This work will serve to reflect on the changing discourse on the subject of identity in virtual context, paying particular attention to race as a social construct carried over into the digital. I aim to push forward study that has contended with the budding sociality found on the internet in its early stages and appraising what has come to pass in the present. I ultimately intend to demonstrate that identity matters online, and its trappings – race, gender, socioeconomic strata — matter more insofar as its commodification in an economic system generated by the new social media by engaging in participant-observation within the social realms of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Second Life with a trained eye upon the social construction, language, interface semiotics, and practices of race among participants.
The Internet, as it was known at the end of the 20th century, was a vastly different place – and I emphasize the idea of locality and “place” – than it is now post the turn of the century. Changes in technology have aided and abetted this shift, but it is the ultimate interaction between the individual, the interface, and the Other that defines this space as a mediated environment. True to McLuhan’s words, the internet is an environment that differs fundamentally from those built by its predecessors. As such, it redefines our relationships with others and our very identities, and it has done so up to now very quickly, and in such a way that the relationships fostered and identities constructed online themselves have changed. To reiterate, this project sets out to map the ever-growing and ever-changing study of the concept of identity in cyberspace. Moreover, this project will map out the early lack and eventual concerted study of race online, recognizing that with speed and technology allowing, race has only become more visible as part of the discussion. Finally, I hope to establish that race is being appropriated into economic models used by those who control the interfaces that manage and limit the “expression” of race, gender, and class within familiar confines based in the reality that these models were created.
The purpose of this project will be to appraise the development of sociality on the internet and how it constructs racial identity, using modern ethnography, cultural studies, and a basis in the study of the Frankfurt School. I contend that, although the Internet resembled something that captured the Romantic, utopian, and ideal sense of community some scholars sought in the age of MUDs and early adoption, today, while it may not be quite the culture industry Adorno described, the economy of identity has increased the value of social networks like Facebook and Twitter into the billions of dollars, turning it into a veritable industry. Discourse on the question of race that was widely agreed upon simply did not exist circa 1995, but as time progressed there was increased concern; How does access define who communicates online? How much of physical reality is carried over into virtual reality? What challenges are faced in terms of representation? Are the ways in which these challenges are faced adequate? The thinking being that:
1) the Internet was a place that was largely by white, heterosexual male perspectives
2) that our bodies define our selves in a virtual world
3) that either avenues for the expression of non-white voices ought to be created, or a more concerted effort that integrates and naturalizes those voices with their white counterparts
4) the interfaces that allow for this integration are themselves limited.
Ever the familiar topic of contention, the subject of race has become an important discourse within academia in the modern era. Questions of hegemony, imperialism, and representation have all become major cornerstones in the study of race, as it has moved from being defined as an absolute biological trait to a sociopolitical construct. However, its being a product of what Adorno might call the “culture industry” does not remove its force; bell hooks (1992) notes Lorraine Hansberry’s play Les Blancs, quoting revolutionary Tshembe’s reply to white American journalist Charles:
“I believe in the recognition of devices as devices — but I also believe in the reality of those devices. In one century men chose to hide their conquests under religion, in another under race. So you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device in both cases, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because h will not become a Moslem or a Christian — or who is lynched in Mississippi or Zatembe because he is black — is suffering the utter reality of that device of conquest. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist — merely because it is a lie…” (1994)
However, this was all before the Internet. Communication in the Information Age challenged the notion of race and its relationship to the body. The virtual world in the early days of the World Wide Web seemed to hold the promise of a utopian society. In 1996, poet and essayist John Perry Barlow wrote his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in response to the Telecommunications Reform Act that the Clinton White House had at that time passed in order to regulate speech on the Internet. “With characteristic gradiosity,” he polemicizes the U.S. government’s attempt at controlling what he argues they do not and cannot ever understand. He describes the Internet as a world that is everywhere and nowhere, but not a space where bodies live, and that its citizens are creating a world “without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” With this in mind, he calls for the governments to leave cyberspace to those who understand it and are willing to create the society of the Mind.
First, it is instructive to study the some of the prevailing thoughts on race before it was studied in virtual context. Hall in Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices (1997) discusses culture as a system of shared meanings. Central to the production of culture is the circuit of culture, where meaning is creating through the interplay of representation, identity, production, consumption, and regulation, and this process takes place within the principle medium of language.
In Eating the Other, hooks (1992) writes about what she calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, discussing the imperialist interaction between whites and the other and how the Other negotiates the space in order to find agency. Here, she writes about the commodification of Other culture, and the allure it holds for whites as an example of the rich exotic and primitive. Eating the Other dramatizes this commodification; by appropriating Other culture and sexuality, making use of stereotypes and essentialized traits, whites enrich their whiteness while maintaining the inherent power relative to the other race. Although this contrasts sharply with the wholesale rejection of Other culture in generations past, this acceptance only belies the control over social mobility exerted by the white majority.
