Infoselves delivers a multifaceted analysis of the commodification of self-identity online, from both a domination and a liberation perspective. Drawing on multiple resources, the book places its discussion of online identity within the larger context of self-identity evolution, arguing for the recognition of online identity as a legitimate component of the self-identity system. Advertising executive turned academic, Demetra Garbasevschi offers readers the means to understand the way our online identities are formed and used, to reflect on the future of self-identity, and to become more aware of the radical implications of our digital footprint. Readers will discover what it means to be an infoself in a deep digital context, from exploring the informational makeup of self-identity, to examining the various sources of identity information found online, to exposing the uses of this information through both latent and assertive self-commodification. Considering the many sources of information contributing to our identity narrative online, some beyond our direct control, managing the self is presented as one the greatest challenges of our digital present. The book includes illuminating discussions of a variety of topics within the subject of online identity, such as: * Foundational concepts related to the idea of identity, including references to the works of Erik Erikson, symbolic interactionists, and social dramaturgy * The evolution of online identity, with examinations of early and current viewpoints of the phenomenon * Personal branding online as the epitome of self-commodification, with examples from online celebrity, micro-celebrity, and nano-celebrity * Original research contributing to the larger discussion about how identities are constructed and performed through-the-line Perfect for graduate students in advertising, branding, and public relations, Infoselves also belongs on the bookshelves of those studying fields involving digital media. Working professionals in any of these areas will also benefit from this book's insightful analyses of a variety of viewpoints on online identity.
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Demetra Garbaşevschi, PhD
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration Bucharest, Romania
This edition first published 2021
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Garbaşevschi, Demetra, author.
Title: Infoselves: the value of online identity / Demetra Garbaşevschi.
Description: Hoboken, NJ : John Wiley & Sons, 2021. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2020042800 (print) | LCCN 2020042801 (ebook) | ISBN 9781119642152 (paperback) | ISBN 9781119642282 (pdf) | ISBN 9781119642312 (ebook) | ISBN 9781119642268 (epub)
Subjects: LCSH: Online identities.
Classification: LCC HM851 .G349 2021 (print) | LCC HM851 (ebook) | DDC 302.3—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020042800
LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020042801
Cover image: ©Andreea Macri
Cover design: Wiley
Set in 9.5/12.5 STIX Two Text by Integra Software Services Pvt. Ltd, Pondicherry, India
Introduction: A Moment in Time and Our Self-Identity Dilemma
Chapter 1: Identity and the Value of Self-Commodification
1.1 “It’s Complicated”
1.2 The Identity of Identity
1.3 The Logic of Self-Commodification
1.4 A Brief History of Online Identity
1.5 Identity Through-the-Line
Chapter 2: The Datafied Identity and Latent Self-Commodification
2.1 The Internet of Us
2.2 The Digital Context of Identity Building
2.3 The New Nature of Identity
2.4 The Identity Economy
2.5 Datafied, Commodified
Chapter 3: The Rise of Assertive Self-Commodification
3.1 Two Sides to Every Story
3.2 The Self as a Branded Commodity
3.3 The Business of Running the Self
3.4 Self-Branding, Influencership, and Authenticity
3.5 The Transformative Power of Personal Branding
Chapter 4: Researching Online Identity
4.1 Lessons From an Unexpected Social Experiment
4.2 Why Investigate?
4.3 From Zero to Theory: A Grounded Theory Approach
4.4 Quantifying Online Identity
4.5 As Long as We Know …
Conclusion: Managing Infoselves
End User License Agreement
Figure 2.1 Visible sources of self-identity information online.
Figure 3.1 Personal brand equity and its components.
Figure 4.1 Protecting the known self. A grounded model of online identity percep...
Table 1.1 Cultural prototypes of identity formation patterns constituting the cu...
Table 4.1 Online identity questionnaire.
Table of Contents
Conclusion: Managing Infoselves
End User License Agreement
Over the course of our lives, we experience moments that have the power to bring us sudden clarity and insight over aspects of our lives that we had misunderstood, misinterpreted, or simply failed to notice. As a global society, we are equally exposed to moments of collective revelation that fracture the status quo, opening new perspectives and courses of action. These are not necessarily moments of historical magnitude and can be as mundane as the last day of April 2019.
