.The Online Identity Crisis

onlineidentitycrisis1One man’s cyber trip into the land of Facebook spawns a slew of existential questions

I HATE YOU, FACEBOOK. I CAN’T QUIT— a female student who e-mailed Facebook

I think that understanding that there might not be any difference between what people are doing online and offline is something really important— Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

In the past few months I seem to have either lost or gained a digital identity. Like puberty and its ensuing formative years, I now find myself wondering who I am—digitally, and, of course, punctuated by a tad bit of confusion about being-ness. The question of “who am I?” is not so easily explained on a couch, or even the well-touted History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, much less helped along by what has been variously called Social Networking Websites.


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onlineidentitycrisis2My existential digital angst began almost a minute after I joined Facebook, an online community with 80 million (and counting) members worldwide. What began as a simple way for Harvard University students to gossip amongst their Ivy League colleagues has since blossomed into a grand conceit—the Facebook Generation. And, in the off chance you’ve never heard of Facebook, it is defined as a social networking website whereupon a user creates a profile of themselves using their real name and (hopefully) real identifiers such as where they went to high school, college, employment, age, along with a whole host of personality giveaways—what music and movies they are attracted to, where they have traveled, photos and their thoughts which are posted on each other’s “wall.”

And the ads that support the website? I was beginning to wonder this too when, to the left of my profile, appeared an ad for the book “Executricks, How to Retire While Still Working.” Now that’s target advertising and it may explain how some of my friends have figured out how to be on Facebook so much.

In case your thinking who would willingly post so much personal things on the internet for all to see, Facebook has built-in privacy controls that allows only the people you have befriended to see this information. This fact hasn’t prevented problems. Much has been written about horny 45-year-old men in bathrobes posing as teenage girls in order to prey upon the young and innocent. And there’s the matter of where all this information is being stored and who, or if, the government could ever access this information for nefarious purposes.

But I was willing to take my chances. I can usually spot a digitized teenager in an analog bathrobe from 01011000101001 miles away. So I began making my profile, which took all of 10 minutes.

Then I began to wonder: Was my profile truly me? Did my picture, posed as it was in the Utah desert with a wild lizard crawling up my shirt, represent my true self? And what did my University of California degree and years at Cabrillo College have to do with what I was now? Or, the mention of The Minutemen, Meat Puppets and Iron & Wine as musical qualifiers to my personality? What had I become—digitally? In “Les Confessions,” Rousseau, arguably the first to take on the task of an autobiographical representation of himself, had pointed out:

“I wish to show my fellows a man in all the truth of nature; and this man will be myself.  Myself alone.  I feel my heart and I know men.  I am not made like any of the ones I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any that exist. If I am worth no more, at least I am different.  Whether nature has done well or ill in breaking the mold in which it cast me, is something which cannot be judged until I have been read.”

“Myself Alone.” This conceit seemed outdated. Facebook, no doubt, owes its success in large part to the postmodern understanding that we are fractured selves. That who we are is the result of social, political, historical, cultural (to name a few) constructions, positioned in time by our genes and some nurture thrown in for good measure. That above all, this is not the Facebook generation but the confessional generation where “reality” shows trump the reality of network news; where memoir has refused to give up its hold on the New York Times Bestseller lists even when some are dubiously constructed.

Simplistic, sure. But on Facebook, simplicity is the name of the mask that users attach to themselves, “which cannot be judged until it has been read.”

Not long after I joined Facebook, and I don’t know how this happened, I had about 20 friends. Then 40. One friend from high school begat another college friend begat another from my previous place of employment. Facebook’s hyper-connected world of bytes and bits had managed to unearth people from my past who I hadn’t nary given a thought to in years. People who, if I saw (FAB), I wouldn’t recognize much less consider talking to. The commonality to my present self was threadbare at most. Yet strangely I was fascinated with them. One morning I received a chat request—members can see friends who are online and in turn they can see you—from Scott Lyles. The name sounded familiar. But from where? Facebook’s time/space continuum can be jarring. As we chatted—jobs, where we lived—he asked me, “So, you don’t know who I am.” I had to admit I didn’t. “I was your hall monitor at MBA (Monterey Bay Academy) when you were a freshman.”