Later, more serious and pioneering inquiry into the race question was made. Cameron Bailey, in Reading Digital Culture (1996), explores race as it is constructed within electronic communication systems, as they were known in 1990s. He writes that race may function in much the same way as it does in the corporeal world – as a social construct, or “a tangle of social, political, and psychic forces that work their strange and funky work on each one of us each day.” However, he acknowledges that within the scientific inquiry contemporary to his writing that outlines the power of the Internet to restructure our relationship to one another, race is either largely ignored or marginalized, seeing it as a problem of access to the technologies that created the cyber world. He asks the question, “Does race matter?” and goes on to write in the affirmative, citing Cartesian philosophy in that we carry the knowledge of our bodies in the real world over into the subjective reality of the virtual world. Indeed, this knowledge of the body and the relationship it creates with others is how we make sense of the world. So, naturally, race is carried over into the virtual world, reconstructed through language. Further, we create communities based on that language and the identity that is tangled up with our bodies, and Bailey discusses, though not at length, the power relationships race engenders even in virtual context.
Lisa Nakamura (1995) studies the LambdaMOO text-based role-playing game to study the phenomenon of “identity tourism.” She writes that in virtual context, the practice of “passing” reflects the appropriation of Other culture by the majority, which Nakamura characterizes as being predominantly white. She gives examples of players and users taking on orientalized roles as video game characters, historically mythologized samurai, and anime characters as a way of “crossing over racial boundaries temporarily and recreationally.” To be able to appropriate the Other’s culture is an example of exerting social control and a desire to escape to the exotic. She asks whether or not race matters when text-based interaction at least temporarily divorces the mind from the body, and thus, race from the body. Debates in LambdaMOO on race at the time included proposed legislation against racial harassment centered on whether or not race was necessary within the game, and those against the idea belied their utopian view of cyberspace as a Fantasy Island of sorts that was free of the forbidden identity choices. She goes on to quote Cornell West and Judith Butler by saying “race matters” and “bodies matter,” and calls for a diversification of the roles played in cyberspace to open up the self and the body in the future.
David Bell, in An Introduction to Cybercultures (2002), discusses how, as a result of theorists in cultural studies like Stuart Hall, the understanding of self has begun to move away from Cartesian essentialism, that defines the body and the self as a unified whole, toward a fragmented, decentered being that is negotiated through time and space. He reiterates Hall’s question “Who needs identity?” and characterizes identities as necessary fictions that define the identities of individuals and groups. He then problematizes race in cyberspace by giving evidence for how race, and in particular other races, is depicted in media as component of the real.
Nakamura (2008) later writes about the demographics of people that use the Internet at the time of her writing and what they use it for. Her study contrasts with previous thinkers who wrote about the so-called “digital divide” that saw peoples of color have less access to the Web. Nakamura investigates patterns of use like fun, chatting, and multimedia use. She finds that more than half of white Americans used the Internet at the time, only outnumbered by asian Americans, but what groups of people used the Internet for differed across the board. She also considers how these users are plugged into the prevailing consumer culture. Overall, she must concede that cyberspace has become more complex than originally thought, at least as compared to the more simplistic digital divide. She writes, however, that there is a class system that is growing and threatens to “downgrade” those of color to lower levels in the corporate machine.
As technology became more advanced, the ability to depict one’s identity through more than text became possible. How does one project themselves onto the screen? How does that depiction relate to the sociopolitical influences swirling about it?
In Chapter 5 of his ethnography of the virtual world “Second Life,” Boellstorff (2008) discusses what constitutes the facets of personhood within the virtual world and how that relates and often differs from the actual world. At the time of his writing, technology had allowed for the visual depiction of individuals in real-time, creating new opportunities for individuals to interact while bringing a sense of the corporeal to the table. Boellstorf attempts to show how his interactions within the virtual landscape break down the Cartesian concept of the imaginary world being reconstructed through knowledge of the self and the body. In his view, the virtual world was no longer merely an extension of the people using it. Often, people he encountered in Second Life would begin to find that the virtual world could and would become more real for them, and have lasting effects on their actual lives. Boellstorf explores embodiment through the phenomenon of “alts,” or alternative identities that users create for a number of reasons, such as exploring a personality trait that might be restrained in real life or escaping from the everyday interactions faced by one persona to explore others. In his studies, he sees culture developing within the virtual world, with an economy, cultural leaders, and etiquette that are both novel and informed by the world outside. Race, he continues, has received less attention because of lack of access on the part of non-white individuals. As such, there was an assumption that users tend to be white, allowing for the evasion of the race question. Rather, race is confronted more through species, like elf and troll. As times have moved on, race has become an option for those to choose, though white remained the default.