It was the day of the Facebook F8 developer conference, an event dedicated to tech creators and consumers, where the company usually introduces its latest technological updates, pitching product novelties or proprietary tools to reaffirm its position as leader and innovator. The edition of 2019 announced itself to be remarkably different. Facebook had been under a long siege following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Since the reveal of Facebook’s part in one of the biggest political campaign schemes of our times, the accusations toward the company had been cascading. In retrospect, the known offences fell under at least three categories. First, there were the unintended errors in personal data handling. Various bugs allowed the hacking of 30 million accounts in September 2018 or the open availability of the private photos of almost seven million users to third-party developers in December 2018 (Lapowsky 2018). Then, there was the intentional third-party data sharing. In December 2018, Facebook’s alleged secret deals with over one hundred and fifty major companies, among which Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix, were made public. Under these contracts, Facebook was deceitfully unlocking the private data of users for its partners’ use (Dance et al. 2018). Finally, there was the lenience towards the use of the platform, allowing for the spread of fake news, hate speech, or the congregation of individuals and groups with a shady agenda, leading to tragedies such as the violent street riots targeting Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (Lapowsky 2018). The company’s image had been suffering hit after hit, culminating in Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before US Congress. In 14 years since the creation of Facebook – the online social network that changed the way individuals interact and engage in social relationships worldwide – this was the first significant attempt to define and attribute accountability. Zuckerberg’s unprecedented testimony was interpreted in many ways at the time. What is nevertheless visible to anyone watching the recording on YouTube is that it evokes both humanistic intentions and unsettling acts of power. By F8, the list of Facebook’s known offences had become so long and so grim, causing disruptions to the company’s financial indicators, that amends were vital. Mark Zuckerberg chose to play a risky card, one he had recently been toying with. In his keynote address on the first day of the F8 conference, he promised to completely rewire Facebook around the very thing it was accused of lacking: privacy. A new commitment (a private future for its users) and a poetical claim (“privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves”) pointed to Facebook’s rewritten mantra.
No matter if we choose to believe or disbelieve Zuckerberg’s announcement regarding the intention to redefine his company around the value of privacy, we cannot ignore the historical significance of the moment. Facebook’s leader was publicly cornered into an unprecedented move; his was the only possible response to appease (even if temporarily) the snowball effect of recent revelations. In many ways, affirming the new objective of Facebook legitimized a cultural tension that had been building up around the idea of privacy in the age of hyperconnectivity, to the point of transforming privacy into a societal turning point. Two explanations seem necessary here. On the one hand, it should be clarified that we are referring to informational privacy – the “freedom from informational interference or intrusion, achieved thanks to a restriction on facts … that are unknown or unknowable” about someone (Floridi 2014a, p. 103). On the other hand, we should not forget that privacy is a social construct, like freedom, justice, or power. As such, it can be understood differently by different people, in different circumstances. In a post-Internet society, it is logical to assume that ideas and expectations of informational privacy have changed from those we held before our collective datafication. Digital technologies of connectivity can be deployed to both decrease and increase informational friction, making personal information more available or less so (depending on knowledge and intent), and therefore both eroding and enhancing informational privacy (2014a). The cultural tension mentioned earlier is the result of our failure to project the consequences of this dual role. Our frontstage experience with being empowered to exert certain levels of control over our personal information online has prevented us from observing the systematic informational intrusion that unfolded backstage.
Since the emergence of social media, users have chosen to share information about themselves in an environment that they knew little about. It was not unreasonable to assume their personal data belonged to them, or at least that it was treated with care since, through their structural organization, platforms gave the impression of a controlled type of sharing. Users did not spend too much of their time questioning this assumption. The reality we have been confronted with in recent years is that we could not have been more wrong. Once released online, our personal information is no longer ours. What is more, our data does not consist solely of the information we have historically uploaded and, theoretically, have the option to control. Online, we make hundreds of choices every day that speak about who we are. The data behind these choices is transparent to the platforms we interact on but remains invisible to us. The commercial system set in place by the Internet’s key players has benefited abundantly from this loophole, while we have had no knowledge about how our personal information was collected, interpreted, or repurposed. Connecting online personal information to offline real individuals has become the founding principle of a new economic system: the identity economy, allowing for the commodification of identity at a scale never encountered before. The mass harvesting of personal information online was possible through a methodical erosion of our informational privacy. Not only have the Cambridge Analytica and similar reveals altered our collective experience of privacy (we now, for example, expect constant surveillance online), but they have also pointed out that an erosion of informational privacy can be perceived as a direct attack on our self-identity, as our online identities are unquestionably constituted by our information.
