Archive for the ‘identity’ Category

Rachel, Caitlyn, and the Myth of the “True Self”

June 18, 2015 5 comments

When an individual … makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect. – Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Issues of personal identity—who we are and how we present ourselves to others—are foundational to the field of online community design. So it is with no small amount of amusement that I have been watching the controversy about Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passed as black for a decade. The coincidence of this hitting the media shortly after Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine has led many people to draw comparisons. As Goffman says, claiming to be a particular identity is a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. Under what circumstances is it OK for someone to ask to be treated as a particular race or gender? Why is Rachel’s demand being demonized while Caitlyn’s is lauded as heroic? What does it mean to “be” a particular race or gender?

Some time in the late 1990s, Brenda Laurel and colleagues designed a virtual reality art installation focusing on themes of embodiment. Aiming to make users feel embodied, the simulation changed if you took on the body of the snake, coyote or eagle. Brenda and collaborators used elements of Native American stories and images in the design. When they showed the work, some members of the local intelligentsia criticized the work for “appropriating First Nation’s art.” (You can imagine that symbols of sacred importance to Native Americans often get used by outsiders in haphazard ways that feel disrespectful.) Brenda went to meet with the critics, to try to communicate how much her art was meant to show respect. In the course of the conversation, Brenda mentioned that she is one-sixteenth Cherokee. In response to that, she says, “Suddenly the tone changed, and it was OK for us to have done what we did.”

What does it mean to be Cherokee? Does having one great-great grandparent who was a member of a group make you a member? Brenda didn’t exactly grow up on a reservation. She never even met her Cherokee ancestor. Would you feel any differently about Rachel Dolezal if she were one sixteenth of African descent? One thirty-second? Evolutionary biologists tell us that everyone is likely of African descent if you go back far enough. Genetics seems like a weak heuristic for identity.

No one has one identity. We all are different selves in different parts of our lives. Amy the professor and Amy the mom are different, and I switch between those roles fluidly. And some of those roles are more comfortable than others. Even though Amy the professor is at ease in front of a large audience, Amy the bride was terrified to appear in that fancy dress in front of family and friends. Our many selves complement one another, and over time we may cultivate some more than others. Caitlyn and Rachel both made decisions that a very different sort of self, at odds with their genetics, would be more comfortable for them.

The rhetoric that Bruce found her “true self” in becoming Caitlyn is nonsense. There is no such thing as a “true self.” We should say, rather, that the personal identity that Caitlyn chose to embrace is so much more comfortable for her that she was willing to go to great lengths to embody it.

Why does Rachel’s situation seem so much more problematic? Racial “passing” is by no means new—it just usually goes in the other direction. Part of the problem is a question of honesty—she lied. Lindsey Van Gelder’s epic 1985 Ms. Magazine article “The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover” tells the story of a male psychiatrist, “Alex,” who pretended to be a disabled woman, “Joan,” to get closer to women on an early CompuServe bulletin board. Joan refused to meet her online friends in person, but did tell a few about this great guy she knows, Alex. Alex went on to have romantic relationships with some of Joan’s online friends. While some people believe that BBS members were angry at Alex for gender swapping, many have a simpler explanation: they were angry at Alex for being a manipulative liar. As people were angry at Alex for lying, are people angry with Rachel for lying? That’s certainly part of the picture. But returning to the question of the comparison to Caitlyn, are people just beginning to transition to a new gender “lying”? While they may choose to be honest with family and friends about the beginnings of their transition, they certainly can’t give a full explanation to every retail clerk and waiter they encounter day by day. Are transitioning people “lying”?

Another part of the consternation about Rachel is that she assumed an identity that has been traditionally oppressed and consequently under some circumstances is entitled to special treatment. If she took any financial benefit by pretending to be African American, then that constitutes fraud. Is that true of Caitlyn as well? If Caitlyn Jenner now accepted a scholarship for women, would that be OK? Can you medically become another race in the same sense that we recognize that someone may medically become another gender? If Rachel could have permanent skin darkening treatments, would it be ethical for her to accept a scholarship for minorities? The complexities are dizzying.

Most of the time, the right answer is “Who cares?” You can present yourself however you like. The absurdity of trying to determine what race a particular person belongs to is poked fun at in a Dave Chappell video on the “racial draft.” Like a sports draft, African Americans take Tiger Woods (who is half Thai) with the first pick; Jews take Lenny Kravitz (half Jewish) with the second. The question whether someone “really” belongs to a particular group is absurd.

