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Identity, non-addressed audiences and the myth of selective sharing…

The highlight of my fortnight at OIISDP was Bernie Hogan on ‘Facebook and Identity’. He did a neat round up of Goffman on performance of identity and made a point of breaking the oft made link between front stage = public and back stage = private.

Bernie’s use of ‘non-addressed audiences’ (broadcasting to an open audience, often regulated – or curated – by another actor e.g facebook) is also a more specific rendition of what I’ve been calling ‘unknown’ audiences. I like it because it blurs the boundaries between ‘intimate’ audiences composed of friends and family members and those who might be ‘unknown’ or ‘less well known’… However I wonder whether ‘collectively addressed’ audiences might be more inclusive of Bakhtin’s notion that every utterance is formulated in anticipation of a response. These expectations (‘I wonder what he/she/they will think of me’) are at the heart of what Bernie refers to as ‘lowest common denominator’ address. For example, if we know our facebook ‘friends’ include work mates, family members and former and/or prospective lovers, chances are we’ll confine our updates to something that is more or less suitable for all of them.

The issue of one-to-one versus one-to-many communication is extended in Bernie’s recent blog post on Google+ real name policy. Both Bernie and danah boyd argue that real name policies are an abuse of power and that pseudonyms extend the possibilities of free speech. While I’m not convinced by Bernie’s generalisation that the ramifications of face to face communication is confined to the context you’re physically in (anyone from a small country town or gossipy friendship group will have been witness to ‘chinese whispers’) I know I’m simplifying what is otherwise a compelling argument, especially when it comes to new definitions of what it is to be ‘online’… And I quote: “if your speech is not confined to the context you are in – but available to a potentially unknowable audience – you are online”.

I like this because it breaks down the physical/virtual binary between offline and online and, by logical extension, also means that most of us are never really offline because, as we walk and talk in real time in the real world, versions of ourselves are simultaneously circulating online. However this is not Bernie’s central point… which is spelled out in this excerpt (and in full detail here):

This is why real name sites are necessarily inadequate. They deny individuals the right to be context-specific. They turn the performance of impression management into the process of curation. Facebook curates through the top news feed, Twitter does it through lists and Google+ through some confusing (and as far as I can tell, failing) social circles model. Impression management means selectively presenting an idealized version of one’s self specific to that context. Curation means selecting objects for display. So if you don’t think that being context-specific is a right, consider what you think the ‘free’ means in the right to free speech. When my speech is necessarily encumbered by a tethering to a single all-encompassing key (the real name) that unlocks whatever I say, I am no longer free to address one specific context and not another one. I am engaging in a trust relationship with the curator, but I am not free to say what I want. Sometimes that relationship fails [see: weinergate or whatever is the scandal du jour], sometimes its out of my control (when others post on my behalf, tag me, etc…)

All of this is very interesting when it comes to my research project. Several of the Digital Storytellers I have been working with over the last couple of years have felt that using a pseudonym and concealing their identity in their otherwise very personal (and heartfelt) stories has allowed them to speak more freely and with less concern about homophobic or transphobic consequences. However in most cases it was also a difficult decision to make because, as everyday activists dedicated to the pursuit of social change, they also wished they were able to ‘stand loud and proud’. Some of them felt that their message was tinged with shame and guilt because they were afraid of the consequences of declaring it publicly. This brings to mind an excellent quote from Michael Warner in ‘Publics and Counterpublics’:

…common mythology understands the closet as an individual’s lie about himself – or herself. We blame people for being closeted. But the closet is better understood as the culture’s problem, not the individual’s… It is produced by the heteronormative assumptions of everyday talk… In such a regime of sexual domination, publicness will feel like exposure, and privacy will feel like the closet. The closet may seem to be a kind of protection. Indeed, the feeling of protection is one of the halllmarks of modern privacy. But in fact the closet is riddled with fear and shame. (Warner, 2005, p52)

In it’s most simplistic form this seems like a debate about power and control. The less control you have over how you are represented in the world (and GLBTQI people are inured to media representations that are less than sympathetic) the less power you have in society. When an opportunity comes along to represent yourself (for example Digital Storytelling) you may well wish to control how that representation is articulated (visibly or concealed by way of a pseudonym) and circulated (to whom is the story addressed? where is it circulated?).

My next question is… does technologically enabled self-representation constitute a new form of digital citizenship? Or is it effectively the same ‘selective sharing’ that GLBTQI people have been doing for a long time. I like this quote from Larry Gross in his foreword for ‘Queer Online: Media Technology and Sexuality’ .:

Well, for one thing, there’s the disembodied performativity of cyberspace, the place where no one knows you’re a dog, or whatever you choose to represent yourself as. Queer folk are past masters at this game, as nearly every one of us went through the training program during childhood. Even if we weren’t singled out for special (unwelcome) attention as sissies, tomboys or other gender non-conformists, most of us survived society’s sexual boot camp – high school – either by masquerading and passing, or living on the margins.
(Gross, 2007, p. vii-x)

…only I do believe that online communication offers greater potential than simple ‘disembodiment’…anyone care to start a list?