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Week 5 Digital Identities?

Hello and welcome to the fourth instalment of the module Digital Geographies. In this set of tasks we explore identity in relation to digital media. We create, dispute and share a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, attached to locations, of varying scales, to make them places. Some last a long time, some are momentary. In the very endurance of any sense of belonging attached to a given locale we are creating a ‘localised’ identity. This is necessarily complicated by digital media. The ‘where’ of our belonging may not be wholly physical, at least in how we understand it.

Introduction

Are we what we post? Maybe we are the sum of the ‘friends’, ‘follows’, ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ through which the companies that own social media platforms claim to ‘know’ us. Perhaps we are singular individuals, tracked and traced; or, alternatively, perhaps we are multiple, sometimes contradictory, performances of our ‘selves’ in different contexts. This week’s videos are drawn from two lectures that were originally focused around ‘difference’ and the digital and ‘digital intimacy’. They are joined together here as complementary parts of an overarching story about identity in relation to our contemporary negotiations of how we ‘do’ our ‘selves’ with and through digital media.

There are a number of ideas that get thrown around when people want to talk about the ways we understand ourselves and ‘others’ in relation to digital technologies. When researchers wish to generalise or assert a fundamental (the fancy word might be ‘ontological’) aspect of life lived with and through the digital we may talk about ‘subjectivity’ or ‘subjectivities’. In my chapter in the book ‘Digital Geographies’, I have argued that there are perhaps three ways we can understand what it is we are talking about when we identify particular forms of individualised experience mediated by the digital:

First, what is called ‘the subject’ is a conceptual figure, exemplified in discussions of the abstract figure of the digitally discretized, legally differentiated or surveilled individual. Second, particular kinds of role and responsibility can be understood as ‘subject positions’. These are characterized by particular ‘statistical doubles’ (Rouvroy and Berns, 2013) represented in data and often governing the various ways we are addressed by companies or government. Third, the term ‘subject’ can refer to modes of experience as ‘subjectivities’, often addressed as the feelings and sensibilities of living with digital technologies, such as social media ‘memes’ (Wilson, 2015) or fitness trackers (Pink and Fors, 2017). It should be stressed these are not static categories; in a variety of geographical research they are all considered ongoing processes (Pile, 2008).

Kinsley (2019) pp. 153-154

I don’t want you to think you need to learn these ideas for the sake of it. All of this only matters insofar as how we understand ourselves and others in relation to digital media is complicated, messy and argued over.

Conventional ways of talking about identity tend to make sweeping assumptions. They assume that we each inhabit a particular, fixed, identity. This tends to be the ways in which certain kinds of ‘subject-positioning’ happens in the media. For example, we might talk about the identities of ‘single mothers’ or ‘asylum seekers’. Social media platforms might categorise us as various conjunctions of a ‘sex’, a ‘relationship status’, a ‘location’ and many other measures.  Such fixed framings of identity often draw from a menu of long-standing demographic categories, such as age, ethnicity, marital status and sexuality. Even so, each individual’s identity is assumed to be singular, fixed and endures over time. This way of thinking about identity may be described as essentialism. It assumes people share common traits and that we can ‘read’ their attitudes from that position. This approach might assume, for example, that women and gay men are interested in fashion and students are interested in drinking. Such inferences come from perceived correlations in data. ‘Identity’ is this model of knowledge is a statistical averaging of categories it is possible to capture (in databases) and compute.

The idea that identity is ‘relational’ is a key element to understanding how it matters to contemporary society and in particular in terms of the digital. As Peter Jackson argues in his chapter on identities in the textbook Introducing Human Geographies:

“Identities are not defined in terms of individual characteristics that are ‘innate’ to particular groups of people. Thinking relationally implies much less bounded notions of the self. We become aware of who we are through a sense of shared identity with others … and by a process of setting ourselves apart from those we consider different from ourselves.”

Peter Jackson – ‘Identities’ chapter in Introducing Human Geographies, p. 631

So, ‘identity’ freights a lot of meanings. It can be the means by which we are identified in calculative systems of categorisation, such as social media and marketing. It can also be an emancipatory multiple performance of different ‘selves’ across several digital media platforms and using different, perhaps clashing, forms of representation. In this week’s tasks we will think through the ways in which identity is created, performed and perhaps orchestrated through digital media.

Tasks

Task A: Digital Shadow

Time on Task 2-3 minutes

Watch this video from the Tactical Technology Collective.

Task B: Get to know your ‘Data Shadow’

Time on Task: 1 hour, maximum.

Where does your data shadow exist? How can you see it?

There are some practical steps we can take to begin to think about what sorts of identities we have online, to whom and in what sorts of context.

The Tactical Technology Collective offer a fairly simple set of tasks as part of their ‘Data Detox Kit’, which I invite you to engage with. Please only take this as far as you feel comfortable. None of this is required. It is simply intended as an interesting way of making these abstract ideas a little more concrete.

The Tactical Tech. Data Detox is here: https://datadetoxkit.org/en/privacy/search/

I have reproduced some of the steps below.

REFRESH AND RENEW

Curate your online identity and accounts

Every once in a while, you search for your name on Google or DuckDuckGo (even better!), just to see what’s out there. That’s where you find a treasure trove of your digital traces: silly photos from high school, decade-old reviews for restaurants, that blog you put together to profess fandom for a long-forgotten TV series…

Do you really want all that out there for the world to see?

It’s easy to lose track of all the information you put out there, and all the old social media, shopping, and fan accounts you’ve signed up for across various websites and apps. Want to detox your accounts? Here are a few tips.