While we benefited from legal frameworks protecting our identities in the real world, the territory of our online identities represented, until recently, a vast and unchartered gray area. The need to create effective regulation to safeguard our identities in the online environment became increasingly pressing once mass claims to our online identities made by various entities were undeniably exposed. In 2012, the European Union (EU) Commission was assembling a think tank and research group called the “Onlife Initiative.” Its members, reputed thinkers of our time, had the mission to advise the EU in the formulation of its digital strategy, assessing the impact of information and communication technologies on individuals and society and setting the ground for future policy. The product of this collective effort, synthesized in a document titled “Onlife Manifesto” (Floridi 2014b), pointed to our irreversible digital transformation. The word “onlife” itself, a term coined by Luciano Floridi (2011), is revealing of the way information and communication technologies have altered the fabric of our living environment and through it, the nature of our very existence. In a hyperconnected world, we are never totally on nor completely off. Consequently, our identities are inevitably constructed and performed within this merged informational environment that has unnoticeably become our natural habitat. The “Onlife Manifesto” had signaled the need to adjust our conceptual framework to a new reality, before any legal framework could be imagined and implemented.
This was 2012. Only two years later, the actions of one single individual set in motion a chain reaction that accelerated the adoption of legislation aimed at protecting the identity of individuals in the online environment. Following the complaint of a Spanish citizen, directed at Google Spain, Google Inc, and a local newspaper, about outdated and unjustly incriminating personal data appearing in searches, the EU Court of Justice ruled in favor of “the right to be forgotten,” taking a first step in the legal protection of personal information online (European Court of Justice 2014). Citizens of the European Union now had the power to request search engines like Google to remove search results based on a person’s name, if the information included in these results was inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive. From June 2014 to April 2019, Google had received 801,659 queries in connection with the “right to be forgotten,” requesting the removal of 3,124,642 URLs, according to Google Transparency Policy (2019). What is more useful to note is that the number of requests has grown annually and that almost 90% of these requests were originated by private individuals. Not all requests find their resolution. Google makes it clear that they are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account criteria such as the importance of personal information to the general public or the position and history of the person requesting the removal. The rights to privacy and data protection are therefore analyzed against other values, rights, or interests, for example freedom of speech or freedom of access to information. Moreover, this being EU legislation, it applies to EU citizens only (URLs that appear in European search results are delisted; also, with the use of geolocation signals, access to a certain URL from the country of the requester is restricted). Yet it affects any company outside of the EU targeting EU citizens. By defending the right of European individuals to personal data protection online, the “right to be forgotten” was the first breakthrough in founding a global legislative system able to protect the identities of individuals in the online environment.
What followed is by now notorious. The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), a historic change in personal data protection legislation, was adopted by the European Parliament (2016) and has been enforced since 2018 in all EU countries. European Union citizens benefit from a common legal framework that limits their exposure as data subjects and allows them to question the collection, storage, and use of any personal information online. Looking at the definition of “personal data” provided by the European Commission (n.d., online), we can understand how, by stipulating how their personal data can be handled, the premise of regulation is to protect the identities of individuals:
Personal data is any information that relates to an identified or identifiable living individual. Different pieces of information, which collected together can lead to the identification of a particular person, also constitute personal data. Personal data that has been de-identified, encrypted or pseudonymised but can be used to re-identify a person remains personal data and falls within the scope of the GDPR.
The GDPR, still in its infancy and still to prove its long-term efficiency, succeeded in setting a global regulatory standard that pressured consistent followership from other countries around the world. In the US, where Silicon Valley exercises a major economic influence and acts as an important consultative pillar for this type of legislative decision, a federal law with a scope similar to that of the GDPR is yet to be designed and enforced. In the meantime, there have been various signals that such a regulatory initiative is long overdue. Facebook has received a fine of US$5 billion, the largest penalty ever imposed on a company for breaches of consumer privacy, and 20 times greater than any similar penalty ever imposed worldwide (Federal Trade Commission 2019). In a May 2019 op-ed in The New York Times, Chris Hughes – one of Facebook’s initial five co-founders – openly advocated for the breakup of Facebook and sustained regulatory reform:
For too long, lawmakers have marveled at Facebook’s explosive growth and overlooked their responsibility to ensure that Americans are protected and markets are competitive.