Real friends arrived, too. Even my best friend, Dug Winningham, turned up on Facebook.  And a lot of my so-called friends are people I’ve known long enough to give you a few white hairs. One, whom I lived with in the dorm at my boarding school near La Selva Beach decades ago, and befriended on Facebook, hung there in my “friends” column without a peep. We didn’t, nor have to date, emailed or exchanged one digital glance through the collective wires of code. He was nice fellow when I knew him, kind of zany. I figured he turned out to be a chef by now, or a children’s toy designer. But a real estate agent? Now he looks rich and well-shaved, dressed in his picture like he’s about to show you a house. And indeed he will as the writings on his “wall” suggest.

And there’s the matter of my new friend. We’ve been friends for all about three minutes but already I can sense the buds of a lifetime friendship. His name is Christopher Rogers (no I’m not making that up) and we met on a Minutemen (early ’80s punk rock band from San Pedro) appreciation site linked to Facebook. He just wrote on my wall: “any friend of the minutemen is a friend of mine cheers we go drink n pogo.” He’s a liberal Democrat, wears a tweed cap, drinks a lot of tea, and is from Wales. I imagine some day we’ll be sitting at his kitchen table listening to the Minutemen on his stereo in the next room over. We’ll be old grey men. I would like that.

But I began to wonder how Facebook could actually enrich my life. So far I’d only gotten snippets and unrealized curiosities out of the online experience. It left me wanting. So I turned to my Facebook friends in the hopes that they were getting something I wasn’t. Maybe, as happens sometimes in FAB friendships, I was being left out in the cold.

So, naturally I emailed them a set of questions. I thought long and hard about which friends to ask and whether or not they would feel like I was merely experimenting with them. But in the end most of my digital and FAB friends surprised me, going out of their way to be articulate, witty and in some cases just plain wise. Facebook was taking on a whole new dimension outside of Facebook. Here are some of their answers.

Dug Winningham (Real life best friend and Facebook member).

onlineidentitycrisis3“Of course, a lot of my friends are connecting to Facebook thru their I-phones and blackberries, and are able to stay in facebookland 24/7. Wherever they are. I get constant updates on an hourly basis about what they are up to. TMI. (too much information). As of right now… “***” has lost her sunglasses. “***” is thinking deeply! “***” is watching fireworks by the lake. “***” is high on cold medicine. Etc. There is a sense that everything is connected, that true networking is taking place. I haven’t found it. I know more now about people I never cared for too much, than I’ve ever wanted to know. I know less about my real friends as they develop their online personas more, and fall victim to the supposed need of broadcasting themselves to any and everyone. It was the same with myspace, flickr, blogs, texting, email, chat lines, cell phones, zines, cans with string, etc.

The digital thing alone has changed me. First thing I do when I wake up is hit the pipe, or, “series of tubes.” I find it hard to imagine ripping those tubes out of my consciousness at this point. My digital persona is much easier to cultivate and groom than my physical body. In regards specifically to social networking sites, I am not the one to have a valid opinion. My band has a Myspace page. We are the only people that visit it.

Yet I watch in awe, as my friend’s 19-year-old daughter wields Facebook to her own whims. Obviously it works. People hook up for rides, concerts, fake ids, impromptu parties. She’s probably on twitter too, or the next new thing. I’ve given up with feeling out of touch with what’s going on, because that would pre-suppose someone even cared what I thought about it all.

But I am not using it like the giggly teenager I ought to be. It has reduced a lot of professional people I know into giggly teenagers. Former employers, vice presidents, senior copywriters, people on the clock at work, overseas work acquaintances just unloading tons of useless information on me.”

Lisa Geisinger (FAB friend—I stayed on her couch for six months—and avid social networker) “Facebook emphasizes acquaintance over friendship. Friendship is interdependence, being there for someone when they need you and being able to expect the same. Its not always tested but when it is that’s what friendship comes down to.  Facebook widgets emphasizing superficial similarities have really nothing to do with actual friendship to me. They allow one to hold people at arms length in fact. Really Facebook is nothing more than a viral marketing tool. That’s what it is really for. That’s why they try to get people to categorize themselves and rate their preferences with such granularity. That’s the answer to your danger question. You’re creating your own marketing profile by using Facebook.”

