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Identity: Tell me, who are you?

Who are you? Who are you now, and is that the same person you always are and always were?

I’ve always played with identity. As a child I was imaginative and, let’s say, indiscriminate about the boundary between reality and fantasy. The first sign of this may have been when I was five and screamed for days because my parents said my imaginary friend couldn’t move to our new house. A couple years later they began dropping me off at Sunday School with instructions to go to church alone afterwards. (As an adult, I understand that they relished their child-free Sunday mornings more than they cared to adhere to the dictates of Roman Catholicism. Fair enough.) I would sit on the hard pew and imagine I was blind. Or maybe deaf. I’d concentrate on what senses would still be available and try to tune out the one I “lost”. Sometimes I’d refuse to say any words aloud because then, I was a girl who didn’t speak English.

Harlequin 1

It isn’t uncommon for little girls to have a phase of fantastical confusion, but usually other interests or maturity put an end to it. I read this compelling New York magazine article about the two girls who stabbed their friend in the so-called “Slender Man attack” with empathy and growing discomfort. Luckily my crazy imagination never extended to violence and I channeled my make believe into society-approved acting and writing. Nevertheless, it’s embarrassing to recall how much I lied. Sometimes the reason was manipulation — inventing a dire health crisis to get extra time for chemistry lab reports — but often it seemed the stories came out of my mouth before I processed them anywhere else. Why on earth would I spontaneously pretend to be an exchange student from England when I knew almost nothing about the place and my accent came from playing Anna in “The King and I”?  That’s who I became to the cashier of a bookstore I visited on a field trip. WTF, younger me?

In my 20s I began to make a conscious effort to stop lying. The impulse remains in me as a stress reaction. It’s commonly said that people who compulsively lie do so for attention, but that couldn’t be further from my truth. I might lie to blend in, or to end or shorten an awkward conversation, or to divert attention from something I don’t want to discuss. It’s rare; usually I cage the lies behind my teeth before they leap out.

But, what about sliding into different identities online? Where are the lines drawn between performing a role, exploring parts of oneself, and outright lying?

I’ve had a blog off and on, mostly on, for 14 years. As a blogger I am honest in the way that a 2×4 board is not exactly two inches by four inches, yet it’s accepted as such until there’s a need for precise measurements. I may change names and locations and mess with timelines. I skim over details. The emotional and intellectual content is always as true as I can make it, but the rest is flexible enough to condense for narrative clarity or warp for privacy. I feel that my blogging identity is synchronous with who I am offline. You wouldn’t be greatly surprised when meeting me in the physical world after reading this site.

Identity with multiple avatars in a virtual world is more complicated. Take this scenario as an example: someone who knows I have multiple Second Life avatars invites me to come to a dance club, and I reply, “Let me sign on as Kay, because my alt doesn’t go to places like that.” I am the conscious person who animates both avatars and my reply makes it clear that I’m comfortable going to the club. Who, then, is not?

Before you say that I simply draw a line between two roles that I play online, let me add that if I went to that club as my alt, I — physical me — would feel the mild distress of being in a place that is out of my comfort zone. If I changed to my main avatar I’d feel confident and at ease in the same place. Both of them are me, but I have parceled out my personality among them and though they’re more alike than they used to be, some differences remain. Luckily for most people who meet me online, I’ve put most of my hostility and anger into my rarely-used second alt, but beware if you ever run across her. She can be a monster.

He sat to take a photo with me

When I’m in SL, I make an attempt to be honest or silent about my RL. My online identity may only reflect a portion of who I really am, but it is consistent and leaves open the possibility for people to get to know me better. That hasn’t always been the case, but it is now. That doesn’t mean I welcome conversations about offline details until I know someone well, but I’m not part of the “SL is SL, RL is RL” contingent (valid and perfectly acceptable, just not me). Considering my childhood, it’s a little surprising that I don’t enjoy online roleplaying. I’ve tried, but I can’t pretend for long before I want to make deeper connections with more authenticity. And, I frakking hate paragraph-style roleplay… but that’s another topic.

This topic was on my mind because I gave birth to a new identity over the weekend. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to use a pen name for my serious writing. I’m a private person and whether I have any success or not, I want a buffer between me-the-author and me-the-person. The timing was right. I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing about her early days as a poet and writer:

If I had suspected anything about the role I would be expected to fulfill, not just as a writer, but as a female writer — how irrevocably doomed! — I would have flung my leaky blue blob-making ballpoint pen across the room, or plastered myself over with an impenetrable nom de plume, like B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose true identity has never been discovered. Or, like Thomas Pynchon, I would never have done any interviews, nor allowed my photo to appear on book jackets; but I was too young then to know about such ruses, and by now it is far too late.