Hughes refers to Facebook’s successive moves towards insulating itself from competition: in 2012, it acquired Instagram and, in 2014, WhatsApp. Hughes’s argument is based on the claim that the resulting colossus is both too powerful and too dangerous. Breaking it up would ensure healthy competition, while regulating it would prevent further abuses of power. What is noteworthy to mention is that Facebook’s response to Hughes’s plea, although expectedly not in favor of dismantling the company, acknowledges the long overdue need for tight regulation:
We are in the unusual position of asking for more regulation, not less. … Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right.
It is difficult to predict what a comprehensive legal framework covering all aspects of the online environment – personal, social, and commercial – would look like, or the effects of implementing unifying regulation at a global scale to companies and individuals. From a broader perspective, there is no precedent validated by history to guide lawmakers in approaching such a gargantuan task. The turmoil surrounding the repetitive offences of Facebook and those of other platforms points to the deficiency of existing laws and, at the same time, reveals a system that has been operating in retrospect. For too long, the online environment had been regulating itself. Only when flagrant consequences transpired did boundaries begin to be erected one by one. Yet, continuing to design and enforce legislation for the online environment is not a straightforward task. Going back to the goal of the “Onlife Initiative,” we must be ready to update our conceptual framework in order to be able to understand and address the never-ending challenges related to our digitization as a global society.
I have digressed: this is not a book about the trajectory of Facebook or social media, nor is it a book about regulation in the online environment, although both are crucial aspects that define where we are and help set the scene for the discussion proposed here. This is a book about each and every individual that is incessantly connected to this new social reality made possible through digital technologies of connectivity. In the face of the immense and still unchartered landscape that is the online environment, the importance and perspective of the single individual can be easily overlooked. Yet the individual is the most significant unit of a new value system; in that quality they need thorough consideration and protection, sometimes from their very own actions.
Every society in the world has the mission to equip its young with the tools to navigate social life and thus become social individuals, part of the larger community. From a very early age we are taught the norms, values, and customs of our society. We learn from our parents, educators, and role models what is good and what is bad, what is socially acceptable and what is not. We are shown how do behave in certain social circumstances and what are the consequences if we do not conform. This lengthy process that can last a lifetime is called socialization. While socialization comes with numerous dos and don’ts for conventional living, it does not yet include an online package. Much as the legal system, the social system has been caught off guard by the speed and the spread of the online engagement of its members. How exactly do we socialize the young for an environment that is more familiar to them than to the older members of society, the very ones that are supposed to be in charge of socialization? From this perspective, we could say that socialization has been going through a process of reversal. It is the young who have often socialized the older members of society to be equipped to take part in the digital world, an idea David Altheide introduced as early as 1995 (Altheide 1995). But this happens mostly at a technical level and escapes the problematic territory of values and norms. The reality is that the young have received no social training to help them navigate onlife. The approach of parents has mostly been one of uncritical adoption of digital technology. One of the well-being specialists I have interviewed insightfully remarks:
Unfortunately, parents are losing their ability to parent because their automatic response is to give [their children] a phone, an iPad and to say watch this, play this.
Schools around the world have, in their turn, only more recently begun to introduce digital literacy classes and the effects of these programs are difficult to evaluate at this point.
Considering this context, defining who we are and who we should be in the online environment has been mostly left to the commercial entities that operate the Internet economy. While we have been under the illusion that we can decide what to share about ourselves and who to share it with, we have been unknowingly and collectively led to share more and more personal information by an increasingly compelling online experience. This addictive loop can represent a development threat to the younger members of society. A quote from a 17-year-old included in a 2017 report on digital childhood by the UK’s 5 Rights Foundation1 is revealing for the exposed position of children and teens and points to the importance of formal online socialization:
There should be some sort of education in the general education system not only about all the sort of cyberbullying and stuff, but just generally about how the internet and companies on the internet work … and they’re not necessarily doing everything in your favour. Yes, it is great – the internet is amazingly useful, but you have to sort of know how to behave, not just about towards other people but how much data you should be giving out and what’s realistically going to be happening to it.