Mike Quishenberry (Facebook friend and somebody I possibly went to elementary school with—either him or his brother. Otherwise might have never met in FAB)

onlineidentitycrisis4“Even as I answer these questions I feel the tension between authenticity and living up to “I have a feeling that you are witty and articulate.”  Am I “witty and articulate”?  I would like to think so, and I would like to confirm your impressions.  So also on FB, what do people think of me?  What do I want them to think of me?  These images are easier to present and maintain when the messiness of day to day face to face interactions are replaced with a carefully presented series of likes and dislikes, test scores, and witty comments on walls, pictures and what are you doing updates.  Who we are becomes too managed and less organic, messy and unphotoshopped.  Social networking sites reassure us that we can live life at breakneck speeds and still maintain our friendships old and new, but to do so we must accept it definition of friendship/relationship.  “X has added you has a friend.”  I have “Friends” on FB that I know little or nothing about but still add them and my network expands.  The people known by people I know could soon be people on my “Friends” list.  New connections are made.  I can track they postings/positions and fool myself into believing that I know something about them.  My life speeds on and I am still able to be a part of a community of “Friends”.  The system soothes me and I will not revolt for another day.”

Jon Reynolds (high school acquaintance who live nearly next door to my mother) “I call it the ‘Veil of Anonymity’ and it exists in a lot more than just FB. The beauty of it is that you can emphasize your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses. I don’t see it as a HUGE deal unless one implicates another falsely and there is slander involved. It would DEFINITELY be a problem if FB was being used by me for dating purposes and I was less than forthright about whom I really am.

A MAJOR bonus of the ‘Veil’ is that it can allow space to get to know another by their words and thoughts, while reducing the ‘physical attraction’ factor.  The two people involved must choose this – otherwise there would be no balance and the relationship would wain.

This is a very good question, and while driving to Bodega Bay last Saturday,

I was deep in thought about it all, and wondering if any credible research was in progress regarding the Internet and interpersonal/digital relationships …

I can say that in the last five years, since I started playing Yahoo games, and joined Myspace and FB; I’ve communicated considerably MORE with a greater number of people than I have the 15 years prior.”

Jeremy Cowin (Facebook friend and real life cousin. We actually met again on Facebook simply because he was FB friends with my first roommate in high school. Prior to this we had no contact.) “It seems far more easier for some to be “honest” without having to be “professional” or “personal.”  And at the same time opens the doors for deceit, mind games etc.  Some people have a hard time expressing themselves in person, while others hate the lack of eye contact.   How we want or need to be perceived and accepted in real life can be completely opposite of what actually happens and therefore the “electronic age” has provided a medium to become something other than what we are so that some can fit the “idea” of what other should see them as.  (I’m starting to confuse myself!)

Friendship is as complicated and as simple as one wants to make it.  One can have different types of friends to fulfill different types of wants, needs and desires.  But the core of friendship for me is having some ground of commonality and truly accepting of another and wanting the best for the other, with mutual respect.  It can be sexual, platonic, thru email, over the phone, just in passing at a bar/restaurant, sharing a common experience, or be one of complete silence.  And sometimes it isn’t even defined or talked about, but just understood as being present with another person.”

Jeff Bearce (High school pal, sometime present climbing partner) “I worry about image-management. Of course we already do this outside the web—present a preferred view, check it, make corrections, etc.— but online it seems to take on a more spectacle-like irreality. First pseudo-events (Guy Debord) and now millions of pseudo-people.  It seems people running around imagining they are stars, and acting poorly to prove it. (The Paris Hilton phenomenon). Of course, it’s a matter of degrees. I do like that Facebook is more private than some of the skankier sites. Not just anyone can view your shit, and so the temptation to “star” is perhaps lessened. I’m less interested in multiplying “friends” there than in interacting there with the friends I have. And just checking in once in while with old acquaintances.

Certainly common interests, aspirations, passions, seem central to friendship. But this can be simply narcissism—”surrounding yourself with yourself” in the words of the old corny Yes song. If one simply wants to see oneself reflected back, there’s a problem. Still, without mutual recognition, perhaps self-identity never arises at all. But there’s a puzzle:  I need the approval of approved observers to be constituted a self; but then I must already have some such sense in order to hold myself a competent judge of those whose approbation I seek. Hegelian thoughts …”

Michael Delgado (Longtime FAB friend, recent Facebook friend, Santa Cruz citizen) onlineidentitycrisis5“My first social-network was MySpace. I joined when Anne found my daughter’s page which published far too much personal information. My screen name was Savage Dad and the picture was of me frowning and pointing at the camera.

