Bloggers as Villagers

Today, I share a birthday with Marshall McLuhan, the patron saint of Wired magazine and only communication professor to get a walk-on in a Woody Allen flick (WMV – 2Mb). His aphorisms still show up with some regularity, not least the idea that electronic media would lead to a “global village.” I’ve written and talked about this in the past, but recent events of “blogs biting back,” particularly in terms of jobs and careers, brings me back to an idea: certain kinds of non-anonymous blogging tend to lead to the integration of identity, rather than multiple fractional identities. I think what we see in recent examples of blog-firings and related issues is a symptom of this new sort of integration of identity.

McLuhan’s global village feels warm and fuzzy, largely because of the connotations of the word “village.” But in reading his descriptions of such a village, he speaks of a distributed mind, something that has more recently appeared under the rubric of a “hive mind.”

The idea that networked and mobile communication technology leads to the increased division of personality and reference groups is widespread. The is perhaps most concretely presented in Turkle’s Life on the Screen, in which she suggests the new technologies feel “consistent with a zeitgeist of decentered and emergent mind, of multiple subjectivities and postmodern selves.” Nobody on the internet knows you are a dog, and that provides a great deal of social and psychological freedom to those who imagine themselves to not be dogs, or at least, to be more than merely dogs.

I think this tendency to have more diffuse identities or to be at the center (egoistically speaking) or a larger set of independent social networks has much in common with the move from agrarian villages and the modern metropolis. Someone raised in a rural area is likely to go to school with, date, and work with the same social group for much of their life. In the city, you may be a very different person in the office than you are in your neighborhood or in the clubs. The complexity of the physical space of the city allows for barriers between various performances of identity and interactions among reference groups.

The clash between these subjectivities is something I think most of us have run into. On more than one occasion, I have met students at a club or bar, and literally not recognized them — not just because of the new context, but because they seem to be literally different people. This change can be extreme, because not only do they dress differently and act differently at the university (as do I), they also adhere to an even further removed set of behaviors when interacting with me, because of an implied power dynamic and a number of other cultural expectations. So, a student will come up to me and start talking and it will take me a minute or two to figure out who they are, even if I know them well. (That assumes that they recognize who I am, though that isn’t hard to do since I generally appear out of place no matter where I am.)

As an aside, these kinds of clashes between social class and social group and identity are certainly not absent from the city. Indeed, they provide the city with a great deal of its spirit, I think. (And I suspect Benjamin, among others, would agree.)

My first exposure to Livejournal (circa early 2000) was just sort an experience. I searched for my name online and found a journal being kept by a student in one of my smaller classes. He had mostly nice things to say about me, which meant that the shock wasn’t as bad as it could be. In an earlier entry, he wrote about how his best friend had come out to him, and how he wasn’t sure how he felt about this. He noted that his friend (whom he named) had not yet come out to his own parents. This struck me as a strange venue in which to discuss such private matters, particularly when it wasn’t the students own privacy involved. Indeed, this was a blog entry that seemed inevitably poised to “bite back.” (And no, despite searching I cannot find this entry, which means — I assume — that I have not furthered any privacy breach.)

At root, what is happening here is that in some cases, the multiple lives we lead are colliding. The case of Matthew Kaye (the high school teacher who called in “sick” to perform in pro wrestling events) is often framed as an oddity, though I suspect that many of us live with multiple lives that may not be immediately reconcilable. The much more common case that people — children and adults — encounter is when their mother reads their blog. (Hi, Mom!) The sorts of things they might share with their friends and even random readers may not be the kinds of things they want their mother to know about them. Or their boss. Or their children. Or potential future mates.

All of this points to the necessity and utility of an anonymous or pseudonymous blog. (You do all know that I am really a high school sophomore from Milwaukee, don’t you?)

There are two reasons that I don’t think that anonymous blogging is the answer for everyone, though it may be the answer for some.

First, I anonymous or pseudonymous blogging is never really possible. The patterns that you create lead to connections to your real world that, with enough time and detail, are difficult to ignore. Over time, it becomes difficult, I suspect, to maintain a blog that is not entirely fictional, and difficult even to maintain one that is entirely fictional.

But second, and more importantly, I think there are definite benefits that can accrue from blogging as a “real” person, tied to your real identity. The greatest is perhaps credibility. It’s never entirely clear whether someone is invested in their discourse if they can disappear without having lost very much. I do think that over time, you can come to trust a pseudonymous blog, but when it is tied to a real live person the words come with, I think, more consequences.

Beyond this, I think there is something of value in uniting the disparate parts of your life under a single, public identity. There are still things — many things — that I will not blog about; identities that I would not entirely expose here. I even keep other blogs. But I think there is something of value to keeping a fairly large number of eggs in a single basket. I like the idea that my friends, colleagues, and students might find each other through this personal network, and that all of us may benefit from the overlapping of these social circles.

This idea of a village within the metropolis isn’t new to blogging: it is sometimes termed a tribe (bund). I think blogging allows for not a “global village” in the McCluhanian sense, but for the emergence of more central identities and social networks that more frequently overlap. Since private, corporate, and public life are increasingly interpenetrated anyway, doesn’t it make sense to look for models and technologies that allow us to work and play better in such an environment?

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  1. Posted 7/21/2005 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    In other words, there is no multiple selves. It seems like there is one true self that, like a crystal, looks differently under different light. Given this notion, perhaps having different environments (e.g. physical vs. virtual) are but merely providing different sets of resources for one to identify oneself. If a new environment were to be introduced, yet another version of the self would be seen. How, or better still, why see the true self? Can’t we live with the sufficiently true identity of oneself (the legitimate proxy)?

  2. Posted 7/21/2005 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be honest: I’m not real comfortable on the identity issues. I certainly don’t think there is a true self, but I’m also not sure there is a self at all. I tend to fall pretty heavily on the interactionist side, and think that self is constructed through interactions with others.

    So, when you interact with lots of other people and they lack the intersubjective checks that allow them to decide who you are (e.g., my bowling crew doesn’t consist of any of the people I generally dine with), you are going to have more fractured “identities,” but if your reference group is consistent, your identity will be as well.

  3. Posted 7/22/2005 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    If you’re a HS sophomore, that makes me… like 6th grade. If you say so. Happy birthday, dude! Good luck on Junior year.

  4. Posted 7/24/2005 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Happy Belated Birthday!

    I know this clash you speak of — at times in my past I felt like I was one person at work and another at home, and another with my friends. My biggest merge lately came a few years ago when I told my mother I bought a motorcycle. Not that this is anything too outrageous, but she would have never suspected it, nor would, I suspect, any of my old high school friends.

    I agree that there is value in uniting the various sides of our personalities. However, I think there are definitely costs and I worry at times that there will be unknown negative repurcussions to what I do online. Clancy has a good post on what could happen at work — “Bloggers need not apply”

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