(Kindron and Rudkin 2017)
The commercial system of the Internet has perpetuated a tacit exchange that is by now widely acknowledged. It has granted users free access in return for their personal data. Asked, during his Congress interrogation, how his company is able to sustain a business model in which users do not pay for service, Mark Zuckerberg bemusedly replied: “Senator, we run ads!” In the book Paid Attention, author Faris Yakob appeals to a much-used phrase that is descriptive of this deal: “If you are not paying for an online service, then you are the product being sold” (2015, p. 59). While the reality of the online economy is more complex than this logic implies, it does revolve around the commodification of identity online, understood as its transformation into a valuable resource. The volume of information that people share intentionally or unintentionally about themselves every second means that entire life narratives can be reconstructed from various types of available data. The intention is not to simply connect this online data to a living, breathing individual in order to identify them. What is more important is to understand who that individual is, based on their online behavior patterns – including likes, dislikes, interests, groups, causes, or shopping and consumption habits – in order to build a reliable profile. Profiling allows for individuals to be classified into targetable values and lifestyle categories. Advertisers and other entities rely on the accuracy of these categories for their persuasive interests. Yet to say that commercial entities are the only ones to profit from the commodification of online identities would make a false claim. For the individuals themselves, online identity can be a driver of value, or – the opposite – of digital irrelevance or even stigma. Hence, the digital work put into producing an online identity able to potentially generate social or economic outcomes. This direction was set by the first user making a revenue as a result of their online profile (the term influencer had not yet emerged at the time) and has rapidly produced an economy of its own.
The phenomenon of online identity has become so important, so complex, and so problematic to individuals and society that it requires our full awareness and a relentless commitment to further exploration. And, while there has been steady progress in its observation and analysis (through the consistent contributions of social sciences and humanities researchers and writers, some of them highlighted throughout this book), we are undoubtedly only beginning to understand the meanings and consequences of extending our personal identities online at a global scale. Just like a collage that puts together existing materials to create new art, what this book offers is to put into perspective what has been said and written, in order to open doors towards new ways of looking at online identity as a phenomenon of our times. The focus remains on the identity of the individual, as opposed to, for example, the group or community, yet an individual who is naturally engaged in a diversity of social interactions. As such, of main concern are the external practices of identity construction and performance, as opposed to the internal processes of identity negotiation, although the constant dialogue between self-concepts, personal, and social identity is self-implied. The tension between the term “online identity” and the ideas presented throughout this book might have already become evident. “Online identity” implicitly positions itself versus its offline counterpart. Alluding to a separation between the online and the real-life selves leads to an ideology that is no longer sustainable in a hyperconnected world. Still, as with many other concepts, there is no widely accepted substitute and we continue to need this concept in order to explain a constellation of other ideas. Finally, the underlying red thread of the book is the idea of identity commodification. In a highly digitized society, we are our information and this information holds value for various stakeholders, including ourselves. The term “commodification” has historically been burdened with negative connotations. When preceded by the word “self” to form “self-commodification,” the negative effect is only amplified. The perspective of this book is grounded on the idea that the reputation of commodification is worth salvaging. Self-commodification can be neither good nor bad, as long as it is acknowledged and consented to by all parties involved in the exchange. It is only when we recognize this vantage point that we can begin to understand how we can capitalize on the value of our online identities.
The subject of the book has been addressed in four chapters. If this were a novel and online identity its main character, the plot would most likely lie outside the six universal types of storyline exposed with the help of data-mining technology (Technology Review 2016). With no clear idea about the future of online identity, we can only assume what turn its trajectory will take. And, with only two possible endings (on the one hand downfall, tragedy, demise; on the other ascent, accomplishment, success), the emotional arc of online identity’s narrative is still undecided. Expect no closure in this story, only an open-ended inquiry into the status quo.
The first chapter, “Identity and the Value of Self-Commodification,” is rooted in the assumption that our online identity has become a legitimate and implicit component of our identity system. The implication of this rather abstract claim is straightforward: to discuss who we are online, we must first understand who we are as individuals. This logic should justify the brief theoretical detour with which this book begins, and which summons some of the leading contributions within the social sciences in order to introduce the multi-dimensional system of self-identity and the fluid relationships between who we are, who we think we are, and who we are told to be. Our ideas of self and identity have evolved historically with society’s changing circumstances. The commercial takeover of late modernity has normalized commodification and has made promotionalism ubiquitous. As a consequence, identities too are increasingly evaluated as quantifiable goods, being both products of labor and valued objects of exchange for individuals and the commercial system of the Internet. Commodification has surreptitiously engulfed selves and identities.
