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Jeff Jarvis wrote a critique of having multiple identities on social media (find the post on his blog – though, I found it via Owni.eu). While acknowledging that anonymity has enabled WikiLeaks or protestors of repressive regimes, he finds little utility for not being honest on social media about yourself. Jarvis argues against having multiple identities, e.g., one Twitter account for work and another for friends or a real Facebook for one group and a fakebook (a Facebook profile with a false name) for another.

Jarvis argues that the problems associated with presenting yourself in front of multiple groups of people (say, your mother, boss, best friend, recent fling, etc) will fade away under a state of “mutually assured humiliation.” Since we will all have the embarrassment of presenting a self to multiple groups, we all will forgive each other so that others will return the same favor to us. Ultimately, “the best solution”, Jarvis argues, “is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk to your shrink.” This is reminiscent of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who stated “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” or current Google CEO Eric Schmidt who said that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that the problems associated with displaying a single self in front of multiple populations is not “mutually” the same at all. Just as WikiLeaks or protestors often use anonymity to counter repressive and/or powerful regimes, we know that anonymity is also used by the most vulnerable and least powerful on the personal level as well. Jarvis misses the important variables of power and inequalities in his analysis.

Having a stigmatized and not always accepted identity can bring much conflict and pain if one displays the same to everyone. Fellow Cyborgology editor PJ Rey makes this point powerfully when he asks, “Have We Built a Society without Closets?” Take, for example, a gay teenager who cannot display his “real” self without fear of being financially and emotionally undermined by his parents. Or the woman who wrote an open letter to Google after the introduction of their Buzz service made her most frequent email contacts publically known which jeopardized her physical safety because of an abusive ex.

It is easy to argue for people to be “real” when their “real” identity is widely accepted. As danah boyd argued, “Zuckerberg and gang may think that they know what’s best for society, for individuals, but I violently disagree. I think that they know what’s best for the privileged class.” It is easy to argue that the stigmas associated with presenting yourself to different populations will erode, but the important question is eroding for whom? Stigma will not erode for everyone the same, a point I previously made about “Facebook” skeletons (arguing that embarrassing bits of your social media presence are forgiven faster for men than women).

This issue will be the topic of two of my forthcoming posts here on Cyborgology. One on inauthenticity and the Fakebook and another on this reoccurring privileging of some “real” or true authentic self. I had this issue when critiquing cyborg-anthropologist Amber Case and again here in the line of thinking Zuckerberg, Schmidt and Jarvis promote that serves to take down the door to closets so important for both self-protection as well as identity play. Stay tuned for a Foucauldian critique that acknowledges the highly limiting nature of this obsession of some fictional “true” self at the expense of identity play both on and offline. The norm that needs changing is not for people to stop playing with identity, as Jarvis argues, but for that playfulness to be better accepted and allowed.

One Comment

  1. “Having a stigmatized and not always accepted identity can bring much conflict and pain if one displays the same to everyone.” This is so true. Many with psychiatric illness, for example, have found comfort in online communities where they can participate anonymously. Anonymity has a dark side for sure, but suggesting open identity is the only way betrays a huge benefit to many.


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