Constructing an Identity: New Media and “Becoming-other”

New Media platforms are considerably trendy and multiform in today’s world. No matter where you go on the Web, if you stumble upon something newsworthy (read current), you are likely able to share whatever that is on a variety of linked social media websites. Here I have already invoked the term ‘social media,’ which I think can be used synonymously with new media. Although, the term ‘New Media’ can mean different things to different people, depending on the media’s function. For example, individuals in jobs like graphic design, marketing, advertising or interactive branding may all use specialized new media platforms to achieve certain goals. But for the casual majority of Internet users, New Media technology is simply an apparatus for engaging in social experiments on the Web. I say ‘experiments,’ because it is not necessary to interact with people you know on social media sites. With this type of new media, you can engage with just about anyone; from writers and pop-culture fans, to politicians and celebrities. This has tremendous implications in respect to the nature and purpose of the public sphere, where Internet technology and social media networks have brought people together in dynamic new ways.

I personally came to New Media as a teenager, eleven years ago. In 2002, engaging with electronic communications media was not yet a mentally fraying experience, as I will argue for. I started out innocently enough, creating a chat handle on AOL Instant Messenger. Now, while I don’t characterize stand-alone client software like AOL, Yahoo, or even Skype as social media (because they are a two-way street and not subject to the whims of an interactive public), AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was my first step into the virtual world of identity construction. My screen name was redragon720; a lame portmanteau of sorts followed by my birthday month and date. My AIM icon was a logo of a reoccurring dragon motif used in the artwork of my favorite band at the time. Believe it or not, this was my first experience on a strictly communications-based network. Of course, I communicated with people online before, but this was usually in game rooms and multiplayer channels for online computer games. AIM was great because I could communicate with newly-formed friends at a new high school, which perhaps facilitated the process of forming friendships at a tender age. However, it wasn’t long until I realized that being on the Web didn’t mean simply chatting with friends. With AIM, you could craft a very primitive profile that allowed chat “buddies” to see how you described yourself. I remember doing all of the typical things; listing my favorite bands and linking to my favorite websites. Indeed, this primitive profile-tweaking made me realize that one could showcase their interests online in neat formatted rows and columns that appealed to my sense of symmetry.

I don’t recall if I was hungry for online identity construction, or if I came upon blogging by pure chance, but as a sophomore in high school I created a profile on the social networking site Xanga. Immediately – as if real-world friends weren’t reliable enough sieves to filter my more antsy, existential problems of youth – I sifted through Xanga to find rapport on the Web, joining groups self-described as “Bookish,” or trying to find sympathizers in groups with titles like “I Hate my Hometown.” This last should reflect my once-restless status as a marginalized, socially-choked teenager. However, my Xanga never saw any substantive content, even though I did spend considerable time changing the appearance of my profile, picking up some rudimentary web design skills along the way. But after sophomore year, I soon realized that a lot of my confidants at school were using LiveJournal, so I switched platforms as I was more interested in partaking in a close-knit social group.

Junior year of high school was an interesting one. As quickly as the year started, I began to exhibit signs of major depressive disorder, and I plummeted during this very inopportune time. Junior year, of course, is that time when kids start to amp up their school performance in preparation for college; either by themselves or owing to intimidated motivation by their superiors. With little interest in congruency where that was concerned, I began to compulsively use LiveJournal in an attempt to come to self-knowledge in a world that did not make any sense to me. My LiveJournal account has since become a hideous intrigue, being the only testament to my teenage years which still exists online. That year, I sacrificed my academic cares, my inhibitions, my beliefs, my real-life relationships, and a lot of bodyweight to the twin demons of emotional turmoil and disphoria. My output on LiveJournal was both excessive and insane, as I devoted myself to introspection online through a process of creative writing, poetry and self-loathing. At the same time however, while I was trying hard to carve out what has recently been called an “(e)dentity” by Stephanie Vie (which for me was an explicit search for my own soul), I was also posting on several message boards related to my favorite music groups. Furthermore, I was active on a ProBoards forum a friend set up, where a group of twenty of us or so talked about books, religion, philosophy, and engaged in a nerdy role-play where each of us added a fantasy narrative onto a friend’s preceding post (I shouldn’t have to mention this, but the goal was literary; not sexual…). However, this was a peripheral activity for me, overshadowed by how much time I spent on LiveJournal.

