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The following text was first written in Fench under the title "Troubles d'identité ou identité trouble?" as part of a course given at Fribourg University, Switzerland.

Troubling the question of identity

To begin with, our identity serves to distinguish us from others. I am neither you, nor he, nor she, nor it. I'm me. I'm convinced of it. Our identity, as we experience it, is a conviction born out of the difference between the rest and I. It is no doubt reassuring to feel we know where we stop and where the others begin, even if the dividing line is quite imaginary.

Then comes the question "Who am I?" Who is this "I" that I feel I am? For the vast majority of us, the "I" that I am is unique in the world, coherent in its meaning, undivided in space (and meaning) and continuous in time at least for the duration of a lifetime. But if I insist with my question "Who am I?", beyond the face that peers out of the mirror at me, beyond the roles I play in society, beyond the body that transports me, it is not at all easy to grasp exactly who I am, what my identity is.

When Sherry Turkle in her book "Life on the Screen" talks of "multiple identities" being experimented on the Net, is she really talking of identity? When Howard Rheingold in his book "The Virtual Community" talks of "dissolving the frontiers of identity", what can it really be that is being dissolved?

The trouble with this discussion of identity - for it is troubled - lies on the one hand in a confusion about the meaning of the word "identity" and on the other, our attitude as a society towards our perception of ourselves and others.

When we speak of identity, we often mean the facets of a personality or the roles we play. If we were to temporarily consider the identity of a person to encompass all the characteristics and actions of that person, without taking into consideration the possible contradictions between them, identity would always be by definition singular. After all, most of us feel singular not plural. Such a definition corresponds, at least superficially, to our impression of ourselves and the world around us.

The aggregate identity on the Net

When we speak of Internet and identity, it is above all that aggregate identity we are talking of. That is to say, the collection of ways by which a person manifests himself or herself now and in the past. On the Net, it is a question of writing as well as memories of past meetings, if there have been any.

Sherry Turkle talks of personal Web pages as an illustration of a new notion of identity. The use of the word "identity" doesn't seem the most appropriate to me here. It is a more a question of how you present yourself. In publishing personal pages, we put forward facets of ourselves that we want seen. Although, as in life, we unwittingly uncover aspects of ourselves that we might have preferred to have kept hidden. By "present", I mean putting forward a given image of oneself. To a certain extent, to present yourself on the Web has to do with being present in the "virtual" world of the Net. If you don't have a site, you don't exist. As far as companies are concerned, but also many individuals, the first steps on the Web are aimed at staking out a territory, being seen and known. That doesn't mean that publishing pages is limited to underscoring one's presence.

Note that the Web, as it is used for personal pages, is not really a means of interaction between people. It is more a form of publication, a presentation, a representation. As it is through exchange with the other person that we can verify the hypotheses we have about who it is we have opposite us, it is much more difficult to size cross-check who is behind the personal pages we visit.

Exploring new facets of oneself

Through written forms of exchange of the Internet, like chats or forums, it easier - up to a certain extent - to explore facets of oneself that a face-to-face contact would belie. I say "to a certain extent" for we have the possibility to judge the credibility of the presentation the other gives of him or herself by referring to our past experience. This evaluation, as mentioned above, is a question of dialogue and observation.

At first sight, it is this ease of being otherwise than in a face-to-face relationship that raises questions, if not indignation. It is here that our perception of others and ourselves as shaped by society comes into play. Let me put forward the hypothesis that until recently and probably even now, we expect of others and they expect of us a set of personal characteristics that are coherent and predictable. This is probably what Turkle is referring to when she talks of identity being "unitary and solid" in the past.

Several clues point to our attachment to this idea of the individual as "unitary". Why should we, for example, feel so betrayed by someone who obtains our confidence and our friendship being a woman online when it turns out to be a man in the "physical" world. Did that person really mislead us about him or herself?

This ability to adopt others forms and different personalities online in our relations with others and the possibility that it offers to break with our expectations that individuals are "unitary" may explain why Rheingold talks of the dissolution of identity. Of course, it is not so much the identity that is dissolved but rather our shared perception of the individual as singular, coherent, stable and predictable.

From doing to being

By way of conclusion, it is important to stress that the feeling we have of our identity and that of others is not limited to the sum of our characteristics and our actions. There is something more profound in our identity that has to do with being rather than doing. I exist even if I do absolutely nothing. The feeling of presence we have of others in a relationship - the force with which the other exists for us - is largely dependant on the way the other person has us feel that identity which springs from a strength of being and which can only be manifested over the Internet through the choice (and possibly the layout) of words.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

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Created: June 19th, 2001 - Last up-dated: June 19th, 2001