Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Surfing Selves

Boyd's enumeration of the four properties unique to online publics -- persistence, replicability, searchability and invisible audiences -- strikes me as the most apt and concise articulation of digital social phenomena that I've read. In a way, it explains precisely the properties of bodies rendered in hypertext. These hypertext bodies share some small proportion of the internet's promised infinite depth of field. Take an individual's google search for their own name and the millions of possibilities this opens up for clickthroughs. That we can now surf through individuals -- clicking through their online personalities, doubles, their various networks, their forums, their achievements as documented digitally, their accounts, etc. -- is remarkable and unique to our generation who started to be online when being online became possible.

With online personalities, an individual's internet double has the ability to exist in more places than one, circulating in chains of access and communication, even when the user is not there to perpetuate him or herself. Far from being a compartmentalization of this individual, the very hypertextual qualities that produce the four properties of online publics group these existences into one, under the hybrid umbrella of self. By writing profiles, by being online, as Boyd discusses, teens in particular (and users in general) write themselves into being. Perhaps the pleasure of this second being is its flexibility, epitomized by the omnipresent 'edit' button. As she writes, finding one's digital body online is just a matter of keystrokes" (9). Changing that identity, mutating it, following it through cyberspace -- all are also a matter of mere keystrokes.

Another feature which I would add to the list (and which I am still having trouble naming) is microscopic. I have been wrestling with a term in my head for a while now -- microbiography, or perhaps more appropriately automicrobiography -- which would describe an aspect of the phenomenon of online personality: its unrelenting obsession with the infinitesimal self, one that announces itself at the second, that constantly updates with smaller, less individually meaningful details. Take the Twitter network, for example, which allows users to post their minute-by-minute status updates from their computers or cell phones. Other users can then choose to "follow" their friends and are in turn followed by their friends. What is unique to Twitter is its absence of a true profile; rather, the You you create and You other people read is an amalgam of all of your actions over time. The more you update, the more fleshy you become in this environment. This breaking down of the individual umbrella of self into the smallest of constantly updating minutiae is significant, and exemplifies perhaps an extreme version of this imperative to 'be online now'. So perhaps microscopic is a misnomer and the word I'm really looking to coin somehow communicates the feeling of zooming in AND breaking down in tiny pieces at the same time. Is there such a word? Oh, the limitations of language.

One question that I also had and which is on a different tack, is about Boyd's brief invocation of "copy/paste culture" in her article. She names it in relation to the mass customization of MySpace profiles, noting that few teens possess true coding skills, but simply copy/paste the code from any number of help sites dedicated to this purpose. This gesture seems especially meaningful to me, mostly because it takes place in the production part of online identity and bears all relation to the process of performance, interpretation and adjustment (11) that she also discusses. What does a copy/paste culture even mean? What does it do to name it? What are its ramifications for true ownership/authorship, particularly of online identity? I'm in love with this phrase.

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