of each individual's own cultural model -- one's unspoken expectations and implicit common sense intuition for different types of people. We can speculate that such a cultural model is assembled from people of personal experience, fictional characters portrayed in books and in movies, and even facets of ourselves that we have become aware of. Holland and Skinner demonstrate that in the domain of gender types, one's cultural model of types is usually implicitly organized along behavioral dimensions, and subsequently showed empirically that people categorize others based on events and behaviors. The import of commonsense cultural models to understanding and portraying identities is that it doesn't require knowledge of apriorities such as social roles, as in Simmel's theory. The Holland and Skinner portrayal of identity seems better suited for interpreting identity in situations where only immediate actions and not backgrounds are known about someone, such as in an online community. Simmel, and Holland and Skinner have variously emphasizes social roles and behavior-oriented cultural models as palettes for painting identity and interpreting identity. Although it may not always seem appropriate to do so, we stress the reciprocal nature of painting and interpretation because both are governed by our imagination for identity's potential, and we argue that this imagination relies on having palettes for identity.

Identity is painted from a varied palette of social roles and characters from a cultural model. But how does the meta-self create the identity painting given a social context? Philosopher Jacques Lacan spoke of an individual as capable of adopting many "subject positions", identities dynamically selected as the social contexts changes. Similarly, Simmel, Holland and Skinner, and social pyschologist Erving Goffman suggest that identity formation in a social context is negotiable, and that an individual meta-self deliberately portrays herself with a certain identity to best suit a situation. Previously we presented Holland and Skinner's findings that people used event-based cues to categorize other people into social types. In Goffman, there is the reciprocal idea that an individual may use her cultural model not to just interpret others, but to manipulate her own identity. Goffman writes that "the individual effectively projects a definition of the situation when he enters the presence of others," suggesting that an individual exploits her knowledge of the cultural model to mold her behavior so as to elicit a certain identity perception from her "audience." Goffman contends that identity in a social interaction is fluid and open to negotiation. When all the participants in a social interaction have asserted the identities they choose to project to others, the ensuing social interaction breeds the creation of a "working consensus" on the identities and roles of the participants. Goffman goes so far as to suggest that more so that not, individuals consciously control both their intentional social expression, and their presumed unintentional impression, to convincingly act an identity. The idea of conscious control of communicated identity can also be found in Holland and Skinner. In studies of male and female courtship and relationships, Holland and Skinner found that both parties tried to control how they were perceived by the other. Both parties wanted to have more prestige and to have the upper hand, and they achieved this by consciously portraying themselves to be more social than they actually were, more unavailable, and more desired. Vying for prestige perfectly illustrates the negotiable and dynamic nature of identity in social interactions.

Using a palette of identities from social roles and cultural models, our meta-self cleverly crafts different identities to advance our agendas in different social situations. We use identity both to communicate ourselves in social contexts, such as the relationship between a policeman and a citizen, but we also use identity to gain leverage over others in social situations, such as the poser who acted his way into a member's only country club, or the girl who turned down a friday night date to play hard-to-get. And naturally, the same identity palette we paint ourselves from, becomes the vocabulary by which we are able to recognize and understand the identities of our fellow people. This complex, dynamic, and often ulteriorally motivated notion of identity is a far cry from notions of an atomic self that have persisted for so much of Western history.

Prestige dynamics of newsgroups:
On observations of a newsgroup thread in soc.women [*]

Premise: The chat begins with a post describing speed dating. The initiater of the thread wants to know if anyone has any experiences to share.

Characters: "James King" and "Laura". From the name, it could be a he or possibly she, but one can sense James's homophobia and quickly decides that it's a guy. James is the first to respond to the initiater's post. He/she relates a funny personal anecodotal experience with speed dating, painting a half-funny, half-horrific tale of a speed dating game gone wrong as participants get blindfolded and kiss other participants, only to discover that all the participants are men. James's homophobia is evident, but his humor is redeeming. One suspects from his rhetorical style of charming circumloqution that James is from the UK (later confirmed). It is only with the aid of cultural models as described by Holland and Skinner that it's possible to label James as a homophobe, and a Brit. Cues from James's behavior during speed dating lead the audience to believe that he is homophobic, and his witty and redeeming rhetorical strategy suggests his Brit origin.