We live in a media-saturated time and I’m no Pynchon, so I don’t expect to remain effectively anonymous, but simply detached. Atwood talks about the dual nature of being a writer, which I can relate to so well. It was the following section from her book that convinced me it was time to give my writing doppelganger a distinct name.

Now, what disembodied hand or invisible monster just wrote that cold-blooded comment? Surely it wasn’t me; I am a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long. Anyway, that cold-blooded comment was a couple of lines ago. That was then, this is now, you never step twice into the same paragraph, and when I typed out that sentence I wasn’t myself. …I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person — the one credited with authorship — is certainly not me. She could never be imagined — for instance — turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread….

What to call the writer-me who takes sympathetic characters and tortures them mercilessly? My husband and I brainstormed a list of first names and then I pulled a few surnames from books I love, we mashed them together in different arrangements, checked them in Google, and said them aloud. I had to change the spelling of the surname I preferred, but then, there she was. I showered her with gifts to solidify her reality: a domain name and website, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook account. Eventually I hope she’ll be like a uniform I slip on for work; not as comfortable as my home clothes and with some different rules of behavior attached, but still me inside.

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Digital artifacts: how the meaning of photos has changed

I’ve been thinking about digital artifacts lately. There are the digitized remnants of our lives that we choose to keep — old files, emails, photos, videos — backed up and moved from one storage device to another. But there are also traces of our existence that spread in ways that they never might have before. It’s a challenge for future historians and anthropologists. Consider: If you found a photo of a girl in a pile of old papers, in a musty envelope inside a trunk in your grandfather’s attic, you could reasonably assume that girl was someone important to him. She was probably a family member. Could you make the same assumption about a photo that you find in an unsorted Pictures folder on a hard drive?

We lose track of pieces of ourselves that we release into the ether. The recent celebrity personal photo hack was one example; a couple of the victims claimed they didn’t know their photo cloud backups existed. I’ve exchanged thousands of personal photos online in the past 20 years and I have no idea how many of them still exist on hard drives or web servers. Though I assume most have been lost or deleted, there are probably more photos of me in the forgotten files of near-strangers than I have myself.

kay_age2

Me at age 2, rocking some pink polka dots. Go ahead: save it and confuse your heirs.

 

In my backup files, I have photos of countless people whose names I can’t recall. I have pictures of their kids, of family events, of vacations. There are photos of strangers too: perhaps someone from a personal fashion blog wearing an outfit I liked or a picture from Flickr that caught my eye. Unlike my husband, who is an organized and complete digital packrat, my files are a mess and there are few clues. Is that a photo of my brother, a friend, or a stranger? Sometimes even I’m not sure.

Of course, this is not entirely new. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I looked at some old photos of my grandmother as a girl. Some of them had labels identifying siblings or friends in the pictures, but there were also a few question marks and images that were completely blank. My grandmother is 98 years old; if she doesn’t fill in the information soon, it will never be done. However, an unknown childhood friend in a photo from 1926 is different from today’s situation. The number of photos almost unrelated to our lives that we keep has increased beyond measure with the ease of digital photography and nearly unlimited storage space.

I’ve done some amateur genealogy and I’m always excited when I can find an image related to long-lost ancestors. I have a scanned photo of my great-great-great grandparents who left France in the 1840s. It’s fascinating to me to examine their faces, look for traits that have passed down, and wonder about their lives. Since I have no children of my own, however, I feel freed from the burden of future generations. Who will give a damn what Great-Aunt Kay looked like? I don’t worry much about curating my own collection of images. Maybe some future owner of my archives will imagine a much more exciting story based on the variety of things I’ve saved. More likely, they’ll end up as a scramble of bytes on a dead hard drive in a landfill. I’m not sure if it’s amusing, reassuring, or a bit ghastly to think that even then, somewhere, in someone else’s more carefully kept storage, I’ll live on.

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A tangential side note: This morning, an automated mail from networking site LinkedIn encouraged me to congratulate a former colleague on his work anniversary. I suspect that Philip, who always had a hearty laugh and a joke at hand, would be annoyed to find he’s still working after dying earlier this year. Unless someone is still sending him a paycheck and signing off on an ample expense account, that is. Philip’s family archived his Facebook account but probably didn’t consider, or couldn’t access, other social media and online accounts. Ironically, Philip’s work life has outlived his social or physical lives.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2014 in Culture, Relationships

 

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