A Fractal Self or Fragmentary Self? Reflections on digital identity

Image: Irina Pechkareva, via PublicDomainPictures.net (CC0 1.0)

Scroll this
Header image: Graphic Fractal Wave by Irina Pechkareva (CC0 1.0)

 

Reflecting on my digital identity for this post, I sought a neat metaphor to encapsulate my online life, and two descriptions emerged: the fractal self and the fragmentary self. Does my online self form like a fractal pattern, with complexity but also repetition and a fundamental order, design and consistency? Or is my digital identity more fragmentary, made from a whole but each fragment a unique, smaller and discrete piece? Both of these models are helpful, but also limited in understanding something as complex as identity. The fractal analogy is useful to describe patterns, such as repetition of usernames and handles (even the domain of this website) or profile pictures. But it doesn’t account for the difference in identity that occurs between platforms and over time. The fragmentary describes some of the chaos, unpredictability and tensions in online identity, particularly unconsciously created or performed identity, but struggles to describe the consistency in voice and self-image across digital accounts. Additionally, neither description answers the basic question of whether there is any fundamentally true identity that can be known and proven versus that which is performed or constructed (van der Ploeg & Pridmore 2015, p. 18).

In understanding my online self and seeking a overarching logic, applying some broad categorisations can provide neat schemas. For instance, below I have plotted my various social and digital media accounts against two axes: formality and activity. In self-assessing how active I am on any account as well as how formal I am, it is possible to create a simple matrix which provides some visual comparison between a portion of my online selves.

Mapping how different social and digital media accounts and identities rate in terms of activity and formality. Created by author, via Canva.

What insights emerge from mapping against these two scales? Firstly, the number of accounts on which I am quite active is small, is both professional and personal, and suited to different audiences. Similarly, looking at those platforms which are at either end of the formal scale, they are also diverse in audience, intention and style. But this simple taxonomy doesn’t reveal much about why any of these platforms is more or less used, or more or less formal in style. What becomes clear is that there are other factors that drive which are my most commonly used platforms and how I use them: whether I’m required to use them for work or study; the communication method on the platform; and where and who my audiences are. This last point is important, for audiences real and perceived, are central to identity: as Matthew Allen observes “we know who we are, in part, because of the audiences we attract” (We Are Now The Product: Experiencing Ourselves Online, 2016).

But does a more objective analysis reveal more about one’s digital self? There are a number of tools that attempt to provide some sort of metric to our online presence. Klout provides a set of measurements and comparisons to other social media users. This tool is of limited use: the creation and assignment of a ‘Klout Score’, based on an opaque algorithm offers little confidence or transparency in the metric, but a sense of various platforms’ contribution to overall online activity and commonly discussed topics can be useful in reflecting on one’s own digital identity. In the screenshot below, my ‘expert’ status on my home town of Melbourne and my employer Oxfam are unsurprising, given they are topics on which I am likely to post frequently.

Screenshot, via Klout.

Analyze Words is an another such tool, albeit with a much more specified and niche approach; taking a user’s last 100 tweets, Analyze Words evaluates the text of these tweets using a specific program to provide the user with an analysis of their tweets’ style. Turkle (cited in Wood & Smith, 2004, p. 58) says, ‘In … computer-mediated worlds, the self is multiple, fluid and constituted in interaction with machine connections; it is made and transformed by language’. So what can the language I use online tell me about my digital self?

Presentation via Prezi.com

So does that analysis match my own conception of my online identity? There are some surprises: I consider myself a positive person, so a high rating for ‘depressed’ language runs counter to the online personality I presumed was broadcast. Dich (2016, p. 100) observed while studying online sub-communities that ‘identities are complex, shifting, and dispersed.’ It thus seems reasonable to conclude that our online identities shift throughout context and over time, influenced by our changing online and offline circumstances.

In considering the changes in my online personality over time, compare my first tweet, with one more recent.

My first tweet references a friend, who created an account for me in order to encourage my joining the platform, and implies a broadcast audience in referencing the ‘twitterverse’. My second tweet retains a tone and personality of humour, but is more sophisticated in referencing other tweets and online discourse, and a deliberately awkward use of hashtags. While some elements of my online expression have changed, for instance my understanding of the platform and ability to use its protocols with more nuance, other elements have stayed the same, specifically the tone and personality I try to convey; what is impossible to know is whether my audience considers there to be greater or lesser change. The below tweet is a good example of my evolving online identity.

It was written to take advantage of the online zeitgeist, and is indicative of the online personality that I (consciously) perform: politically aware, humorous, informal and familiar. As a result of being quite specifically written to produce a reaction in the intended audience, using hashtags and tagging relevant public personalities it was a comparatively popular tweet. Informed by the social online environment, the tweet and its popularity consequently informed my own digital personality and practice.

Dich (2016, p.100) defined ‘our experiences and identities as conditions of public writing and as related to the material and imagined spaces we may want to access, change, or shape’. In reviewing, reflecting and evaluating my online persona, presence and production, it seems that online identity is a function of activity, as much as activity is a function of identity; our identity is reactive and iterative. In this sense, we are what we do; our actions in the digital world reflect our identity, but our identity is in turn shaped by our actions: ‘the self as an effect of representation’ (Poletti & Rak 2014, p.6). Returning to my initial metaphors, our online identities are simultaneously fragmentary and fractal; the whole is more defined by the pieces, than the pieces defined by the whole.

Word count: 1,047

 

My broader ALC708-related online activity

My broader online engagement with the unit has been primarily through my Twitter account (@JezRSH), where I have shared resources and articles as conversation starters and food for thought. This has been both proactive and reactive, as detailed below:

  • 19 tweets, many of them links to articles
  • 5 retweets, also often links to articles
  • 29 replies, indicating I have a preference for engaging in a ‘live’ conversation
  • 2 unit-specific blog posts at jezrsh.com (Self-consciousness 2.0, The Panaccomptary)
  • 1 new social media account (WeChat)
  • Participation in regular and ad hoc video events (Zoom, Periscope)
  • Reading and commenting on content shared by other students

 

References

Dich, L 2016 ‘Community Enclaves and Public Imaginaries: Formations of Asian American Online Identities’, Computers and Composition, Vol. 40, June 2016, pp. 87–102.

Ploeg, I van der & Pridmore, J 2015, ‘Introduction: Digitizing Identities’, in I van der Ploeg & J Pridmore (eds), Digitizing Identities: doing identity in a networked world, Routledge, New York, pp. 13-30.

Poletti, A & Rak, J 2014, ‘Introduction: Digital Dialogues’ in A Poletti & J Rak (eds), Identity Technologies Constructing the Self Online, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 3-11.

We Are Now The Product: Experiencing Ourselves Online 2016, SoundCloud, Digital Zones, 9 May 2016, retrieved 4 April, 2017, <https://soundcloud.com/adamgbrown/we-are-now-the-product-experiencing-ourselves-online>

Wood, A F & Smith, M J 2004, Online Communication: linking technology, identity and culture, 2nd edn, Taylor and Francis, New York.

%d bloggers like this: