Some thoughts on Identity

(I was going to be writing a post inspired by the Brainy Snail all about Archaeology and Web 2.0, but I got sidetracked by identity and accessibility. I’ve dealt with accessibility, so I figure if I deal with identity now, *1* I can move on to Web 2.0/Archaeology after that. Well, that’s my cunning plan anyway).

Usernames and pseudonyms have been part of my life since my mid teens when I was introduced to MSN, message boards, and ORP (online role-playing) all at once. I never thought twice about signing into MSN as “Tocasia” at the time – Tocasia was the character I played most, it was how all the people I had on my buddy-list knew me, and it was fun to be something other than plain Claire for a while. Like countless other bullied and shy teenagers, I turned to D&D and the Internet as a way of escaping a life that, at the time, wasn’t a bundle of laughs. I was fortunate. Playing a character, and chatting to others from behind a mask comprised of the anonymity of the Internet, helped me to gain a new sense of identity, and gave me some stable foundations on which I was able to rebuild (up to a point) my shattered self-esteem. To this day I regret nothing about the years I floated around the WotC boards. I slew dragons, became mayor (long story), pulled pints (even longer story), and made friends with people I would have never had the courage to talk to otherwise. Even now there are occasions when I am in a situation that scares the crap out of me, and to get through it I go, “how would Cas handle this?” There are people who still call me “Cas” to my face and I am fine with this – Cas, I always say, is the better half of Claire.

As I have grown older, however, I have come to appreciate more and more the flaws in this argument. The world in which we live in, especially the academic world in which I spend my days, invests a lot of time and effort in the idea of reputation, and reputation is inextricably linked to identity. The argument goes that you need identity to hold proper conversations – I need to be able to hang everything I already know about you from past conversations on the you-shaped blob in my mind that I identify as “Jim”. It doesn’t necessarily matter that “Jim” isn’t the name on your checkbook, but I need to be able to associate the Jim I am talking to now with Jim whose papers I have read, because it is from these papers that I get an idea of Jim’s reputation, and hence how to interact with him.

To this end, a name becomes your passport. It is generally assumed that, whilst there might be many John Smiths’, there will be only one John Smith born to particular parents at a particular time and place. This name is then attached to everything you write and say, becoming a short-hand to place ideas and research. If I hold a conversation with my supervisor and say “S. Jones, 2004” he will immediately know what article I mean, and with that the whole weight of Jones’ ideas will be brought into the conversation. I could also mention that Dr. W. Bailey has a new book out, and we might all burst out laughing – we have identified in our minds the Bailey I’m talking about, we know his reputation as a bit of an idiot, so we automatically assume that his new work will be more of the same. This might be unfair to Dr. Bailey, but it is the point of reputation – I have two books to choose from, Jones’ and Bailey’s, and only time to read one. I will, every time, choose Jones’ because I know from past experience that the person I identify in my mind as Jones knows what she is talking about, whilst Bailey is a bit of a hair-do.

What would happen if Jones decided to get married and changed her name to reflect this? Suddenly I am faced with a new article by a Dr. S. Watson. If I am unaware that Dr. S. Jones and Dr. S. Watson are one and the same, I am much less likely to treat Watson with the same respect, at least till “Watson” has rebuilt her reputation in my mind. It is a common complaint that women feel their identities are swallowed up by their husbands’ when they marry. This is not just womanly fancy. It is, up to a point, true.

The same holds true, to a degree, for conversations and personal interactions. The currency of friendship and intimacy is a reciprocal, gradual revealing of personal information, that most often starts with name and location. Your name is the thing upon which hangs everything else I know about you. It is no accident people name-drop. We are social creatures and one way we gage how “important” another person is, is by finding out who they know in turn. If they know intelligent/popular/powerful people then they in turn must have some worthwhile attributes. Cool by association, while shallow and harsh, is how a lot of things work.

Our culture also has embedded “identity norms” about authenticity in personal interactions, and one of these is the assumption that the person I am talking to is who they claim to be. Legal name may be irrelevant in many cases – so long as I have some form of name for you – but verification is not. I need to know that the MickeyMouse I am talking to now is the same MickeyMouse I was talking to earlier on, who has the associated “MickeyMouse reputation” in my head.

All the time then, we carry a picture of a person in our heads, and the name by which we know them is frequently the best handle by which to grasp, and hence organise, that information. So what happens in situations on the Internet where anonymity and pseudonymity are touted as the norm?

(I will be using myself as a case study here).

I have already mentioned how I came early to the idea of a second pseudonymous identity. By the time I was at university, I was referred to as “Cas” in the majority of online contexts, and my (online) reputation was starting to get inextricably linked in peoples minds with that identity. At the same time, I was taking baby steps into the world of archaeological academia. Due to the existence of another “CK” in the faculty, I made the conscious decision to start using my second name again. (What people assume is my middle name is actually a second forename that I just don’t use). Four years later, and “CLK” is also starting to garner a reputation and make an identity.

When I started keeping a regular online journal, which later morphed into Bright Meadow, there was no contest – it was online, so I was ‘Cas’. I wanted a separation between my offline and my online identities and saw no reason for the two to overlap. As time has progressed, however, especially in the past six months as my online and offline activities have started to converge, I have started to wonder at the wisdom of this.

