Issue 4/2011 - Ware Freundschaft

(Multiple) Identities in Social Networks

Alessandro Ludovico

Identity, meant as the combination of state registries\' data, official documents and public recognition, has been slowly but hugely eroded by digital media and their infinitely manipulable and duplicable bits of information. The self-confidence of being registered and recognized as a named and addressable being, that has been often debated in the 20th century, is now deeply questioned since the trust of paper, inks and stamps has been given away to the ephemeral nature of database records. It\'s definitively not a classic process of »virtualization«, but an ongoing process concerning the redefinition from scratch of how an identity can be defined in the 21st century.

[b]The myth of a new identity: from bureaucratic rebirth to digital theft[/b]

The thrill and the vertigo of changing identity are a common motif in literature and cinema narrative. Sometimes that\'s inspired by real life where, in certain cases, it can even be mandatory to change your identity, such as before joining a specific organization. For example, soldiers must adopt a new name and identity upon joining the French foreign legion, or an important FBI informant can join The U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program [] which relocates and gives them and their family members new identities with authentic documentation. There\'s a long list of potential examples of creation of new identities in literature like the rising delight and then the sad pervading delusion of the protagonist in Luigi Pirandello\'s novel »The Late Mattia Pascal« (1904) 1, who after his mistaken death is able to start afresh a new life, only to discover how pointless it\'d be and facing the impossibility to re-gain his own one. Or, switching to the very popular scammer impersonators, there\'s the skills and the drama lived by the protagonist in »The Talented Mr. Ripley« (written in 1955 and then made into a popular movie in 1999) 2 as a consequence of his forged new identity, or from another popular perspective, the many fake lives of Frank Abagnale Jr. (a real person who impersonated a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor for check fraud purposes) documented in »Catch Me If You Can« (2002)3. But, impersonating is closer to acting than to radically change identity (as Mattia Pascal experimented). And identity theft is something completely different from impersonating. It\'s about having (usually after stealing or obtaining them through deception) all the real or virtual bureaucratic »credentials« to claim to be somebody. And so »being« him or her for all the needed time, which can eventually be forever. One of the most popular »analog« way of identity theft, particularly in the seventies, was conversely called »paper tripping« 4 which consisted of obtaining a new identity by resurrecting and assuming the identity of a dead infant. It worked like this: after finding the grave of a dead infant of the same race, gender and sex as oneself who was born around the same time and never lived long enough to file for a social security number, the thief obtained the dead infant\'s birth certificate resurrecting the dead child\'s identity on paper and assumed it as his/her own. With the progressive switch to digital technologies in every administrative and productive field, the modification, augmentation, re-programming of a single identity or the creation of one/several brand-new ones has become easier when there\'s no cross-checking of data (as the virally spread early internet saying »on the net nobody knows you\'re a dog«). Now »identity theft« means the manipulation of personal data constituting a person\'s identity within the territory of spread digital crimes. The growing outsourcing of archiving and managing the »original« person\'s administrative data to digital technology is making identity manipulation potentially easier than ever.
The Identity Theft Resource Center 5 classifies identity theft into five categories:
- Criminal identity theft (posing as another person when apprehended for a crime)
- Financial identity theft (using another\'s identity to obtain credit, goods and services)
- Identity cloning (using another\'s information to assume his or her identity in daily life)
- Medical identity theft (using another\'s identity to obtain medical care or drugs)
- Child identity theft.
One of the first movies to use digital identity theft in its narrative was »The Net« (1995) 6 where Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) at some point finds out that all the digital records of her life have been erased: she has no car anymore and home is empty and listed for sale, and having been very limited in her neighborhood relationships (and with only an Alzheimer affected mother), nobody can confirm her identity. The fear of such Kafkaesque situations is very present now, when we\'re »always connected«, which means also always potentially deceivable by some remote person. This kind of obscure fear and paranoia is very effectively used in advertisements for software products (like the »Spector Pro« ones 7) to scare parents selling them a digital tracking technology for online minors\' actions. We live in a peculiar transitional period, when physically we continue to use tested and working methodologies which nevertheless look outdated, and mentally we are pervaded by the habits induced by constant frequentation of digital technologies. An exemplary work is the ongoing performance of »My name is Janez Jansa« 8, a Slovenian artist trio who developed a whole body of artworks acting on the surreal consequences of assuming (all of them) the name of Janez Jansa, the Slovenian prime minister. This work is developing a unique commentary about the clash between the mediated identity and the still rigid bureaucracy, rewriting the concept of identity theft with new and unexpected meanings.

