Identifying Identity with Merinda Simmons

“Identifying Identity” offers a series of responses from members of Culture on the Edge to the following claim made by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg:

zuckerberg blurb

When I signed up for a Facebook account (I held out for a while, not really understanding the potential for something called a “social network” that combined two things to which I’m not particularly suited: technology and, well, social networking), I remember someone telling me in an attempt to explain the difference between how one presents oneself on Facebook vs. Myspace, “Facebook is like a posed photo. Myspace is more like a candid snapshot.” My friend was trying to help me get a sense of the format and layout of the two sites, how they would present the information and images I post to the cyberworld around me. His ultimate point in response to my privacy paranoias? Sure I had control, but I didn’t have control. I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since the controversy over Facebook’s “real-name policy” flared up. The policy starts off its list of cans and cant’s with the explanation, “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities.” And the list of things to keep in mind closes with, “Pretending to be anything or anyone isn’t allowed.” But what is clear from the posed/candid photo conversation is that how a person presents herself or himself—whether online or otherwise—necessarily depends on the perceptions of whomever is on the receiving end of that presentation. I am not suggesting that there is a clear point of origin or a discernable self that is then perceived or processed by someone else. Instead, I mean to focus our attention on the fact that a presentation of self or identity is always a process of negotiation. After all, there has to be someone taking the photo, whether candid or posed. And even with the onset of the selfie phenomenon, we take those pictures in order to send out for reception by others.

There’s something similar wrapped up in the notion of “identity theft.” We maintain the popular notion that there is a thing that we possess and that can be stolen… But embedded in that same idea is the fact that what we’re calling “identity” is something that is not locked (securely) inside ourselves but is instead something always in negotiation, a fluid and transferrable space of signification that someone else can appropriate. In that sense, I come back to Bayart’s focus on “operational acts of identification,” as it would seem there is no stand-alone “identity” in and of itself but only ever a process between two performative subjects. It’s interpellation 101, but it’s something of which people lose sight when they talk (as Zuckerberg arrogantly did) about identity as/and integrity—as something tied up with an idea about truth in advertising. Because even if we pursue truth in advertising ourselves, don’t we still have a marketing demographic or audience in mind?

To read the other posts in this series, search the Real Name tag.

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