Virtual Identities
Palazzo Strozzi



Franziska Nori
Antonio Glessi
Roberto Simanowski
Michael Wesch
Sherry Turkle
Franziska Nori
World Wide Me

The so-called “Network Culture” is redefining the characteristics and boundaries of our identity, both personal and collective. Our ever closer coexistence with technology obliges us to rethink our habits, attitudes, wants, needs and values. The internet has already started – and continues day after day – to modify knowledge, work, the social sphere, politics and even the notion of who we are and what freedom is.
While we continue to read newspapers or watch television, the screens of our computers and above all our mobile phones increasingly perform an ever larger number of everyday functions. With the convergence of multimedia and georeferencing technologies (GPS) the internet has become that augmented reality that allows – and promises – us to have control of the world in our pockets. Smartphones are no longer luxury gadgets for a few, but have become our inseparable and reassuring companions, an umbilical cord that ties us to the community to which we wish to belong, an essential prosthesis to ride change without being overtaken by it.
The logic of traditional broadcasting has been upturned. Digital technologies offer each of us the chance to recount ourselves – in a blog, on Twitter, Facebook or MySpace, or via podcast or web diaries – and thus expose ourselves publicly to spread and share news, but above all to talk about ourselves, finding that niche of people who listen to us and share our own interests. For the first time in history potentially everyone has the opportunity to recount and show their personal and professional spheres to a vast audience; we are now a society that lives according to the “broadcast yourself” motto that appears on the homepage of YouTube.
The World Wide Web was born just twenty years ago, bringing about a profound transformation in the lives of around two billion people who have access to it, in other words twenty-five per cent of the world’s population. The internet has contributed to creating new economic sectors and unforeseeable wealth, modifying the control of information flows and the distribution of assets, but has also concurred to depreciating the value of work. It has broadened the field of knowledge and it is transforming the systems of power in the world, acting as a tool of transparency and renegotiating the balances. Although the internet is an instrument used chiefly for entertainment and business, it is also an important vehicle for the struggle for freedom and democracy, offering democratic and economic tools to communicate and inform. However, at the same time it is one of the main vehicles of globalization, an instrument for states and large companies to control the lives of people in a new but perhaps even more invasive manner than in the past.
The number of voices constituting the internet may appear merely as confusion, a diffuse background noise. Irrelevancy seems rampant, but it is from the internet that the most authentic states of mind – both individual and collective – pressingly emerge, and it is here that new forms of social and political participation can take shape.

Being an online person 
The current debate regarding the impact of communication technologies on society appears permeated by the fear that the digital sphere makes our senses, emotions and imagination dependent on our computer screens, causing reality to slip into virtuality and making the virtual world real. But what does being an online person mean? Virtual identity is an extension of the physical self that we create to establish relations and interact with others on the internet. The representation of one’s body, mind and thus self in the digital sphere consciously builds an identity that does not necessarily have to correspond to one’s real self. While early theoretical studies carried out in the 1990s claimed that assuming different identities has a constructive and liberating effect on the individual, today the various online services require authentication of personal data with our “true” identity. Subsequently, after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared that the private sphere has become obsolete in the contemporary world, we have been able to note how users exercise increasingly less caution in managing their online identity and personal data. While for years anonymity, the privacy of the user and protection of the private sphere were fundamental aspects of life, today the defense of these values appears to rouse ever less interest in users. On the other hand, public authorities and companies pay far more attention to our data. When we purchase something online we reveal personal data such as our credit card number, address, age and nationality. Search engines like Google or Bing memorize our searches and interests. The Global Positioning Systems of navigators and mobile phones allow our position to be pinpointed at any time and our every movement tracked. In a less evident and unwitting manner, we also leave our traces each time that we visit a website, which records our passage via files known as cookies in order to personalize and improve our future surfing of those pages. As citizens we are registered in the databases of various bodies, from the registry office and employment agencies to the Inland Revenue, public health service, our bank and the airline that records our movements. All of this leads to the creation of databases that constitute fundamental tools for states and public corporations to monitor citizens’ identities. In the hands of private companies the same information allows the profiling of potential clients and the formulation of sales offers targeted according to their specific interests. We personally and almost unthinkingly add a large amount of personal information to the internet, uploading our private photographs to Facebook or Flickr, participating in discussion forums, sending unencrypted e-mails or shifting our entire working system to a cloud computing service. However, the main preoccupation that emerges is not the management of our online self and thus the control of our personal data (that may not always support our image), but rather the complete “absence” of those who are not found by search engines, and thus simply do not exist. The leading role in this evolution towards thoughtless or uninformed management of personal data is played by the social networks that, through standardized technologies and simplified services, have allowed millions of people worldwide to use and move within the digital community without being experts or possessing specific knowledge of the world of digital technology.    