Activity on LiveJournal died out heading into my senior year of high school. I think this was due to the advent of MySpace, and I couldn’t understand why friends were making the transition. MySpace looked stupid to me, and I didn’t engage with it until – if I remember correctly – my homecoming date persuaded me to make a profile. It is perhaps important to note that, up until this time (as well as during and after), I was hopelessly inept when it came to forging meaningful relationships, let alone romantic ones. But a new girl had come to my school during my year subsumed into LiveJournal, and due to some fortuitous events at a mutual friend’s graduation party that summer, we both looked forward to each other’s presence the following year at school. However, a month of school went by with me completely self-absorbed and this girl growing impatient with my taciturn behavior. As homecoming loomed closer, I talked to my date via MySpace and by revisiting AOL Instant Messenger (this time with a new screen name). Throughout, I was becoming acutely aware of how different online socialization was in comparison to real-life socialization. It was easy to create a digital persona, and to feel safe in that persona both as a crafted image and as a vessel for communication. However, it was radically different from the threat of communicating in personam. Therefore, MySpace (as LiveJournal had been before it) was just as existentially jarring to me as it was liberating. Here was somewhere I could be myself without the fear of rejection or alienation. I could experiment and channel ideas through my mental framework which felt empowering, but it was all essentially a facade for my undeveloped real self. Needless to say, homecoming was an abysmal failure, and so was dropping out of school, for the most part (even though I graduated at the same time as my peers).

LiveJournal comment
My story with social media so far should be obvious. Life on the screen as an inwardly dispossessed teenager had its consequences. After high school, it was documented that I had Post-traumatic stress disorder, moderate-to-severe depression, and severe social and generalized anxiety (among other things). External factors largely determined these results, but I maintain that obsessive preoccupation with social media – used for introspective purposes – is to be given equal weight. For instance, on LiveJournal, I had a “friend” whom I didn’t even know tell me, “You have to be the most introverted person I know.” For me, this epitomizes one of the defining traits of social media. Oftentimes, comments from “Others” serve as feedback loops to reinforce perceptions of ourselves; perceptions which may not intrinsically be true. On Facebook and Twitter (and wherever else), individuals are led to believe in a certain version of themselves, based on their digital persona and how others respond to that persona. In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle finds reason for concern in this phenomenon, maintaining that our connectivity culture destroys the opportunity for proper maturation.

As a youth, I poured so much of my undeveloped self into the computer that the line between reality and the hyperreal began to blur. For example, I recall that while I was at school, I thought about how I could explicate some “deep” insight about what was going on around me if only I were on LiveJournal. For me, this reliance on social media in order to come to terms with reality was only good for causing an existential rut, which I think many young people are in, owing to technology. Indeed, as John Palfrey and Urs Gasser state in Born Digital: “Digital Natives live much of their lives online, without distinguishing between the online and the offline.” When I first read this quote, I had a hard time understanding how digital technology could be so immersive and abstracting that it diminished the concept of identity, forcing it to mean the same thing in both spaces. But after combing my past, I realize that it is an easy psychological deception. Without doubt, I lost myself to the social frivolities of New Media when I was younger. Clawing out of this rut was only possible after high school, when I had more room to breath, and when the social connections that kept me appealing to the Web in the first place suddenly disappeared.

My experience with New Media has definitely shaped my attitudes toward technology today. Having subsumed myself into the virtual world for nearly two years, I was left with almost nothing approximating reality. Loss of friendships felt like betrayal, instead of what they really were: self-deprivation and alienation from pursuing real social relationships myself. Furthermore, being without goals after high school created an aimless state of recklessness. New intrigues were discovered in the forms of alcohol, smoking, bitterness and escapism into music (a singular devotion to black metal further galvanized feelings of bitterness and misanthropy). At any rate, after repeated failures and a considerably lengthy stint in cognitive behavioral therapy, the search for identity was redirected into more positive channels. The virtual was relegated in favor of pursuing more active interests in the real world, and I learned to tame all of this bedeviled technology by deflecting the hold it can exert on the fundamental needs of mind and body.

