Friday, November 11, 2011

Identity in Social Media: Constructions or Meltdowns

We've all read the cautionary tale about the pre-teen who is "friended" by someone who also seems to be a similarly angst-y pre-teen or "tweener" - whose middle school pressures are almost as bad as the new-found distrust of and distaste for one's parents. The "friend" turns out to be a much older predator, and the outcome is tragic.

Some may have read about or watched the film, Catfish (dir. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2010), which had to do with a young NYC filmmaker, Nev Schulman, who (along with his filmmaker buddies) decided to film himself falling in love with the older sister of an 8-year-old artistic prodigy whose paintings, while definitely in the "outsider art" realm and "realist primitivism," started to have a following on Facebook. To make a long story short, the cast of characters - the mother, the 8-year-old, the older sister -- that the filmmaker interacted with were completely fictive. The NYC filmmaker, who said he wanted to meet his new-found love on her horse farm in the upper peninsula of Michigan, claimed to be devastated (and he filmed himself finding out the truth).

Not surprisingly, the film was met with a surge of skepticism -- the filmmaker was accused of orchestrating the entire thing, and the woman, whose schizoid inventions populated the web, was viewed as a rather pathetic attention-seeker and reality avoider.

The bigger picture is this: What do you do when almost everything in the virtual world is just that -- virtual, and a construction -- and yet the feelings that are lived by the people behind the avatars are real?

This applies to online learning as well. Although you go by your own name in the online classroom, you are, in essence, creating an avatar, or an alternative proxy self by which you interact. You also go through progressive collective socialization, which may, in the end, either help you or hinder you as you make your way through the discussion boards, collaborative activities, and interactions with your instructor.


In the virtual world, individuals often craft identities in isolation and they project them into cyberspace. They are not constrained by the reality checks of a circle of friends, family, or co-workers, and their socialization process is utterly different than in a regular community or cohort group. This is potentially liberating, but also potentially isolating.

Each person, as he or she learns to interact with people, develops identity-construction techniques as a part of the socialization process. What are these identity-construction techniques? Where are they used? Many times, the identity construction techniques are used to cope in a world that is often critical and absolute in its insistence upon conformity.

For the average person in a group environment where there is social interaction, the identity-construction process occurs via clothing, gestures, vocabulary, activities, humor, narrative and story-telling. In short, it is a living theater, and the participants and successful group members become skillful actors.

For the unfortunate ones who are not necessarily adept at acting or at picking up cues, or who lack the resources (physical, financial, or emotional) to participate in this kind of socialization, there are consequences to pay for social ineptitude. They are often ostracized or marginalized. For others who are chronically "a beat behind" when it comes to assessing the strategies used by others to modify behavior in order to conform to the dominant ethos, the ability to create a virtual identity in cyberspace becomes very appealing.

Needless to say, cyber identity-creation can become an addiction, particularly as the new "cyber-persona" meets with positive reception to others who believe and respond to the alter ego / virtual identity as though it were real. The positive reinforcement found in this activity exerts a strong pull on a naturally introverted person, and when it is coupled with the cognitive/kinaesthetic "rewards" found in the Internet via sensory stimulation, there is no doubt that the individual will be tempted to retreat even further from the "real" world.

For that reason, in ideal conditions, a student in an online course should have group interactions with people where socialization processes are occurring. In the so-called "real world," the interactions can occur either via workplace interactions or in community activities. It can be very interesting to integrate online activities with in-person activities, in order to close the separation between what can become a fantasy persona and one's real self.

With social networks, it's important to be mindful of socialization processes, and to be aware of what you need to do in order to stay in touch with your group.

It is important to realize that often the person who is "one beat behind" in being able to assess the steps necessary to mold himself or herself into the dominant ethos may be a person who has struggled with social isolation. In other words, their social rejection has not occurred without some degree of psychic pain. If the individual has been punished or subjected to verbal or physical abuse, there could be a latent desire for avenging oneself. And, if the rejection or social ostracization has occurred due to physical appearances, it is quite likely that the individual will create a cyber-persona that possesses the attributes that he or she wishes to have. As a strategy for personal empowerment, building a cyber-persona can be ultimately futile, and the identity is complex and contradictory when one desires to operate as an all-powerful, all-knowing presence who is simultaneously "cool" and indifferent to "cool," who possesses both an omnipresent in-your-face visual presence and an ability to be absolutely invisible.

The proliferation of individuals displaying these psychological characteristics (to varying degrees) is a natural outgrowth of the availability of the Internet, and the ease by which one creates a persona and is able to act out unacknowledged desires. Needless to say, the identity-construction elements, and the virtual-travel abilities (including invading the spaces of others), are most appealing to those who do not flourish in traditional social settings. Ironically, those who are most talented in the cyber-world are the least likely to be comfortable with a guide or mentor. But, they are the ones who need them most. It is imperative that society find ways to provide them with a trusted personal mentor and guide because the damage that misguided identity construction and cyber-travel (hacking, etc.) can do can be quite extensive, with far-reaching consequences.

The trusted mentor-guide presence is more important than ever given the times and current socio-economic situation of global interconnectedness. On a personal level, individuals are likely to have dysfunctional attitudes toward their identity-creation activities in our current setting of fragmenting family structures, eroding communities, disappearing support systems, and increasing isolation.

The mentor-guide in an Internet-based course is a grounding presence, and any person who decides to assume this role will have to be aware that the safety and seeming anonymity of the Internet may give rise to more trust and dependence than the mentor has been prepared for. The learner may project his/her own problems onto the mentor, become dependent, confess personal issues, and become emotionally cathected. Ironically, this can occur without either having any idea of the real appearance of the other. Usually they have never met each other in person and never will.

However frightening this prospect is, it is necessary to look at it as an indication of the positive effects that Internet-based courses can have, if they establish a strong mentor-learner relationship in a safe, guiding environment. The mentor and learner can come to experience the Internet as critical elements in an increasingly inter-dependent (rather than independent) world, which teaches, models, and reinforces mutual caring, compassion, and respect.

The fostering of a positive environment for identity-creation and guided socialization (via the Internet) is very important for successful navigation in a world increasingly focused on appearances and first impressions, where long-term commitments have been supplanted by short-term relationships based on performance and/or convenience, and where human frailty is made invisible or is consumed / cannibalized so that the strong survive.

The online learner exists in a world that mediates itself between the "real" (where the people he/she interacts with are successful actors in the roles accepted by the community), and the "virtual" (where the identities she interacts with have successfully created identities that represent their deepest desires of who / what they would like to be in the world).

Both worlds require adaptation and socialization.

One can use the virtual world / Internet to provide:
-- positive guidance via a mentor
-- increased self-awareness on the part of the learner which allows him or her to contemplate
-- what he/she would do if empowered
-- how she appears in the mirror-space created by the Internet; for the first time she is able to look deeply and see what he or she would like to be, how to be that entity, when the persona is appealing, who the created persona would like to interact with (and how), and what the persona wants to do at various times and places.

Such self-knowledge could be a lamp in a dark existence, and could help deal with deeper issues. Not only can the guide-mentor relationship create better citizens, with equipped with new skills and strategies for living in a rapidly changing world, it can also address the problems and underlying factors that give rise to cyber-criminals. Further, the mentor can guide the student to an awareness that can allow her or him to remove the barriers that have been blocking his or progress. This will give learners a new opportunity to develop a vision of themselves or of where they want to be, and to guide themselves to a new understanding of how, and when to take steps along a path to a better existence.

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