A new body-mind relationship
As the American philosopher and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote: “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” The digital world is making our senses and imagination dependent on the reality that we experience through technological media. Online culture is transforming our very neurological and physiological structure, along with our behavior and social skills. Recent neuroscientific studies (Gary Small, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, 2008) have demonstrated that constant use of communication technologies modifies not only the psychological aspect of the human brain, but also its neuronal structure. Various research appears to show that the regular use of the internet by children distorts their sense of reality and ultimately diminishes their sense of responsibility for their behavior in the real world. Online experiences produce great sensorial stimulation, such as seeing and hearing, but completely disregard the relationship between the body and the world. Among digital natives – the new generations born after the introduction of the internet – we can witness a change of pattern, which reveals the growing dominance of sensorial stimulus (understood as emotional reaction, impression and sensation) with respect to cognitive creation of meaning. Furthermore, the system of cross-linking and hypertext references on which the use of online contents is based is changing the common way of reading or writing, increasingly favoring the rapidity of forms and contents and diminishing the linearity and unity of discourse. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Princeton University, has studied this effect and maintains the need for greater autonomy and self-determination by the individual with regard to technologies (“Ego depletion: A resource model of volition, self-regulation, and controlled processing”, 2000). In communication society a mechanism has been triggered by which the individual reacts uninterruptedly to external stimuli, constantly having to separate relevant information from irrelevant facts in order to make decisions in ever less time, leading to a state of deep mental fatigue. In the space of just twenty years the internet thus seems to have changed both our relational powers and the neuronal structure of our minds, modifying the way in which we perceive, categorize, memorize, use language and orient ourselves, but also altering the functioning of our creativity and the way in which we find solutions to problems. One of the main criticisms directed at the phenomenon of Facebook is the change that it has worked in the quantity and quality of human relationships, stripping the concept of friendship of its meaning. A simple click on a button is sufficient to become friends. However, recent studies have revealed that a normal Facebook user regularly interacts with just five or six of his or her “friends” and has no more than 150 with whom he or she is really in contact. This would confirm that Dunbar’s number – a concept named after the psychologist Robin Dunbar that establishes 150 as the natural numerical limit of human communities – also holds true for the digital world. A person is able to maintain only a limited number of stable social and emotional relationships. For reasons of pure ego gratification, the number of people accepted as “friends” in social communities, on the other hand, may rise to several thousand, actually transforming this surplus of contacts into pure voyeurs.    
The feedback loop
The great strength of social networks like Facebook and Twitter (which have now achieved global penetration, with over 600 million users worldwide) lies in the way that they insert their users in a constant loop of data and information exchange, known as “the feedback loop”. Facebook was the first to develop a system of constant updating of online status (status news feeds), shared with the other users of the platform. Each time I add new content to my profile it becomes visible to all my online “friends”, for it is inserted in a loop accessible to all my contacts. All the updates are immediate and visible in real time, a principle on which Twitter has also based its success, with the further emblematic characteristic that each message may not be longer than 140 characters. The fundamental aspect is the principle of immediacy of the reaction with an increasingly accelerated sense of time, which does not necessarily allow the formulation of well thought-out contents. Sherry Turkle claims: “This is a paradoxical time. We have more information but take less time to think it through in its complexity.” This, she maintains, leaves us ever less time for reflection because our means of communication oblige us to provide rapid answers. Each message requires feedback, which in turn generates another. The driving force of this system is the constant quest for acknowledgement and feedback from the community of people that we “frequent” online; the desire to feel appreciated by the group. The number of feedbacks received by the user becomes the sign of the rank and status that a person enjoys in his or her online community. Zero comments (Geert Lovink, Zero Comments, 2007), i.e. the failure to elicit feedback or messages, is a risk to be avoided. We share thoughts and emotions to obtain a “like”, in order to build our reputation and, ultimately, to affirm our existence. Consequently, in communication society it is not necessarily the content that is important – even a fragment of information is sufficient – but it is the collective process that counts and is triggered by that fragment, if it is capable of evoking emotions and reactions. The central factor is thus the information flow, from which we cannot disconnect ourselves; it is the fact that we wish to share information, experiences and emotions – serious or merely entertaining – online with other people. What counts is the creation of important events in numerical terms, from an innocuous, playful flashmob to an online election for the mobilization of demonstrators in countries without political or press freedom. It is about generating mass movements that can create opinions capable of having an impact on the social and political spheres, ultimately modifying the real world. The power of the internet is thus its ability to connect people and offer them a way to work together. What it can teach us is the importance of sharing knowledge and of working together to tackle and find solutions to the increasingly complex challenges that we find ourselves facing. The internet thus seems to give each of us a voice and appears to have the potential to balance the different forces active in society. At the same time it carries the risk of encouraging the huge global brands to trace and use our data, and governments to monitor us as never before in history.    

“Virtual Identities”
The idea of creating this exhibition was conceived eight years ago, a relatively short period of time but in which many new developments and reappraisals were added during the elaboration of thoughts on this theme. One of the main difficulties in working on a project like this lies in the lack of temporal distance that is often necessary for critical assessment, which in this case however must deal with a constantly changing phenomenon. It is precisely because of this that Virtual Identities appears as a sort of instant snapshot of the situation of the relationship between man and virtual world, revealing various aspects and problems through comparison of the various works on display, which appear as instruments in the hands not only of experts of the digital culture but also of a wider public. The selection of installations and works, along with displays of projects conceived and developed for the internet, offers a reflection on the cultural, social and political implications – but also on the impact in everyday personal life – of the virtual identities with which we increasingly frequently tackle reality.   In his series Street View Paris, photographer Michael Wolf takes the paradoxical relationship between art and digital technology to an extreme. Rather than taking photographs on the streets of the French capital, he simply dipped into material available on Google Street View. He captured random moments of city life that had an unexpected aesthetical beauty and demonstrated the relationship between the human being, the cityscape and the digital world. The photographer Evan Baden captures the faces of youngsters totally immersed in digital communication. Their faces, alienating and almost absent, are only illuminated by the lights of the screens of the different tools they use to connect them to a virtual reality which seems to be more real than the physical world they inhabit. In his video Immersion, Robbie Cooper addresses the issue of the visual and emotional feedback between individual and the digital world, dwelling on the strong emotions that appear on the faces of young and older children as they interact with a screen. Analyzing the theme of traceability and control afforded by new technologies, Chris Oakley’s video entitled The Catalogue is built around a video-monitoring system in a department store, in which the people filmed and defined by their personal and traceable data become transparent and, in a certain sense, vulnerable entities/identities. The traceability and visualization of personal data also comprise the main focus of designer Nicholas Felton’s work, in which he creates diagrams and tables in an effort to meticulously record all of the actions and data, from the most humdrum to the most significant, that make up our daily lives. The collective etoy.CORPORATION’s installation Tamatar is part of their Mission Eternity project which addresses the issues of identity and memory starting from the various traces that we leave behind in the course of our multiple interaction with the web and reflecting on life beyond death, also in the digital world. The group Les Liens Invisibles focuses on online projects which, with a hint of irony but always imbued with a strong sense of political activism, reflect on distortions and paradoxes in a person’s relationship with the social networks. Their Seppukoo project allowed people to regain their own identities and their anonymity by ‘killing off’ their profiles on Facebook and was so successful that Facebook took legal action to stop the project. The Sociable Media Group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston (MIT) presents Metropath(ologies), an interactive multimedia installation which allows people, by simply keying in their name, to walk through a three-dimensional environment visualizing all the information available regarding themselves, thus highlighting the individual’s transparency and visibility on the internet. In connection with the theme of participatory online communication, the video-installation entitled Hello World! or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise by Christopher Baker displays a wall of videos from YouTube, in which individuals address a global public from their private home. The hundreds of voices merge into a babble of background noise. Natalie Bookchin’s work Mass Ornament explores the theme of individual transparency and accreditation further. The work creates a choreography of movement through the merger of several different videos that various people have put on YouTube, showing them dancing alone in their private rooms but in front of the eye of a webcam.  
The exhibition also includes a project by the Iranian photographer Diana Djeddi that reconstructs the case of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young student killed during the demonstrations in Tehran in 2009, giving an example of the power but also of potential risks involved in the dissemination of information on the web. This episode became widely known through social networks but has given rise to a case of mistaken identity with an Iranian girl of similar name and appearance, Neda Soltani, whose Facebook profile photo became an icon of the revolution despite her lack of involvement, forcing her to leave the country for fear of retaliation.   Like all of the exhibition projects devised by the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, Virtual Identities is accompanied by a program of lectures held by experts hailing from a variety of different disciplines. The aim is to analyze the theme addressed in the exhibition from different standpoints, thus encouraging the public to adopt a broader and more comprehensive view of the content on display. Donatella Della Ratta, a researcher and expert in the media of the Arab world, will be addressing the issue of the relationship between television, the new media and grassroots uprisings, also in the light of the most recent political developments in North Africa. Paolo Ferri, one of today’s most important writers in the field of new technology and its influence on education and culture, will be introducing the issue of what are known today as digital natives. Art critic and curator Domenico Quaranta, for his part, will be analyzing the impact of recent technological and social developments on the art world, which is increasingly influenced by the concepts of sharing and copyright or by the debate on the concept of anonymity and authenticity. Media theoretician Vito Campanelli, on the other hand, will be presenting a comparative study of the birth of “web aesthetics”, which are beginning to prompt a redefinition of the concepts of creativity and interactivity. And the lecture program will wind up with an artist’s talk, by two Italian artists whose work is on display in the Les Liens Invisibles exhibition.   Virtual Identities is a project devised by the CCC Strozzina, with a contribution from the scholarly committee comprising Antonio Glessi (ISIA, Florence), Christiane Feser (artist) and Roberto Simanowski (Basel University). I would like to thank Annette Schidler for her crucial contribution to the exhibition, and Pro Helvetia – Swiss Foundation for Culture for its moral and financial support for the project of etoy.CORPORATION.

From the exhibition catalogue "Virtual identities", published by Silvana Editoriale, 2011.


Special project: I AM NEDA
Special project: ME 2.0