Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Read this Article


[NOTE: Since Blogger's formatting tools are broken, I've been forced to make the font in this entire post either very big or very small. I chose big. At least it's easy to read.]

Some months ago my buddy Kat wrote an article for her co-op placement at The Hamilton Spectator. It's due to be printed sometime in the coming weeks, but in the meantime Kat was sent the final draft which she posted on her blog. It is posted there for anyone who wants to read it, and because I like it so much I copied and pasted it here. (It's about time I post something relevant and interesting, anyway.) I like it because, firstly, this topic is right up my alley. Secondly, I know who most of the people she cites are, which is neat. So, without further ado:

Online Identity: Growing Up in Cyberspace
by Sarah Palaković AKA Katherine 'Kat' Kelly


I log in as the administrator of my weblog — a kind of online journal — and begin typing a post that the miracle of the internet will allow anyone to read. In my blog, I am Kat — a nickname taken from my middle name. Kat seems to me like a friend I am continually getting to know. Sometimes I’m surprised by what she announces she believes. She is careful with what she writes — in the past, disclosure of overly personal information has made some of her friends uncomfortable. She does not write whatever she wants; she writes, to an extent, what she believes people will want to read. She is honest, but she knows her audience influences what she decides to say and how she presents herself. Kat keeps herself quite separate from Sarah, and my legal surname is intentionally absent from my blog. This prevents family, certain acquaintances, and prospective employers from googling my name and discovering my personal thoughts.

Popular blogger Rebecca Blood wrote in her essay on weblogs: “Shortly after I began producing Rebecca’s Pocket I noticed two side effects I had not expected. First, I discovered my own interests… More importantly, I began to value more highly my own point of view. In composing my link text every day I carefully considered my own opinions and ideas, and I began to feel that my perspective was unique and important.”

Blogs are just one facet of the internet that allow the user to explore their identity. Other areas include games, chat rooms, and forums. Online, people can experiment with different aspects of their personality, interests, and abilities in a more anonymous space than the “real world.” Blood describes how blogs affect the writer’s sense of self:

“The blogger, by virtue of simply writing down whatever is on his mind, will be confronted with his own thoughts and opinions… Being met with friendly voices, he may gain more confidence in his view of the world.”

I’ve found that blogging is quite different from keeping a private journal. It presses me to pay more attention to what I write, to reach for a higher standard of quality than private writing encourages. I avoid recording mundane events and highly personal information because they provide only boredom or embarrassment. Many post drafts have been abandoned after a mental check of “Will someone want to read this?” My blog is also a place for experimentation. I’ve never been an especially funny person, but I feel a compulsion to make attempts at humour because if I fail, no one will much care, but if I learn to succeed, my writing will be all the more engaging.

The Blog Herald estimates the number of blogs out there to be near 35 million worldwide. Many of those are diary-style sites belonging to youth such as myself. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia describes the appeal of blogs to young adults: “Online diaries are part of the daily lives of many teenagers and college students. Friends use blogs to communicate with each other, keeping each other up-to-date with events and thoughts in a non-intrusive manner. The appeal of this form of communication is that the recipient can read whenever it is convenient, and the writer does not need to remember who still needs to be updated with certain pieces of information - it is there, waiting, for whenever people wish to read it.”

In 2005, the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University conducted a study of gender, identity and language use in teenage blogs. They found that blogs “provide a space for self-expression” and are “an extension of the real world, rather than a place where people like to pretend.” Adolescents use language to create an anchor and a consistent public face when developing identity, and they “seek a continuity of representations of who they are, as well as a confirmation of those representations by their peers.” The study also found surprising results concerning gendered behaviour — a notable lack of difference between blogs created by young males and females. “Perhaps the technical ease of use of blogs levels the differences between males and females, or perhaps this generation of Internet users is becoming more androgynous in its online communication and interaction.”

When I first met “Ren” in an online gaming forum, a few key points, like her assertive way of writing and her proficiency in the male-dominated world of computer games, led me to assume that she was, in fact, male. Noticing this, she decided to conduct an experiment of gender identity over the internet. She continued with the charade for months, never stooping to deception, just continuing to be herself without mentioning gender. When she finally tired of dancing around pronouns and revealed the truth of her “experiment” to me, I was shocked. Female Ren seemed like a different person to me — even though her behaviour remained exactly the same, my perceptions of her had changed completely.

This would be in keeping with the gender trends Georgetown’s study noticed: females are using the active, resolute language patterns that have traditionally been favoured by males. “One possible implication is that the language and the social interactions on the Internet are changing, perhaps because the participants are changing. That is, the latest wave of teenage females, at least female bloggers, may have different gender roles from those of earlier generations… Alternately, females who choose to create blogs may be less traditional in their gender roles than the general population.”

Geoffrey Rockwell, Associate Professor of Humanities Computing and Multimedia at McMaster University, says of blogs that “in the act of writing, you externalize something, and when you’re reading it later it allows you to think about yourself.” The choice about what to blog, he says, reveals one’s public identity. He blogs his research notes. “Blogs are unquestionably a way of creating my identity — my blog is a way of engaging the community that matters to me.”