[b]The Enriched Self[/b]

So there\'s a dissolution of the \'identity\' as we used to know it, before the networks. And this dissolution has led to an ongoing fragmented and fast evolution that currently reflects the multiple parts of an identity and their interconnections which we daily create and establish in various digital spaces. Through the networks, in fact, identities are formed by extremely varied and juxtaposed layers of the self, expressing more about a single person than any previous generation could express. What these layers form altogether is what we can define as the »enriched self.« This process derives from the constant mediation that internet applies to every identity through multiple platforms and standards such as the popular web 2.0 ones. In fact, each of the most popular platforms impose its own standards of personal representation (both functional and aesthetic) and so it mediates all the information created by the users mainly about themselves. It\'s a mediated mirror of users\' past and present history, only partially and, most of time, randomly represented. It\'s compulsively done, like posting a picture on a social network only because it seems to matter in that specific moment, not because it has a specific sense for who\'s represented there, as used to happen in the editing of personal photographic albums. That\'s why the tireless online activity of posting personal content leads to multiple partial representations of the self in a multilayered form. And this activity also has visible consequences to us: out of the ordinary physical life, our mind has already started to think, although uneasily, in the terms of an enriched self. We feel our identity not anymore as an indivisible whole, but as composed of different pieces which are deeply and reciprocally influenced by our online experience, being updated very frequently. Aesthetically wise these juxtaposed layers have different shades of transparency and they are redundant, hosting similar scattered bits of personal content. Biologically wise we change a lot when we got older, so that a little girl in 1920, shares a relatively small number of molecules with her version as an old woman in 2000, although we still consider her the same person 9. How many online bits then a teenage girl in 2000 will share with what we\'ll consider the same person in 2080 and how redundant and »transparent« they will be? It\'s too early to say, but it seems an even more extreme process compared to the biological one. And this »transparency of the self« seems to be reflected in different cultural fields since the early 2000s. Mainly aesthetically as in the pervading use of glass in public architecture or in the transparent textures of fancy dresses, or, even more important, functionally in the continuous recording of every digital move we do online, being constantly and automatically logged in (and eventually updated in some databases). We are then (voluntary and involuntary) coding new parts of our informational body with the bits we leave around while being connected to any digital network. Then the physical and digital person\'s acts are now perfectly complementary, sometimes being disjointed, sometimes one being consequent to the other, but never again clearly divisible. That\'s why real persons can be indistinguishable from the similar or different character they should assume on an online platform. The avatar, for example, or the digital version of our physical body (being close to the real one or not) has evolved from an iconic pixelated representation of the self in specific digital settings and functional to specific digital platforms, into only one (and not even the most important one) of the many virtual layers on which we stratify our public presence. So compared to the bureaucratic identity, which has been a unique reference since the second half of the 20th century, now we actively create and express more and multiple parts of ourselves. Some new, unexpected, intimate, hidden, just because we\'re feeling we are in the right (online) context. Like in the past when we were »open« to talk about quite personal stuff to strangers that we felt we\'d never have met again (like people with whom we were sharing the same long train trip), now we\'re apparently prone to similarly express ourselves on various online platforms of choice we\'re familiar with, in multiple ways and through multiple media. And this happens with all the inconsistency and the connected ambiguousness generated from the free mixture of differently used media grammars (for instancewhat we or others write next to a picture or video representing us).

[b]Online identities minimal taxonomy[/b]

Online identities, especially in crowded social networks, are less predictable than the one we\'re used to in real world. For example they do not always correspond to persons, but can also be abstract as institutions, or groups, or experiments in hybridizing one or a few entities into a single representation. Even restricting the field to what seems like a human entity, there are different possible outcomes when you investigate who really is behind that »identity«.
They can be typified in a sort of »species« taxonomy that\'d be summarized as:
- a real person,
- a real person assuming a famous character and playing as him/her,
- a real person creating and playing a plausible fictitious character,
- a computer generated and self-sufficient character 10
But it\'s hard to tell whether or not an online identity is coinciding with a real person, because our senses have to judge starting from a very limited amount of elements, indeed easily manipulable. And cheating in an online profile is as common as the projection of a desire or an emotion on a networked environment can be, as these projections are potentially affecting these environments which are vast and popular. Under these terms, conscious and unconscious emotions are influencing both the potential creation of fictitious characters and the expansion of the real ones, actively building new (enriched) selves. There are also other new factors which have an impact on the feeling of being free to create identities. The emotion of triggering off a new or re-enabling an old human relationship, for example, is one of the most precious goods that social network platforms sell to customers. But it\'s not only about emotions and meeting of individualities. It\'s also about the intertwining of the different relationships that start to move on the matrix where the loosely attached pieces of the self move onto. The hundreds of Facebook »friends«, coupled with the offline ones, and the others scattered on different platforms are writing a sort of automatic narrative that can always be dreamed as »fatally wonderful« at some random point.

