Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Human in the Computer - Reading/Writing Digital Identity

How do we define ourselves in cyberspace? How do we read personality on social networking sites?

Danah Boy'ds study of Social Networking Sites suggests that digital identity, and by extension inclusion in online digital communities, operates in the realm of necessity- a necessary "other" identity that allows physical individuals to manifest secondary digital selves.

This practice is manifested in the creation of profiles, user accounts, and most obviously, in the creation of avatars. At each point, the individual is allowed an opportunity to "stay true" to themselves, to entirely "(re)invent" themselves, or to create a hybrid of actual and digital other that point to both what the individual is really like, and what he/she wants to be like. Avatar creation most clearly articulates this desire, as a user works with a humanoid model to render their persona, in contrast to profiles or user accounts where personality is mediated through data fields.

In either case, the act of creating a secondary digital self represents a search for translation, an attempt to articulate abstract conceptions of self into objectified computer-consumable data. The result is a data-derived personality sketch, pointing to certain components of the person it represents, but failing to reveal the person en toto.

The translation of personality into cyberspace, manifested by making an avatar or creating a profile also demands a way to decode the information- a translation back from the computerized personality sketch into a human understanding of the individual presented. This is the act of looking at a existing profile, and trying to decode the meaning of the data- which is to ideally understand the person presented, to detect the human individual within the data. The soul in the code.

Most of the tools are textual, but the photograph (remembering the maxim: ... worth a thousand words.) presents an even more literal glimpse of the individual. Beyond the actual content of the photo, there is stylistic concern and technical concern, essentially, everything within the photo becomes a clues to identity. Consider the photo above, taken from this site, here, that shows a translation guide for Friendster photos. While presented humorously, this guide posits certain photographic stylings as symptomatic of certain attempts to hide true identity. To return to an earlier point, digital identity may be faked, re-invented, blur, or hybridized with existing identity, but interestingly, despite the supposed obvious faking of digital identity, decoding individuals are always seeking the true self, the original.

Digital identity is problematic by nature. It is not "real" identity, because it is not real, not physical. Like names without faces, digital identity represents a shifting realm of language games were identity can be played with, misaligned, mismatched, moved, editted freely, etc. It takes static identity and allows for digital manipulation, which following Manovich is simply restructuring algorithimic value. And yet it prevails, it is "necessary."

To return to Danah Boyd, and her article's invocation,

"If you're not on MySpace, you don't exist"

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