Let’s start with your smartphone: Do you know how many apps you have installed? Take a guess, and then grab your phone and count them (yes, including all those apps that came with the phone). Is the number higher than you expected? With each app you sign up for, your data is more exposed.

  • 0 – 19: Very low exposure
  • 20 – 39: Low exposure
  • 40 – 59: Medium exposure
  • 60 – 80: High exposure
  • 80 or more: Very high exposure

The more apps you have, the more your data builds up, and the more companies have access to it.

Cleaning up your digital traces can be especially helpful when graduating from university, searching for a new job, or setting up your own business (to name a few)—but it’s also helpful to revisit it regularly, like a digital spring cleaning. In the same way you tidy up after yourself in your home, so too should you erase yourself from the websites or apps that no longer spark joy.

This Data Detox will shine a light on your digital build-up, and give you concrete steps to dispose of unwanted accounts and search results today, making space for a new you tomorrow.

Roll up your sleeves up and get ready for this digital makeover.

WHO ARE YOU TO OTHERS?

Have you ever thought about how others might get different results when they search your name? That’s because of the hidden workings of search engines.

To get a clearer idea of what your online self ‘looks like’ to other people, give your browser a good clean before searching.

  1. Open the browser you use the most, and log out of all your email and social media accounts.
  2. Clear your browser history and cookies:

Note: your history of visited sites will be lost unless bookmarked, as will things like saved passwords and webform entries.

Now you’re ready to see your search results as someone else might!

SEARCH YOUR NAME
  1. Go to a search engine (start with Google and then try some others, such as Qwant or DuckDuckGo).
  2. Now search your name. If you have a name that’s very common, add an additional piece of identifying data, such as your work, city, or where you went to school. You can separate key terms by using quotation marks (“”).
  3. Scan the first handful of results. What’s associated with your name?
SEARCH YOUR PICTURE
  1. Click on images below the search bar.
  2. Find out if any of your current or past profile pictures are out there. They may be attached to your name, or another name—you might be surprised. This is why searching for the image itself may yield unique results.
  3. Choose one image to start with – perhaps an old profile picture from a social media account.
  4. Go to a ‘reverse image’ search engine like TinEye.com and upload the image (click the upload arrow or camera icon). Where else is this image being displayed?

Task C: Online/Offline?

Time on Task 45 minutes (approx.)

Read the chapter from Miller et al. How the World Changed Social Media concerning identities and ‘online and offline’ relations (14 pages), linked below.

Think about the following:

  • What differences are there in the differing approaches to understanding identity outlined by Miller et al. between (a) how we understand ourselves and (b) how we are ‘understood’ by social media platforms?
  • How do varying practices of identity performance alter intimacy between people (if at all)?
  • Do you recognise any of the traits discussed in ‘curating’ identity? and why do these forms of identity performance matter?

Task D: Performing ourselves

Watch the two videos I have prepared, embedded below. Think about the key issues I propose:

  • Is there a difference between online/offline identities? Why might that matter?
  • (Why) Does it matter if we are tracked and traced through our digital identities?

Here is the transcript for the videos:

Follow Up Reading

You may wish to follow up from the short reading from the Miller et al. with the following chapter from Sherry Turkle’s 1995 book Life on the Screen entitled ‘Aspects of the Self’ (about 17 pages).

Live Session & Round-up

A. Round-up

We finished off week 5 activities with the live session. During the session we discussed theorisations of identity. I answered some of your questions about the theoretical approaches to identity, including the ways in which concepts of ‘the subject’ and ‘subjectivity’ have been used by geographers.

We focussed on two key, related points:

First we thought about the ways in which our performances of identity may be characterised as ‘online’ and ‘offline’. We asked whether or not this distinction makes sense, to what extent, and if not – why not?

In particular, we thought about the ways in which the online/offline distinction matters in specific contexts – such as work/social lives, or in video games.

Second we posed the question of whether or not our ‘digital identities’ being tracked online is important, or not and why. We discussed this in relation to recent developments including track and trace for the current pandemic. We also discussed this in relation to the extent to which it is contingent upon people being truthful and how ‘authenticity’ might be judged.

B. Padlets

There were two pallets used in the session. The first was used to highlight any issues that participants in the session had with this week’s activities. The second was used to pose the questions outlined above.

There is a recording of the session directly accessible through Zoom.

Made with Padlet

Made with Padlet

4 replies on “Week 5 Digital Identities?”

Hi Sam,

The live recording via zoom, says a password is required to access it. What is the code or where can we find it?

Thank you

Hi Sam,

I am using the concept of digital identities within my video project and I am finding that I cant find many readings which are specifically related. Do you have any that you can recommend for this topic?

Thank you in advance.

Hello Grace, thanks for the question. So, there are quite a lot of different versions of the conversation around ‘digital identity’ when you search online. One is governmental – how to prove who you are, for example. Another is something like representations of the self, in a sort of sociological/anthropological sense. Finally, there is a particular flavour of this in relation to geography which is about the kinds of spatial contexts that may/may not matter to that identity performance. This is a very brief and partial list, but all of these are represented in academic literature. The governance angle can be found in literature around surveillance, for example. See the journal Surveillance & Society for this – just search the journal for ‘identity’. There is a fair amount of work on the performance of the self with and through social media out there. You could search the work published in New Media and Society for ‘identity’ and find quite a lot of relevant literature there too. For geographical work on digital identities, I can recommend the fairly short chapter I wrote on ‘subjectivities’ for the edited book Digital Geographies, accessible through the library catalogue online.

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