Tanner Higgin (2009) has elaborated on the subject, focusing on the disappearance of blackness from virtual fantasy worlds like Everquest and World of Warcraft. Higgin writes that contemporary fantasy MMORPGs privilege whiteness as a result of the Eurocentrism inherent within the fantasy genre. As blacks, stereotyped as hypermasculine and ghetto, do not figure appropriately into the realm of fantasy storytelling, the problem of blackness is slowly reduced from its discourse or erased altogether.
Leonard (2003) attempts to investigate the role of race and gender in the semiological analysis of contemporary computer games. He writes that gameplay offers insight into the dominant ideologies and deployment of race, gender, and nationalism. Games break down real social boundaries between communities and allow for the commodification of the other, teaching the player/user about stereotypes, foreign policy, and the legitimization of the status quo.
Kurt D. Squire’s study (2008) investigates youths playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. San Andreas has drawn contention for the way it depicts blacks and violence in inner cities, and Squire attempts to find out how those playing the game interpret meaning. He finds that the players, observed in their naturalistic setting, find meaning as their personal life experiences and identities interact with the “semiotic domain” of the game itself, indicating the reception and feedback of ideas.
Thus, how image is processed and interpreted has been problematized on the internet, demanding insight on the thinking of those using it for everyday use and expression. Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks (2000) views race through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis, demonstrating that race is a system a differences that doesn’t focus on the biological or sartorial but rather on the term Whiteness itself. It is this term that makes our everyday thinking on race, in how we view bodies as raced, possible. She writes, “The fantasy of wholeness, of being, that the signifier holds out is not a case of narcissistic misrecognition, but is a fundamental fantasy that determines the trajectory of the subject of ‘race.’” This work sets the stage for a returned focus on the body and especially of the self in virtual context, complicating the Cartesian absolutism that has the body as the center of consciousness, and a new Lacanian analysis of virtuality.
As this research shows, time has allowed for a growing concern on the issue of race in cyberspace. While text-based communication is still the norm, the visual depiction of the self along with the choices various platforms allow for challenge the notion that the Internet is free of race. By the same token, identity itself in the virtual world works differently in many important ways, as noted by Boellstorf. I am personally curious to find more research based on social networking and if there is still an argument for the Cartesian essentialism as we move away from the utopian view of the internet to a more corporate one.
In order to conduct this research, I must first continue to flesh out my knowledge of the study that came before me. The scholars within anthropology, sociology, and the other social sciences can only aid in my understanding of the virtual context as a whole. After all, the virtual world is a world unto itself. One that has transformative powers in the physical power in how we relate to others. However, it is with this eventual understanding that I hope to gather that I will be better able to demonstrate that these works are inherently limited. Understanding technology as media that has changed us is a new field that is not readily accepted in the academy. These same scholars may or may not be programmers or hackers, the people who themselves have the greatest power as far as shaping the digital landscape. It is for them that the majority labor without their knowing it. We fill their interfaces and our presence (more than our so-called democratic input) gives them value.
As such, I believe an ethnography of the virtual world that calls attention to race is appropriate, but with a two-fold approach. First, an ethnography of a particular racial demographic on a given social network ought to be done, making use of the available tools associated with them, be they hashtags, message boards, or status updates. Of course, the challenge with this approach is finding an orderly means of communicating with willing participants. As they are, social networks are resistant to any kind of participant observation when one considers the ubiquity of their presence and the admission of the ethnographer that their practices have been altered by them, but I don’t believe the project would be impossible to implement.
Second, an ethnography of those who program these worlds would be necessary to understand their subjective decision-making process that guides the development of these world. Over time, the two studies should be allowed to communicate to create a bridge to a better understanding of the phenomenon as a whole.
Again, the four “virtual worlds” that I intend to investigate include Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Second Life, all chosen for their particular interfaces, how they define sociality uniquely amongst their users, their availability and practicality, and how long they have existed. Facebook can be characterized as an all-purpose tool for sociality, Twitter is defined by a kind of machine-gun means of immediate communication and mindcasting, Foursquare combines mobile sociality with light gaming, and Second Life immerses the player-user into a complete virtual world with its own economy. In order to tackle each, a period of about 6 months is needed, involving at least 2 hours per day communicating with informants and taking detailed notes. These notes will be supplemented by semiological analysis and study.
The requisite steps that I would need to take in order to complete this project would be:
1) Continue my course work in media studies, balancing both theory and practice to have a well-rounded educational background with which to move forward
2) Interview writers in the field, culling their opinions of the virtual landscape as it is today and their predictions as to where it is headed
3) Work with other interested parties who can offer assistance in programming
4) Foster connections with notables in the field of social networking
A preliminary table of contents would likely resemble the following:
1) The Frankfurt School in Cyberspace
2) A Lacanian Analysis of Self and Race Online
3) Blackness on Twitter
4) Studying the Interface
5) Bridging the Gap
I would, of course, require time to raise money for the project, as well as develop a better sense of the sources I would have to call on to conduct my research.
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