Sunday, October 26, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: More Modern Than We Wanna Be--Facebook's Rhetorical Identity Construction

Susan Cox has an excellent article over at Salon that examines how Facebook's real-name policy (and Mark Zuckerberg's insistence that we only have one identity in general) undermine the promised complexity of cyberfeminism, which Cox explains envisioned using the internet as "a new frontier beyond the oppressive bodily boundaries of race and gender where new understandings of identity could take root."

Zuckerberg wrote in his 2010 book that "You have one identity... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." He further explained that "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly."

His "real-name policy," then, is presented as a measure of safety and security, a way to ensure that the people you are interacting with are practicing integrity. Only someone who has something to hide, the logic goes, would want to use something other than their "real" names, and the only reason someone would have something to hide is if they are ashamed of some part of themselves. 

Many, many people took Zuckerberg's stance to task to demonstrate legitimate reasons that someone might want to present themselves with a name other than the one on their birth certificate. As people pointed out that drag queens and people trying to escape abusive situations have very good reasons for wanting to "hide" their real names, Facebook caved. 

As Cox explains: 
Facebook apologized for conflating legal names with “real names” and conceded that a legitimate identity may not be constituted by the name you were given at birth. Although Facebook failed to directly apologize to the members of the LGBTQ community disproportionately affected by the incident, Facebook’s concession is, in a sense, a deployment of Trans politics. The conceptual implications of their policy change are: somewhere, somehow, over the course of life, you go through a process of becoming, and your true identity may be something more elusive than what can be verified by a government document.
But in that model, you are still supposed to "find" your "true" self and then present that identity to the whole world. It still does not leave room for the fact that you may need to present different identities as different times, that you might, indeed, be more than one person to the world without nefarious plans in mind.

Caitlin Dewey explores two sides of the real name debate in this Washington Post article, and she situates the question over one of responsibility:
Whenever we talk about real names online, we’re really talking about personal identity. More than that, we’re talking about personal responsibility: Should you be held accountable for what you say and do online … or not? And who is holding you “accountable,” quote-unquote, for the collective breadcrumbs you drop online — your IRL friends? The government? The advertisers who pay dearly for every dribble of information about your “real,” money-spending self?
Accountability for your actions matters. Many of the blogs and news sites that I read have moved to authenticated log-in for commenters because we've learned time and time again that anonymity brings out some of the worst in human behavior. Making someone use their Facebook account to comment doesn't guarantee that they won't abuse and spew death threats, but it does seem to at least reduce the frequency of these posts.

While all of these questions about what's at stake in the real name debate are valid and certainly part of the equation, I think we're missing a more fundamentally rooted cause for this controversy. The debate over whether we have more than one identity and what's at stake in presenting that (or those) identity (or identities) is nothing less than a schism between modern and postmodern thought rearing its head in the midst of our everyday, popular culture.

The idea that we can "find" our "true" selves is one rooted in the modernist, positivist notion that there is one empirical truth waiting to be discovered. The idea that we have a "true" self (one that I took to task in a post about Knocked Up and explored again through Richard Sherman's rant) is a deeply troubling one because it doesn't allow for experience to shape us. If we have an "authentic" self hidden somewhere that we have to find, our experiences can be "right" or "wrong" in that they either lead us closer to our "real" selves or further away and into someone we were never "meant" to be. There are a lot of ironic quotation marks in that paragraph, but I think that we really need to question how easily terms like "real," "meant," and "authentic" roll off our tongues in this discussion. We have internalized a lot of modernistic assumptions about what it means to exist without even thinking about it. For many of us, the idea that we need to find our "true" selves is taken for granted. 

In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Wayne Booth explains that "[w]e are what we have consumed; we take in whatever takes us in, and we are forever altered." Every piece of art you view, every book you read, every movie you watch, and every interaction you have becomes a part of you, shapes who you are. He goes on to say that "[i]f man is essentially a rhetorical animal, his essential human act is that of making himself into a self, in symbolic communion with his fellows; that is, each of us makes himself or herself by assenting to and incorporating whoever and whatever represents life at its most immediate and persuasive. Our negatives are learned as we discover violations of our affirmings." 

In other words, the alteration that occurs from interacting with the world is not--as it is often presented--an unfortunate distraction from the real work of finding our "true" selves. It is, instead, the very work of being human. 

So the first thing that we need to call in question is that there is a "true" self in the first place. This is particularly troubling in my line of work (a composition instructor) where the way that we speak and write become an extension of our representations of self. Students who write in nonstandard dialects are often told they are using "improper" English and need to learn the "right" way in order to express themselves "properly." What this amounts to, essentially, is telling a student that the language (and thus the identity) from their home is not good enough and one that they need to get rid of in order to get ahead. If there is only one "authentic" self, then a student struggling with this is forced to make a choice between the identity they have in their home life or a more "proper" (if sterile and intimidating) academic version of themselves. 

It's also troubling in my personal life. I'm not a member of one of those groups who protested most forcefully against Facebook's "real name" policy (though several of my roller derby friends were none too thrilled). But I still think that I exist in many different personas and that I have the right to claim them all equally if not simultaneously. I am no more or less my "real" self when playing lumps in the bed with my daughter than I am when sitting in a coffee shop, stern faced and writing a dissertation. I am no more or less authentic when I'm quoting Snakes on a Plane and laughing with my husband than I am when I stand in front of my students and talk about the lessons of failure. I am all of those things and each one of them, and there is an important distinction between having to own them all simultaneously (something I think is impossible) and being able to slip in and out of them as the circumstances call them forward. 

Think about it this way: would you speak the same way to your grandma as you do to your best friend? Would you speak the same way to a three year old as you would to your boss? Would you speak the same way to your spouse/partner as you would to a client? If the answer is "no," then you are part of Zuckerberg's perceived "lack of integrity." (And if your answer is "yes," then I have some rhetoric lessons I need to give you.)

We adapt to the people around us because we are shaped by them and they are shaped by us. It is not only natural to switch your persona depending on who you're around; it's also the thoughtful thing to do. 

We have accepted many postmodern influences over our contemporary culture. The acceptance that there is no absolute truth is largely responsible for our shifting views on religion. (The number of religiously unaffiliated adults and atheists are both on the rise). Postmodern thought has definitely been in a reciprocal relationship with media as we see mashups and multi-platform texts splinter and reconnect in unexpected ways. 

Postmodern notions have also slammed into economic struggles to produce a workforce of young people who don't stay in positions long and who see interdisciplinary studies as the norm

Looking at all this flow of bits and pieces of culture that get blended, remixed, and repurposed, we might be tempted to think that modernist thought and the positivist drive for an empirical truth have gone the way of the pay phone. But the Facebook name debate (and the unsatisfactory nature of its "solution") demonstrate that we're really more modern than we pretend to be. At the very core of who we are, there is still an insistence for a stable center that does not, has not, and cannot exist, but we will continue to try to force one because it is much easier to look at a world where identities stand still. 

Photos: wolfgangfoto, Jason Wesley Upton, timoni west

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