The second chapter, “The Datafied Identity and Latent Self-Commodification,” discusses self-commodification from the perspective of dominance. The historical context that fuels our identities today is one of deep digital immersion, where the “line” in online, and offline has become increasingly invisible and so, irrelevant. Consequently, the construction and performance of the self through social interaction happens neither entirely on, nor entirely off, but rather through the notorious line. Selves are inevitably formed as informational entities that populate a highly digitized infosphere. The massive quantity of data that individuals knowingly or unknowingly offer about themselves online represents the fundamental resource that fuels a prosperous economic system – the identity economy. The datafication of selves by commercial entities interested in extracting behavioral data to form sellable identity categories, or even define categories of one, for persuasion purposes is the foundational principle of what I have termed latent self-commodification. Its unfavorable reputation comes from the revelation that it exploits not only the visible but also the hidden layers of identity information that are produced by being online. The identity economy has been built backstage and remains ambiguous in the absence of effective regulation or enforcement, raising a constellation of questions about ethics, privacy, or personal data ownership.
The third chapter, “The Rise of Assertive Self-Commodification,” offers the counter-narrative to the story of identity commodification as dominance. The social turn of the Internet, with its unrestricted access to easy-to-use self-presentation tools, has made it easier for identities to become image-oriented and strategically managed, revealing the potential of the self to be a profitable project, this time for the benefit of the individual themselves. And, within a cultural narrative that valorizes the Internet as the new ground for achieving personal visibility and that sees self-promotion as the ultimate solution to a changing work landscape, the personal branding paradigm has become part of the online ethos. Backed by the glorification of self-entrepreneurship, self-branding has evolved from being an inaccessible practice, largely reserved for offline-established personal brands, to be a practical option for regular individuals wishing to enhance their marketability. The assertive commodification that self-branding entails offers the individual the option to hack self-commodification. The identity economy, with its behind-the-scenes datafication of identities, is not the only manifestation of the identity trade. A flourishing influencer economy is equally invested in the (this time consensual) commodification of identities.
The fourth and last chapter, “Researching Online Identity,” uses my own research findings to start a conversation about how online identities are constructed and performed in practice, taking into account the build-up of the previous chapters. This last section of the book draws further attention to the unique context of younger generations, for whom technology has always been an ordinary element of everyday surroundings, and the line always invisible. By exposing what young people understand of and how they relate to their online identities, we can evaluate our options of addressing their present and future vulnerabilities as infoselves. It has come to a point where our connection to new generations depends on our willingness to understand their behavior through-the-line.
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He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.
(Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera)
For the social sciences, matters of identity were complicated before the emergence of the Internet, but they were so in a more conceptual sense. Sameness versus difference of self through time, uniqueness versus similarity in relation to others, or agency versus structure as governing forces of the self are all traditional themes that polarized theoretical contributions surrounding the concept of identity. With a new layer added to our identities in recent years – online identity – come new complications that announce themselves exceptionally challenging not only for the social sciences but for humankind.
First, because of the speed of diffusion of this phenomenon. In a matter of years, hyper connectivity has become the norm for a large part of the world population. After the affluent West, we have seen China and other parts of Asia rise in online social media usage statistics. In the first quarter of 2020, Facebook – the largest social network in the world – had over 2.6 billion monthly active users, while domestic online social networks in China connected over 50% of its population (statista.com). The fact that half of the world’s population is online, connected and interacting, means that vast amounts of personal data are constantly released online and can, at any time, be traced back to those that have produced it. Having an online identity has become unavoidable for anyone with an online presence and is part of the consequences of leading a connected life.
Secondly, because of the ethical implications raised by the possibility of having access to a real-time worldwide library of human profiles. While digitization made online surveillance implicit, the stakeholders involved in this process at any one time (commercial entities, state institutions, intelligence agencies, etc.), the extent to which surveillance happens at the individual level, or the specific objectives of surveillance (commercial, political, social, etc.) are largely invisible to regular users.
Thirdly, because of the technical vulnerabilities of identity data. Cyberattacks targeting personal data have increased in frequency and size. Once released online, identity information is no longer controllable by its originator and can, at any point, be subject to aggregation, appropriation or cybertheft, reaching unintended parties with unknown consequences.