There are many reasons why one might want to be anonymous or assume a pseudonym (Marx has written a great paper on this), but if there isn’t honesty in identification, then there should at least be honesty in indicating that a pseudonym is used. With obvious pseudonyms such as “Moose” or “the Cute Canadian” this isn’t a problem. The problem comes, I feel, when you use a name such as “Cas”, which is too much like a real name.

I find myself engaging in conversations through email and IM with individuals who think that “Cas” is my real identity. They want to commission Cas to do a piece of work, and then get confused when they have to pay “CLK”.

I think my point is, at what point in a relationship do I reveal that the pseudonym that people have got to know me under is just that, a nom de guerre for CLK? Is it possible to maintain a working relationship with people in such a pseudononymous environment? Clearly up to a point it is, as shown by the prevalence of authors writing under pen-names. Robin Hobb used “Megan Lindholm” when she was just starting out, whilst, Ruth Rendell uses “Barbara Vine” to distinguish her genres, as does Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks. Voltaire was just a pen-name, and the Bronte sisters were first published under psuedonyms to avoid the stigma they felt was attached to their gender. But to operate, the ‘secret’ of these peoples identities surely has to be known to at least a few people (you would hope their editor, if no one else). Just look at the recent kurffle that is happening in the states over the revelation that James Frey apparently made up huge portions of his memoirs (never mind the lingering doubts over his/her identity). How can I parlay “Cas” and “Bright Meadow” into a successful online brand, when the business-sphere with all that is implied in terms of money and contracts, relies very heavily on accountable, traceable, and ‘real’ identities.

Corollary to this point is the question I am struggling to answer for myself – do I really want to keep the Cas and the CLK identities separate? As far as papers written for archaeological academia are concerned, I am CLK all the way, no debate. When I blog, or write an online article, then I am Cas, again, no question about it. But, and this is where I am getting a little stuck, do I want to meld the two identities so that people researching my CLK work also discover my Cas work (and visa versa)? Or do I want Cas and CLK to be kept distinct (as much as possible). Would it harm, or possibly enhance, my reputation as CLK if it became widely know that I blogged (& wrote) as Cas? Part of the joy of blogging for me is that I am able to truly express my opinions free from academic constraints. For example, not having to back up my arguments with ten different pieces of evidence, is rather liberating. At the same time, throughout my blogging you can trace the development of ideas, many of which found their way (in highly altered form) into my thesis. Bright Meadow, and my other online writings, could be seen as a playground for my thoughts – those that survive the bullying of the Internet are worthy to be developed further. As such, fellow academics would surely benefit from reading what Cas has written on top of my more traditional material. Conversely, readers of Cas might be more willing to sit still and listen if they were also aware of the work of CLK – it might serve to show that I’m not making this all up, or talking out of my hat, but that there is a brain lurking under the hood somewhere.

Then again, to many, the knowledge that I blog could be construed as trivializing my academic work. This holds especially true in my field where the majority are suspicious of anything involving the new-fangled technology of the Internet – if it hasn’t been peer-reviewed and sourced to the nth degree, then it casts doubts on your reputation as a ‘serious’ academic. At the moment, it doesn’t take Colombo to put 2 + 2 together to get CLK = Cas, but it does take a modicum of understanding of how the Internet works, and a willingness to sift through search results that are displayed on page 10 of a Google search, not page 1. More than having to know where to look, you have to know to look in the first place.

I genuinely have no idea which is the better course of action, and as usual, writing this post has thrown up more questions than I can answer, but if individuals really are the new group, then this question of identity is only going to gain in importance, not diminish.

*1*“Deal” here meaning “talk about”. I don’t think any one post can ever ‘deal’ with Identity. Rather I hope just to make y’all think for a moment.Back

Further reading:
Kevin Kelly, More anonymity is good
Bruce Schneier, Anonymity Won’t Kill the Internet
Mitch Ratcliffe, Making Wikipedia Better, Part II
Gary T. Marx, What’s in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity
Stowe Boyd, Individuals Are The New Group

And the post that kicked my brain into action:
Ross Mayfield, Freedom of Anonymous Speech
identity, anonymity, pseudonymity, reputation, individuals, individuals new group, freedom of anonymous speech

5 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Identity

  1. Hmm. I use my pseudonyms because I don’t like my real name. I’ve always wanted a cool nickname.
    Plus, I feel like I’m shaping myself more by naming myself (although that sounds very hippy vision quest-ish…)
    Oh, and before Moose rocks up and points it out, you used that “y’all” contraction she hates so much again.

  2. I’ve always wanted a cool nickname as well! No diminutive has ever stuck (though the CC persists in calling my ‘shorty’ :rolleyes_wp: ) Oh, and there was that unfortunate six months were Lizzy was determined ‘Clarry-Bell’ suited me…

    Seems there are fates worse than being CLK.

    And I used that y’all as an attempt to smoke Moose out into commenting again. Though she does have a point when she says it’s a bit silly commenting on the blog when she just has to walk 1.5 m down a corridor to say something to my face…

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