I regard imagined dangers as real dangers that just haven’t found you yet.  And so, as in the case of my daughter, the danger is one of being located by one who’s interest you did not want to attract.  Now my communication on the Internet is very limited and so, as I see it, my vulnerability is very low, but I worry about those, like my daughter, who spread themselves across the net.  I worry for them because I know that the person they think that they are talking to through their computers may not be their cyber-personalities.

The first time I was shown a chat room it was by my ex’s current boyfriend.  He was “just showing me what you could do”.  He found a chat; made up a name and a profession (he was a lawyer pretending to be a doctor.  Shows you what even lawyers think of lawyers) made himself single and started flirting away.

I do recall that you had some problems.  I’ve been and still am wary, but I’m opening up little by little because it’s just so damned convenient.

I’m still so new to this that I don’t yet know how the Internet is changing our relationships, but my spidey senses are tingling.  For one, I don’t have to watch my grooming when I’m dealing with friends online.  Also, though I may occasionally typo, I never stutter or fumble for words. Online I am always well spoken and highly knowledgeable as I have time to research and compose.  It is quite a swell guy and funny fellow who is driving this keyboard.  But this is not me in person.  I do fear that it might be that our younger users blur the line between online and physical presence.  Unfortunately we’ve not had enough time for long term studies on this and we all will have to keep a close eye on each other to find all the assets and liabilities of life in the web.”

Anne Lafferty (Michael Delgado’s wife-to-be and my Facebook friend for 28 seconds now, though we did all go out drinking one night for which I have a hard time remembering that evening)

onlineidentitycrisis6“A couple of thoughts here.  Mike sees me every day in real life, as well as in my online interactions.  He has told me that there is a huge difference between the two personae.  The people that I have met from online, on the other hand, tell me that I’m very close to my online persona in real life (IRL).  I wonder if this is because we do not expect people to behave the same way IRL as they do online, and so the differences seem muted.  Alternatively, perhaps I have built up a certain image of myself Online, and feel more comfortable with these “strangers” to let that more outgoing side of me come out when we meet in real life?  In other words, can an online persona alter a person’s behavior in real life situations, subconsciously?  It seemed to me that I had to do a LOT of interpreting (8/08 = the message board, AW = Attention Whore, FI = Fiancé, ex).  These people knew that they were writing to a person outside of their message board.  Most of them tried to make their responses as accessible as possible to people unfamiliar with the lingo.  However, language specific to the board crept in.  I think it’s interesting how pervasive online lingo has become, even when people make a conscious effort to keep it out of their writing.  This is especially interesting to me as a teacher—emoticons in a writing assignment = F.”

And so it was. Just as in real life, friendship was what you put into it. I wasn’t closer to finding my online identity, but neither were my friends. In fact we were a long way from it. Facebook was merely narrowing or widening the gap depending on how you looked at it. But I still wondered how far the gap between natural FAB identity and digital identity really was. If I spent an hour a day ‘socializing” on Facebook as opposed to almost zero socializing with friends in the face, was I becoming a loser?

More and more Facebook friends arrived into my life. Most behaved themselves. Some threw virtual food at me or poked me, whatever that is. Some just wanted to send birthday wishes or catch up. But whatever it was like a time-sink. Sometimes I would find myself logging on without thinking about it, driven by the pure curiosity of what my friends were doing, what witty saying they’d come up for the day.

It was time to take to the hills above the house and locate my favorite campsite on a slab of polished granite below the Palisade glacier in the Sierra. Not a chance of Internet or wi-fi or cell phone coverage. No way to know what my friends were doing or they to know what I was doing. They could guess all they wanted and they’d still be a long shot from experiencing the alpine sublime. Six mountains, more than 14,000 feet, knife-edge against the sky, all of them inaccessible by trail. No mule trains, no people aside from the occasional friendly climber—no trees; just my unknown self to deal with in the sentient rock and summer snow. Where the answers would come, if at all, from legs and arms moving up in the thinning air. That would be who I was. At least until I logged back on to Facebook.

Bruce Willey is a freelance writer living Big Pine, where he mostly writes about climbing, nature and other adventures. He is working on a book about the Owens Valley. If you took the time to read this, you are welcome to be his friend at facebook.com until he deactivates his account. Or see his brucewilley.com .



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