Looking at these observations, we can begin to grasp the extent to which online identity has perturbed the problematic of identity. As technology is further embedded in the fabric of society, it continues to expand and ramify this problematic. From the perspective of the social sciences, the need to understand and conceptualize online identity as a phenomenon of our times is certain. The challenge, nevertheless, is to make sense of a phenomenon that is transforming at a high speed and to accept the proverbial possibility that any theory can itself change as it is formulated.
The concept of identity offers a logical anchor to the understanding of online identity: stripped of its technical armor, online identity is ultimately identity and, as such, it is useful to approach it as an element of the latter concept and not in theoretical isolation. We cannot talk knowledgeably about who we are online if we do not understand who we are in “real life.” This integrative perspective is mindful of the permanent dialogue between identity and online identity, a process through which they recursively create and recreate each other. This first chapter thus starts from the premise that online identity is a new, inevitable layer of human selfhood, whose successful decoding relies on the conceptual framework of identity.
The social sciences abound in writings on the subject of identity, leaving the curious to untangle a plethora of theories and concepts, formulated by psychology or sociology scholars, or reflecting a mosaic of interdisciplinary views. Looking at the sheer volume of work dedicated to this concept, one becomes discouraged in thinking that one might be able to assimilate the whole content of identity literature, let alone contribute with something new to what has already been said and written. It appears that the concept of identity has been over-discussed, over-analyzed, and over-exploited.
Yet, despite the large corpus of existing work, matters of identity are a relatively new preoccupation of humanity, judging from a historical perspective. As Baumeister (1987, p. 163) insightfully notes, “the concern with problems of selfhood is essentially a modern phenomenon. The medieval lords and serfs did not struggle with self-definition the way modern persons do.” Unsurprisingly, then, identity is also a relatively new term in the social sciences. Although used in philosophy since John Locke’s “Essay concerning Human Understanding” published in 1690, the term had not been officially included in the technical vocabulary of the social sciences until as late as the mid-twentieth century. Looking into the semantic history of identity, historian Philip Gleason (1983, p. 910) contrasts two specialist reference works: the first edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (published in 1930) and the following International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (published in 1968). In the former, the term identity was nowhere to be found; identification was included, but in reference to “fingerprinting and other techniques of criminal investigation.” In the latter, a separate entry on “Identity, Psychosocial” is already developed into a “substantial article.” Somewhere between the temporal horizons of the two editions, identity became important as a concept.
So important, that it soon turned into a victim of its own success. With the detached eye of the historian, Gleason (1983, p. 931) reflects that identity’s “enormous popularization has had just the opposite effect: as identity became more and more a cliché, its meaning grew progressively more diffuse, thereby encouraging increasingly loose and irresponsible usage.” “The most widely used concept … in the social sciences and humanities” (Wrong 2000, p. 10) was afflicted by unappeasable theoretical controversy. Its very usefulness as a theoretical concept was ultimately questioned. Handler (1994) debated the westernized reification of identity, while Hall (1996) observed how the concept remained functional only because it was not replaced and thus was still vital to support an entire system of deriving concepts. Brubaker and Cooper (2000, p. 2) saw identity as “too ambiguous, too torn between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ meanings, essentialist connotations and constructivist qualifiers, to serve well the demands of social analysis.”
Identity’s disputed theoretical membership, concept definition difficulties, competing terms such as the self, lack of scientific consensus, and an apparent theoretical saturation have all potentially contributed to identity’s identity crisis: identity “tends to mean too much (when understood in a strong [essentialist] sense), too little (when understood in a weak [constructivist] sense), or nothing at all (because of its sheer ambiguity)” (Brubaker and Cooper 2000, p. 2). But even though the concept of identity was claimed to be “operating ‘under erasure’ in the interval between reversal and emergence,” it was still acknowledged as an idea “without which certain key questions cannot be thought at all” (Hall 1996, p. 16). This is the point at which it becomes necessary to take a short theoretical detour. Without intending to be exhaustive, the following account includes key landmarks that have shaped the way identity is perceived today in the social sciences, laying out the conceptual framework necessary for understanding online identity.
Erik H. Erikson, a psychoanalyst and a developmental psychologist brought up in the Freudian tradition, is generally credited with the popularization of identity as an analytical concept of the social sciences. His timing was perhaps key for the attention with which his theory of identity was received. His notion of identity crisis was providentially introduced in a historical period of extensive emigration that was forcing North America to become preoccupied with ideas of ethnicity and the search for identity (Gleason 1983). As Erikson (1950, p. 256) put it himself, “we begin to conceptualize matters of identity at the very time in history when they become a problem.” Also, at a time when identity’s “popular usage has become so varied and its conceptual context so expanded that the time may seem to have come for a better and final delimitation of what identity is and what it is not” (Erikson 1968, p. 15).