James's first few posts are funny, candid, homophobic, and slightly graphic. It is clear that he is playing to the audience, and here, Goffman's analogy of theatrical performance is quite appropriate. James is negotiating his identity in this chat thread to be a charming, funny, authoratative, and exhibitionistic figure (with all of his graphic and crass candor). Every prompt from a fellow poster is taken by James to be another opportunity to charm and impress. His presumed unintentional mannerisms seem so natural that they come off as genuine. The audience has reason to believe that this is a very natural identity for him. Looking at James in Holland and Skinner's scales of prestige, his instinct to defend his viewpoint and to illustrate the superior depth of his knowledge by pointing out the faults in the reasoning of others suggest that he is actively defending his high prestige. He is especially critical of other males in the chat thread, suggesting that he wants to portray himself as an alpha male.

A turning point in the thread comes when "Laura" enters the chat scene. Laura posts a confident and knowledge retort to James. James is impressed by Laura's confident style, and that she doesn't contradict him but rather, complements his claims about speed dating with her own anecdotes and exhibition of personal depth. James responds to Laura and begins to talk more at depth than he had previously, in what can be fairly interpreted as an attempt to impress and flirt with Laura. He coyly propositions her. He views her as having high prestige, for his comments exhibit a high-level of intimacy with her. Laura responds positively to James's flirtations, upping the ante and challenging him with flirtations. James challenges Laura by becoming much more sexually explicit and graphic. Laura ends the thread with an invitation to James to "cut to the chase" and proposes that they trade pics in private.

Laura attracts James because she recognizes his prestige in knowledge. When they recognize that they have equivalently high prestige, they tune out the rest of the people on the thread. In one such intrusion by a third poster, James quickly and rudely dismisses the poster. James defends his already negotiated identity as the thread alpha male, and speed dating guru. Laura and James, in recognition of their mutual interest, converse with more intimacy (albeit still in a public forum) than with others, and eventually ignore all the other posters.

As the nature of online identities go, neither James nor Laura avails of their explicit social roles, e.g. job, role in family, etc. Thus Simmel's theories are largely untestable.

Conversational Sketch

In this sketch, I interpret Holland and Skinner's Prestige and Intimacy over a node graph. Each node represents a poster on the chat thread. Blue indicates male, and red, female. The size of the bubble corresponds to the size of the ego of the poster, as portrayed by the poster him/herself (a la Goffman). JK, aka James King, negotiates himself a large, alpha male ego, a strong presence. L, aka Laura also has a strong presence. Each rounded arrow (looks like a parenthetical marker) represents an interaction (a post). The further the arrow gets toward the person being addressed, the more prestige the speaker has won or exhibited, either through gaining the upper hand of knowledge, or wit, or whatnot. The intensity of the arrow represents how personally intense the message is. The yellow aurora indicates the exchange of intimacy. As the sketch shows, JK does not respond to the girl represented by the pink node in the upper left. The majority of JK's arrows dominate the other posters and his dominance is illustrated by this. JK has a slight feud (the temporal dimensions of this not being evident) with the male in the lower left. The male is the lower left portrays himself with a big ego and is perhaps the biggest challenge to JK's negotiated alpha male status in the group. The arrow count and intensity is not balanced, and arrows tend to overlap each other in direction ())(. Lack of symmetry is a visual indication of conflict. By contrast, JK's relationship with L is well-balanced intensity-wise and always meets in the middle. This indicates equal prestige, and sets the context for the ensuing intimacy. The visual symmetry of the arrows indicates an ideal meeting of like-minded identities. This sketch does not consider the temporal dimension, but an animated version may do the job.





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