However, there are special situations—like scholarships for minorities—where eligibility is restricted to certain groups. Sometimes you have to decide. In her 1998 book Cyberville, Stacy Horn tells the story of having to decide whether to let a transitioning person, online nickname “Embraceable Ewe,” into the women-only forum (“WIT”) on her Echo bulletin board system. Stacy wonders, “If I let her into WIT, will it feel like there is a man in the room, or a woman?” It’s impossible to answer the question of whether Embraceable Ewe should be allowed into WIT without exploring two underlying questions: what is a woman, and what is the real purpose of single-gender space? Although initially Stacy declares that Embraceable can join WIT when her transition is complete, later she relents. She concludes, “It’s not up to me to tell anyone who they are. I am not the one to decide anyone’s gender.” Ultimately for Stacy, accepting people for who they say they are is simply good manners.

As Goffman points out, assuming a particular identity is making a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. If we all simply treat everyone with respect all the time, maybe some of the need to pin down who-is-what will fade.

Thanks to Josh Berman, Oliver Haimson, Stacy Horn, Brenda Laurel, and Pete Weimann for their help with this post.  (Edited with comments from Stacy and Oliver–further comments appreciated!)

Categories: identity

Political Me & Professional Me

August 15, 2011 2 comments

Do you keep your professional and personal identities separate online?  I’ve tried a few times to set up different accounts, but it never quite works. And I know you shouldn’t share anything online you don’t want everyone to see.  Once you share anything with a third party, they could do anything with it–by accident or on purpose. So mostly I try to keep my politics to myself.

This is particularly important to me, because I teach classes with students with a wide range of political views. In particular, I teach our class “Computers, Society, and Professionalism,” which touches on a lot of controversial content. Often I find I have the most in common ethically with some of the students whose political views are most divergent from my own. Whoever they are, I want them to feel comfortable in my class and know that their view of the world is respected and taken seriously (which it is).

I’m not always so careful–I often post things about freedom of speech online, privacy, or protecting our oceans. But I’m not as free to express my views as I’d like to be. This leaves me in a bit of a quandary: My new research project is about encouraging people to be involved in civic affairs. One of our working hypotheses is that giving people public credit for being involved may encourage them to be more involved.  But should they really do that?  I wouldn’t want to encourage people to be politically active in ways that will have unfortunate personal and work consequences for them in the future.  Is being reserved about one’s political views in public being a responsible, pragmatic grown-up, or being a coward?

The public exchange of views is a fundamental premise of democracy.  I believe that encouraging people to be involved is essential. But maybe the new system we’re developing needs to have some reminders–choose your issues carefully!  Or you may regret that posting, like you may come to regret a tattoo–a permanent record of a temporary feeling.

Civic Participation and Personal Identity

Do you ever wonder why some causes gain dedicated followers and others don’t?  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of social media in civic participation.  Can access to information  from peers help people get more involved?  To understand that, you need to understand why people take action for causes in general.

If you ask someone why they embraced a particular cause, they will most likely tell you about the cause and its importance.  What’s harder to understand is, why that particular cause? The world has an endless number of good causes. Everyone decides where to donate their time and their money.  You can’t support them all.  So how do people choose? And why do some people devote large amounts of time and others little or none at all?  Beyond the worthiness of the cause, I will argue that much of the answer is found in the individual.  Supporting a cause is one way of expressing to the world who you are. It’s a way of constructing personal identity.  It’s also a way of finding a supportive community–a group of people who embrace the same identity and values.

Hollaback is an interesting example. Jill Dimond, a PhD student working with me at Georgia Tech, is studying and helping develop the website and social movement, which is aimed at ending street harassment.  For most of history, if you were walking down the street and someone cat called at you or groped you or worse, your only course of action was to ignore it and walk away quickly. Hollaback encourages victims of street harassment to blog about their experience as a way of raising awareness. Over the last year, the site has exploded in popularity. Each participating city has its own sub-site, and Hollaback has grown to 24 cities around the world and there is a waiting list for new cities to come online.  It’s wonderful to see the growth of this social movement.

But the inherent worthiness of the Hollaback cause doesn’t really answer the question of why this particular cause is growing compared to others.  I think part of the answer is in the timeliness and appropriability of the kind of image of self that supporting hollaback can help foster.  It’s about being a strong woman and also being beautiful (the sort of person who might get whistled at).  Hollaback’s high tech infrastructure of mobile and social computing also connotes a certain intelligence and independence.  People are devoting time to Hollaback because the cause is worthy, but also because participating helps them build a sense of personal identity that resonates for them.

Building a compelling sense of personal identity is just one of many factors that can help make a social movement popular.  But much of social computing is about building a sense of personal identity in relationship to your community of  strong and weak ties. The research question I want to tackle is: how can we design social media environments to encourage civic engagement. The dance of building personal identity within a community may be one key. It’s not just about the importance of the cause, but also about the identity of the sort of person who is dedicated to the cause.

Categories: identity, social computing

Internet Public Shaming

August 10, 2010 3 comments

I laughed at this when I saw it: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office (33 Photos).” In it, you’ll see a woman holding a small dry erase board with messages. She quits her job, and describes what a loser her boss “Spencer” is. Among other things, she accidentally overheard him calling her a “HOPA” (hot piece of a**). This is her revenge. Since Spencer installed monitoring software on everyone’s computers to see if they’re wasting time (and she as his assistant has the passwords), she outed him for being on non-work related sites a lot –including being on Farmville 19.7 hours a week.

