So often in the contemporary era, we talk about how the web is changing the world around us: of how media industries are having to adapt, or how the practices and concepts of doing business are being affected.
Less often discussed, however, is how the internet is changing us.
Sure, there’s a lot of chatter about how the internet might be making us stupid or destroying our capacity to focus on things. But there’s a lot less talk about how it might change – or have already changed – what you might call ‘our experiences of ourselves’. To wit: how is the web changing our identities?
What’s an identity? Well, you could roughly say it’s composed of two things. The first is the way we choose to think about and define ourselves, whether that’s about characteristics, culture, sex and gender, or a number of other ways. And the second is the way other people perceive us: even if you believe you are a ‘stand-up guy or gal’, if the world perceives you differently, then it has an effect on how you live.
The web opens up new space for both these aspects of identity: it allows us to put our identities out there in the way of our choosing; and it also provides a space for other people to interpret that online persona.
So if the online world has given us these new ways to express ourselves and be seen in new ways, how is that changing us?
Existing in the Ether
For most of human history, our identities have been attached to, well, us and our bodies. Who we are and what we represent have, for obvious reasons, been mostly located at our physical selves.
Perhaps the biggest change the web has effected on our identities is that the body isn’t the only place your identity exists. Because things like social networks, online games and general websites lets you put your identity somewhere else, it means that part of you are – or at least a reflection of who you are – exists in the world of the internet.
It’s true that, in a way, we’ve always existed ‘outside of ourselves’ – in what today we could probably call ‘our rep’: the way our names and identities spread around social circles. And it’s also true, that our identities could live in printed books – immortalized in print, as they say. But to how many people was that option available? What the web does is makes it so that, in certain parts of the world anyway, large parts of society exist in a virtual space that can be accessed by a number of people.
Given that our online identities contain parts of ourselves that we want others to see and provide a space for other people to read them, our identities now exist partly within our physical selves and partly out there in the ether.
So, what difference does it make to have also have an identity located online instead of solely in our physical bodies ?
Bodies That (Don’t) Matter
So, bodies. They’re neat! And sometimes even squishy. But there’s also a lot of baggage that goes with bodies. Because the way people look always carries certain cultural connotations – whether to do with race/ethnicity, sex/gender, class, status, and a hundred other things – face-to-face interaction is always in some way colored by our prejudices that are themselves borne out of centuries-old history.
Even the most open-minded person around cannot help but form judgments based on some aspect of the physical – even if it’s just about a piece of clothing or a haircut. And what’s worse, these decisions often happen half-consciously, before our better sense has had a chance to kick in. Prejudice about what we see in meatspace, unfortunately, seems to be deeply ingrained into our psyches and is very difficult to get rid of.
But on the web, those judgments are more difficult to make. Because online identities are only partial – and often hide or obscure those aspects of identity that are so easy to categorize and evaluate – it’s easier to approach people on the web as ‘just people’. Instead of having a gut reaction to someone’s look or accent or mannerisms, we almost get a delayed version of identity in which we can get closer to looking at someone with some objectivity.
Think of it this way: have you ever worked or gone to school with someone you immediately disliked? But then, as time went on, you found they actually had a great sense of humor or a really interesting perspective on politics? And then you changed your mind about them? That kind of open-mindedness is sometimes easier to attain on the web because those knee-jerk reactions don’t always come first, but sometimes have the time and space online to breathe a bit.
So rather than those semi-conscious reactions to various types of identity – racial, sexual, class, whatever – the web gives us the time to actually develop relationships with people we might not. And that changes the absolute importance of the human body to the way we interact with each other.
Now, does that mean that bodies are unimportant and we’re all leaping into a cyborg future? No (not yet, anyway!). But it does mean that the creation of this new sphere of human interaction means our identities are now slightly less about the visual impact of our bodies – which can only be a good thing.
Forget About The The Authentic Self
But more than just a change in the importance of our bodies, the web also challenges the notion of ‘the authentic self’. That may seem odd, particularly because social media types are obsessed with ‘being authentic’.
Yet the idea of an authentic self is something that has come under attack for a long time, because it assumes that we have one version of ourselves. To be a truly ‘authentic person’, you are supposed to be the same in all places at all times. This isn’t the way we really live our lives.
But how many of us have different versions of ourselves for different times and places? Are you the same at work and at home? With your parents or with your friends or partner? With your partner as you are with kids? The same the first time you meet someone as the hundredth time you see them?
No, we all have multiple versions of ourselves – different facets of our identities And what the web has done has that it’s allowed us to express different parts of ourselves, often away from prying eyes that may or may not be able to deal with them. Whether it’s about what you’re interested in or the types of conversations you like to have or the type of people you like to meet, the web allows you to pursue all those things without the limitations of ‘the real world’.
But the point is, by creating this space for the fractured nature of our interests and desires, the web has helped break down the idea that is such a thing as an authentic self, instead suggesting that we are messy conglomerates of a number of different personas.
Why is that a good thing? Because as soon as you start talking about an authentic self, somebody will start talking about who you should be – about how you should be ‘an authentic American’ or an ‘authentic man or woman’ or ‘an authentic fan’. And that always means somebody else gets to decide that the criteria for authenticity are – and if you don’t fit, tough luck.
By displaying how we never have simply one version of ourselves or one version of an identity, the web has helped to break down the idea that there is ever such thing as an authentic self.
A Grand Cyborg Future?
Of course, many argue that the web is also changing our identities for the worse. It is possible, after all, that if there is no such thing as an authentic self, it will be more difficult to trust people. Similarly, it’s much easier for people to invent personas online – and how do you then trust that they are ‘true’? Nonetheless, what’s clear is the the web as a technology is providing a new space to express ourselves and interact with others – and in the process, is changing what it means to be human.
Has the web changed anything else about our identities and our individuality? Has it helped or made things worse? Hit the comments and let us know.