So, what is identity according to Erikson? Imagine you are running an obstacle course. You are the only competitor, yet there’s a watching crowd in the stands. You have no idea what’s ahead, it’s the first time you are doing this. Each jump is a new challenge, different than the one before it, but with each successful passage, you become more confident and the crowd larger and more supportive. At the end of the course, you are an accomplished and recognized athlete. The obstacle course is your life and the analogy is helpful to bring clarity to Erikson’s developmental theory, an eight-stage approach to the human life cycle. Each of the eight consecutive stages brings about a challenge for the individual (much like the obstacles mentioned) that triggers an identity crisis. The term crisis designates “a necessary turning point, a crucial moment, when development must move one way or another, marshaling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation” (1968, p. 16). Once successfully resolved, it allows for the healthy passage to a superior stage of psychosocial developmental. In passing through these stages, individuals are seen as constantly negotiating their acceptance of and into society, a process that helps them understand and define who they are.
Identity is the result of assimilated and rejected childhood identifications, as well as a consequence of society’s evaluation (back to the watching crowd) and ultimate acceptance of the individual as a self-standing adult (Erikson 1959). From this perspective, Erikson’s identity is both about individuality and sociability. Thus, identity’s driving forces are both internal and external, turning identity into a concept with multiple connotations: “a conscious self of individual identity,” “an unconscious striving for a continuity of personal character,” “a criterion for the silent doings of ego synthesis,” “a maintenance of an inner solidarity with a group’s ideals and identity” (1959, p. 109). What is perhaps most interesting to note is that identity is always an awareness, a sense of self that involves a dual realization: “the immediate perception of one’s selfsameness and continuity in time; and the simultaneous perception of the fact that others recognize one’s sameness and continuity” (1959, p. 159). In other words, the sense of identity is achieved within the individual as both “persistent sameness with oneself” and “persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others” (1959, p. 109).
While acknowledging Freud’s psychoanalytical framework based on the triad internal drive (ID), ego, and super-ego (or ego ideal), Erikson also delimits his view from the Freudian approach. Initially tempted to use the term ego-identity in order to underline the difference between identity understood as mere being and identity as a perpetual process of analysis and negotiation, Erikson (1959) settled for the simpler term identity in order to avoid parallels with Freud’s ego ideal. Still, in Erikson’s conceptualization of identity, the accent falls on “the ego quality” of existence (1959, p. 22), where ego is understood in Freudian terms, as “the individual center of organized experience and reasonable planning” (1959, p. 19). As for the term identity, Erikson (1959, p. 109) unequivocally claims its ownership:
As far as I know Freud used it [identity] only once in a more than incidental way, and then with a psychosocial connotation. It was when he tried to formulate his link to the Jewish people that he spoke of an “inner identity” which was less based on race or religion than on a common readiness to live in opposition, and on a common freedom from prejudices …
Credited for his interdisciplinary approach (Hoover and Ericksen 2004; Weigert and Gecas 2005) that placed identity at the intersection of psychoanalysis, social psychology, anthropology, and sociology, Erikson was, on the other hand, equally criticized for the “lack of clear definitions and relative lack of testability” of his theory (Hoover and Ericksen 2004, p. 6). Yet, despite inescapable theoretical opposition, Erikson’s identity work is fundamental for understanding psychology’s stand towards identity as an internal process, a lifelong commitment to development, or, as in the earlier analogy, an obstacle course to self-realization.
In its turn, sociology contributed heavily to the development of identity as a concept, although initially partial to the term self. Perhaps its most important contribution has been to add society to the identity equation. The idea that identity is born by and into society, where it is constantly molded by external forces, is part of the sociological ethos:
Individual identity – embodied in selfhood – is not meaningful in isolation from the social world of other people. Individuals are unique and variable, but selfhood is thoroughly socially constructed: in the processes of primary and subsequent socialisation, and in the ongoing processes of social interaction within which individuals define and redefine themselves and others throughout their lives.
(Jenkins 1996, p. 20)
This outer-oriented view has triggered a new set of questions, mostly concerning how social context influences identity development.
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