Identity is prismatic.
-Christopher “moot” Poole
The nature of identity is something with which I routinely grapple, though rarely discuss. One of my least favourite pieces of advice, commonly given to children, is the trite suggestion that one “should not change around other people: always be yourself”. On the surface it sounds like good advice and the core message that you should not change for other people, or simply to be liked, is sound. However in many cases it is likely to lead to much confusion and self-doubt amongst the more self-aware children who realise just how different they are around different people. This is not through any sense of personal artificiality, but simply because we expose different facets of ourselves to different people — or, from another perspective, different people will naturally draw out different aspects of our personality. Even a mask we don may be reflective of ourselves if it is one we voluntarily adopt.
This was, perhaps, made clearer because I moved in circles where — both online and offline — people frequently adopted alternative monikers rather than their “real” names. Sometimes these worlds would merge and identity became a blurred, less easily distinguishable notion. My parents would occasionally answer the phone to have someone request their son, but by an online handle or another name. This was in no way a rebellion against the name they had chosen (which they came to understand), but simply a more accurate label for my identity within the group.
It is a problem I have with this very site, since I produce it all as coming from a single, somewhat artificial, entity. The result is that some part of the mixed output here is likely to baffle most people who know me. Those who like the photography may be less interested in the blog’s gaming or tech posts, while those who appreciate the latter will often look with disdain on the old poetry (by their age inherently juvenile and no longer entirely representative, yet I am uncomfortable with the idea of removing them).
This arose again recently in a talk by Christopher “moot” Poole on the subject of online identity and how best to mirror the subtle complexities of human interaction in the more starkly defined digital world. Since creating the 4chan message boards as a teenager, Poole has become the media poster child for online anonymity, despite the fact he actually takes a more nuanced and pragmatic approach the concept. He highlights the step back we have taken from the web’s origins in which we chose our own monikers, which might differ from place to place, to the current state of social networking. His key point was that social networks like Facebook and Google+ expect a single account to encompass all facets of an individual’s identity, their solution being only from the perspective of the visibility of each post. This, he argues, is back-to-front as we really cultivate various personalities to whom different people may have access. These services misunderstand the core problem: “it’s not who you share with, but who you share as“. He views twitter (specifically the use of handles and the ease with which it allows an individual to maintain multiple accounts) as being a model which more accurately reflects human identity. The result is a stream that is more interest-driven than identity-driven. Of course, the vast majority of users have only a single twitter account…