[b]Social Media and the identity redefining on a universal scenario[/b]

Social networking is naturally addictive. It\'s essentially about exploring a process which is very familiar, but, at the same time, has never been available before: staying in touch with past and present friends and acquaintances in a single, potentially infinite, virtual space. 11 This opportunity challenges us psychologically, creating situations which previously were simply not possible. Before the rise and stabilization of social networking technologies, former partners, friends and acquaintances would naturally and almost inexorably tend to drift away from us and potentially become consigned to our personal histories. Having a huge virtual space with plenty of (re)active people constantly updating their activities is the basic, powerful fascination of the social network. But there\'s another attraction, based on the elusive sport (or perhaps urge) to position ourselves. The answer to the fundamental identity question, »who am I?« can be given mainly in relation to the others that we interact with (friends, family, work colleagues, and so on), and so the answer to this question seems clearer after we take a look at our list of social network friends. So an intimate involvement and (endless) questioning of our online identity is perpetrated in the social network game. But social network platforms are not public organizations designed to help support social problems but private corporations. Their mission is not to help people create better social relationships or to help them improve their self-positioning. Their mission is to make money. Economic success for these corporations rests on convincing users to connect to the several hundred people who await them online. The market value of these companies is proportional to the number of users they have. Facebook is valued at around 41 billion dollars: it sports 750 million active users 12. On Facebook everything is private, or restricted to the invited guests, but has the potential to become public, if accidently shared. Here the guests\' activity and interests are also recorded through their posts in different formats and media (pictures, movies, trips, preferences, comments). It\'s an induced immaterial labor with instant gratification. Guests produce content by indirectly answering the question »who am I?« and they get new friends and feedback in the process. The price the guests are unconsciously paying is that they are giving away their (constantly updating) digital identity. As such they offer what can be termed as »crowdsourced targeting« - the indirect identification of people\'s targets and desires by the users themselves. In fact the spontaneously posted data provides an endless (almost automatic) mutual profiling, enriching and updating the single virtual identities, in a collective self-positioning. As a counter-reaction to these seemingly unavoidable mechanisms, two similar artworks, »Web 2.0 Suicide Machine« by (aka Danja Vasiliev, Walter Langelaar and Gordan Savicic) , and »Seppukoo« by Les Liens Invisible, have been capable of spreading a sort of cult of »suicide« on Facebook and other social network platforms (preceded a few years back by Cory Arcangel and his public »Friendster Suicide«). Both are playing on the subversive social act of self-terminating a piece of a virtual identity in the most popular online platform, and then proselytize others to do the same, and both of them were quite successful in that. The thrill of breaking the (industry-imposed and socially embraced) rules was able to attract many people »liberating« their respective accounts from the underlying industrial approach. Although it was a temporary game (most of them made new accounts after a while), it was a collective proof of independence from the online socially-based industries. So can profile data be liberated from social networks inexorable logic? The answer is yes, but it\'s also important to focus on the core of the profiles and see how they are recognized as virtual identities.

- The online face, an interface to the virtual self

The connection between a picture of a face and the identity of its owner seems obvious. But first, the profiles (especially the Facebook profiles) sublimate the owners\' (real) social actions and references through their virtual acknowledged existence. Second, they synthesize their effectiveness in representing real people through a specific (and probably the most discretely prominent) virtual element: the profile digital picture. This picture, turns out to be an essential interface, and more often than not shows a face, and a smiling one at that. Our face is traditionally our most private space and simultaneously the most exposed, recognized and observed one: how many people are allowed to touch our face, for example? At the same time most of the people we are in touch with recognize us through our face. So generally speaking, the face is also one of the major points of reference we have in the social world. Even biologically wise, that has been proven: there are »special« regions of the human brain, such as the fusiform face area (FFA), which may have become specialized at facial recognition 13. But once a picture of us is digitized and becomes a publicly available jpeg file, it makes our face so exposed that it can\'t remain private anymore, but is thrust into the public domain and shared, or even »tagged« by other people when not manipulated and posted somewhere else. So any virtual identity (composed of a face picture and some related data) can be stolen and become part of a new unauthorized version of that identity or of another identity, through a simple re-contextualization of the same data. Furthermore, »face recognition« techniques can be applied to group vast amount of pictures (as they already are in cameras\' and computer software).


Social media can be a goldmine for identity experimentation. As Michel Foucault wrote in his »Technologies of the Self« 14 »Self is a reflective pronoun, and it has two meanings. Auto means »the same«, but it also conveys the notion of identity. The latter meaning shifts the question from »What is this self?« to »What is the plateau on which I shall find my identity?«. This plateau now seems indeed very fragile. And it\'s easy to unveil how fragile a virtual identity given to a proprietary platform can be. And how fragile enormous capitalization based on exploiting online social systems (and the free labor made to build them) can be. One of the more plausible consequences is the rising of a feeling of no assumed guarantee of trust, which will slowly contribute (or lead) to the crumbling of the whole market evaluation hysteria that surrounds the crowded, and much hyped, online commercial social platforms.



[1] Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal, first edition 1904, Marsilio Publishers, 1995, ISBN: 978-0941419444
[2] Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Coward-McCann, 1955, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Paramount Pictures, 1999
[3] Catch Me If You Can, DreamWorks, 2002
[4] Barry Reid, Paper Trip I, Eden Pr, 1979, ISBN: 978-9996434433
[6] The Net, 2005, United Artist
[10] Alessandro Ludovico, [Id]entities as a Multilayered Self, The Individual Pervasiveness of Social networks, ISEA2010 Ruhr Conference Proceedings, Revolver Publishing, 2010, ISBN:978-3-86985-103-5
[11] Face-to-Facebook, smiling in the eternal party,
[14] Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self, in Martin, L.H. et al (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock. pp.16-49.