My first reaction was amusement. She seems pretty cool. A bit like Heather Armstrong of Dooce–everyone’s hip friend with attitude. Then I thought, wait, I bet Spencer just has Farmville running in the background–he can’t be playing that many hours a week. And why is his bad breath really relevant here? And isn’t this all horribly mean? OK, he sounds like an annoying boss. Maybe even a chauvinist pig. But is public shaming the right answer?

Of course my next thought was, I wonder if this is real or just performance art. But either way, it’s part of a disturbing trend–the self righteous using the Internet to do more harm than good while “righting wrongs.” Clay Shirky wrote about this in his book “Here Comes Everybody.” And as he points out, the phenomenon of using the Internet for public shaming is particularly intense in Asian countries, where the “human flesh search engine” can track people down and ruin their lives. OK, the girl on the subway in Korea should have cleaned up after her dog–no question about it. But did she deserve to be turned into a pariah? Wikipedia tracks similar incidents in its article on Internet vigilantism.

The good news is, this medium gives formerly dis-empowered people a voice. Instead of just quitting and slinking off, White-Board Girl has a recourse. Instead of just getting angry as you slip in dog poo on the subway car, you can collaborate to identify the inconsiderate dog owner. But the problem is that the response is out of proportion to the crime, especially when you consider that the Internet is a largely archival medium. (An old cliché says taking information off of the Internet is like taking pee out of a pool.) So Puppy Poo Girl and Spencer will have their judgment lapses follow them potentially indefinetely. And that seems a bit too much–approaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scarlet A or Neal Stephenson’s tattoos that say “poor impulse control.”


WhiteBoard Girl (or “Jenny DryErase”) is indeed a hoax. Which is fortunate for the Spencers of the world, real or imagined!

Electronics as Fashion–The Anti-Gizmo Fetish

August 7, 2010 11 comments

I regret to admit that I may suffer from an anti-gizmo fetish. Am I alone?

Since I teach in the school of Interactive Computing, it won’t surprise you to learn that many of my colleagues like getting new computers and electronics. Several pre-ordered iPads, and tweeted about opening the box, and their first impressions of the device. More than one colleague and friend has mentioned that they enjoy going out with their iPad and having people notice it and ask about it. In the row behind me on my flight yesterday, I overhead a conversation begin, “Is that an iPad? Mine just came! I haven’t opened the box yet.” Its features were discussed in great detail over most of the midwest and into the southeast.

This isn’t a post about iPads–it’s about the latest and greatest device, whatever that happens to be at the moment. For most people, having your device noticed is a pleasure. I guess I can speculate on how they feel, but I’m wondering: am I the only one who feels the opposite? When I imagine someone in a café noticing my iPad (or similar), I’m filled with a squirmy sensation I can only describe as embarrassment. I’m not sure if I need a “third device,” but I know if I get one I may wait until it’s commonplace.

I’m not a shy person. I’m more likely than average to strike up a conversation with the supermarket checkout clerk, the person next to me on the shuttle bus, or the other parent on the park bench. But the idea of those people saying “Oooh, is that a cell phone (remember when they were a status symbol?)/iphone/ipad/etc” is completely unappealing.

The topic of whether any particular device is actually useful or pleasing is a separate issue. I’m talking here about electronics as a fashion statement–an expression of personal identity. And for portable electronics, that statement is increasingly visible and public. Having a blu-ray player (when they were new) or a 3D TV (more recently) is one sort of fashion statement, but you need to mention it or have friends over for anyone to know. Having a portable device you use in public takes electronics-as-fashion to a new level. You really do “wear” it.

I don’t like being noticed for expensive clothes or shoes either. Is the issue the same? You can notice my jewelery, but only if it’s arty jewelry made from relatively inexpensive materials–I don’t want emeralds thank you very much. It’s not a lack of interest in fashion–it’s just a different sensibility for fashion.

Do you also have an anti-gizmo fashion sense? Leave me a comment!

In the comments, Kurt Luther asks–is this just about money? Could an inexpensive but new/useful device cause the same kind of phenomenon? I do think a big part of this is about money. But with a night to think about it, maybe it’s also about a kind of “techno-positivism”: the belief that new gadgets make the world better. I very definitely do NOT think that new gadgets necessarily make the world better. In fact, I’m pretty sure they sometimes make it worse. As I wrote in an old essay called “Christmas Unplugged” (written 12/25/92, published 12/94), I worry that being connected all the time is unhealthy. I think the new “wearable computing” conveys both money and techno-positivism, and neither is a message I want to send.

Categories: identity, mobile computing
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