I now use social media to reflect interests that are predominately formed without the influence of technology. Furthermore, I began to use New Media to unplug. After Christmas of 2009, I met my fiancée through Zoosk; a romantic social network and online dating service. Admittedly, for awhile, I was embarrassed that Zoosk was the only way I could find intimacy and understanding in the “real world,” as if my relationship was predicated on some technological ersatz that reflected an inherent shortcoming on my part and therefore devalued the relationship. But I soon realized that this was unfair both to myself and my then-girlfriend. However, this is why Howard Rheingold’s chapter on “The Heart of the WELL” in The Virtual Community resonates with me so deeply. The soulless nature of CMC (Computer-mediated communication) technology can lead to someone “becoming-other,” or becoming something other than who they really are. That’s why I think it is important to maintain a critical distance from technology, analyzing it in terms of what is known about the human condition. As Rheingold says regarding cyberspace, “the most obvious identity swindles will die out only when enough people learn to use the medium critically.” Therefore, let us hope that future digital natives (especially those inclined to certain dispositions like myself) have the proper wisdom imparted to them so they may regard technology critically, as something to be used meaningfully and without troublesome consequences.

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7 thoughts on “Constructing an Identity: New Media and “Becoming-other”

  1. I agree with the idea of leaving a critical distance from technology. A mild fear of technology may even be healthy. Happy to hear that you resolved some of your issues. Sounds like you were really entrenched. Best wishes.

  2. Jason,
    I hope I’m not jumping to conclusions when i say that the internet was a healer for you. You said that: “My output on LiveJournal was both excessive and insane, as I devoted myself to introspection online through a process of creative writing, poetry and self-loathing.” I’m glad i read you blog because i went through a phase of using online journals as an outlet for teenage angst. I think my icon on AIM was Gir from Invader Zim. Dear diary, Mood: apathetic.

    Although i feel for you and I wouldn’t wish for anyone to be depressed. I can see that the internet stirred mixed emotions for you. You were religiously and politically active (I see that you even wrote some fan fiction.) Which, no offense, I don’t think you would have done outside of the digital world. Thus, the Web gave you a microphone and a soap box.

    However, you say that “loss of friendships felt like betrayal, instead of what they really were: self-deprivation and alienation from pursuing real social relationships myself.” So maybe the internet was just as helpful as it was harmful.

    I’m glad that in your last paragraph you provide a silver lining, because no one wants their online persona to be songs by Black Dahlia Murder and dark framed glasses with bangs swooped over them.

    • Jade, thanks for reading.

      I was never politically active in high school. In fact, it wasn’t until recently (last few years maybe) that I even started to understand political issues. I mean, I didn’t even vote until I was 25!

      Also, if by fan fiction you’re referring to my activity on the ProBoards forum that my friend said up, I’m not sure I would call that “fan fiction.” It’s true, a lot of my friends narratives were probably influenced by their reading stuff like the The Wheel of Time series or Lord of the Rings (or something like that)… but the purpose of the message board wasn’t directly related to any cultural timepiece or fandom. But you’re right, I totally wouldn’t write that shit today lol…

      I don’t wish to comment any further on the personal aspects of my essay. What you and everyone else reads here is what you’re going to get. But, I think you got the gist of what I was trying to say in regards to social media being both harmful, and then helpful.

      It’s funny, I never really listened to Black Dahlia Murder. It’s not exactly what I was listening to in 2007 (or beyond), but you’re close enough. I didn’t realize they were from Waterford until I just looked them up. So, that’s definitely interesting. But luckily for me, I’ve always looked like a normal kid with a t-shirt and jeans, so no dark-framed glasses or emo bangs for me… haha

      – Jason

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