the relationship between identity and the meta-self
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.
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.
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.
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.
dynamics of newsgroups:
On observations of a newsgroup thread in soc.women
The chat begins with a post describing speed dating. The initiater
of the thread wants to know if anyone has any experiences to share.
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.