Online identity isn’t confined to blogs. Computer games, especially online RPGs (role-playing games), provide opportunities for teens to develop identity in a more interactive, but narrower, space. “There’s more capacity to experiment, but there’s something unreal about these experiments,” Rockwell says. He does recognize the skills youth can build through games, namely problem-solving and multitasking. “There’s a lot more multitasking among youth; it’s a much noisier world.” Rockwell notes that as the primary media we’re exposed to changes, so does the way we develop identity.

Online computer games typically allow the player to customize their character’s appearance and to choose which gender they want to play as. “Gender-bending” is not uncommon. An extensive, ongoing study by Nicholas Yee on the psychology of online RPGs suggested that since social gender boundaries are more stringent in real-life for men, men are more likely to explore gender roles in an anonymous space by choosing to play a female character. Other reasons include the special treatment female gamers can receive, and the ability to dominate and eroticize their avatar when they watch her move. Females, on the other hand, will often use male characters for protection and neutrality in a gender-biased environment.

Adolescents are especially affected by perception and creation of identity. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson believed identity is the main developmental task of adolescence. One of the shifts to adulthood, Rockwell says, is to define your identity not by what you consume, but by what you make. And the internet is ripe with opportunities for creation: he describes how two teens can use a computer game’s engine to create mini movies. “Wikis,” which he calls “places for collaborative making,” are web pages that can be easily edited by any user. Programs like Garageband and Acid offer novice musicians a simple interface with which to write their own music — a critical part of every teen’s life. As Rockwell puts it, “Teens define themselves by the music they listen to, and now they have this extraordinary capacity to choose.”

The internet, he says, is like a library you can get things from as well as put things into and help catalogue them. He notes that when he was young, he could “micromanage [his] personality around books,” while today’s adolescents can do the same with music. “My kids have access to musical information comparable to a library,” he says.

Chat rooms offer yet another opportunity for identity exploration, but the trend among adolescents seems to be toward presenting their real-life identity online rather than playing pretend. A recent study of teenage chat rooms by the American Psychological Association found that people there are likely to give away personally identifiable information. One way to do so is through the popular “a/s/l” chat code (a request for another participant to reveal their age, sex, and location). Subjects of conversation in teenage chat rooms include sexuality, appearance, and the self — all important aspects of identity construction. As well, teenagers create sexualized nicknames with which to communicate, which the study calls “an adaptive substitute for dressing in a sexy manner or wearing makeup in the real world.”

Nicknames and pseudonyms are rampant on the world wide web. Ahmed “Khuffie” El-Khuffash, owner of www.khuffie.com and webmaster of a popular videogame fansite, thinks a pseudonym “makes it easy for someone to remain anonymous unless they wish to be known. Most of the time, especially for teenage bloggers, it’s a way to express their real identity while keeping it hidden from those they don’t want to know about it… you always show a different side to your parents than what you show to your friends.” Frequently, especially with teenagers, behaviour online is just a variation of real-world dynamics.

On the subject of shyness, El-Khuffash explains why he is more comfortable meeting people online than in person: “I think it’s easier to be true to myself and show who I really am when chatting to people online, which makes it easier in getting to know someone. I tend to be quieter and more reserved in person because I constantly try to think of what I should say next, how I should say it, how I should stand, how I should look at the person, what I should ask… it’s far easier when you have a chance to think before you type.” Face-to-face interactions such as eye contact can be intimidating, he says.

An article by Tom R. Tyler of New York University measuring the social impact of the internet stated that rather than turning to the internet as a way of hiding from real life, socially anxious people use the internet to lessen the anxiety associated with initial meetings. Later, they bring those relationships into the real world, proving that the internet can be a very real force in an individual’s social life and thus in society.

El-Khuffash notes how simple it is to find people with common interests online, giving strangers something to talk about. Rockwell points out that the internet encourages “ghettoization,” segregation by interest. “Instead of being segregated by distance, we’re now segregated by interests, hobbies, and passions.”

Tyler’s article also studied online identity exploration: “When trying out new identities people initially express those identities over the more anonymous Internet and then embrace them and bring them into their real world by telling their friends about them.”

There can be complications when online and real-life identities collide. Heather “Dooce” Armstrong was fired from her job because of what she wrote in her blog. What she never expected was that the same blog would now bring in enough money to support her family. She calls it her “dream job.”

As for me, I’ll continue to keep my online and “real” lives separate. Only a select few friends know that Sarah Palakovic and Katherine Kelly are the same person. Sarah knows she completely lacks artistic talent; Kat dabbles in art on a large art-sharing website. Sarah keeps her poetry private; Kat posts it on several different writing sites and on her blog. But although Kat gives me an opportunity to be bolder in the safe anonymity of the internet, we are essentially the same.

SIDEBAR - Stats:
(from a March 2006 Spec article) based on results of a 2005 Media Awareness Network report on Canadian children and teens regarding Internet use:
- 94 per cent of teens have Internet access
- by Grade 11, 51 per cent have their own Internet-connected computer
- by Grade 8 more than 75 per cent download and listen to music online.
- 61 per cent of 13- to 17-year-olds have a personal profile on a site such as MySpace, Friendster, or Xanga

BOX - Blogs to check out:
www.rebeccablood.net
www.dooce.com
http://strange.mcmaster.ca/%7Egrockwel/weblog/notes (Geoffrey Rockwell’s research notes)


Any comments should be directed to the entry in Kat's blog, found here. I will also pass on to her any comments made here.

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