Virtual Identities
Palazzo Strozzi



Franziska Nori
Antonio Glessi
Roberto Simanowski
Michael Wesch
Sherry Turkle
Roberto Simanowski
Identity in the Age of Digital Media

In the age of global culture and multiculturalism the individual – migrants, tourists but also natives – is subject to permanent changes. This situation seems to undermine traditional politics of identity in favor of simultaneous and fluid enrooting. Bourriaud (2009) calls this new concept of identity “radicant” which is reminiscent of its botanical equivalent rhizome, a term Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used in 1977 for their concept of the network of roots in contrast to the arborescent hierarchy. While the concept of rhizomatic or radicant identity has been acclaimed in early theory on digital media, it is jeopardized today by the success of the social network. In the 1990s sociologists such as Sherry Turkle praised the internet as a means to exercise a postmodern perspective on life. In her book Life on the Screen (1995) she considered the textual construction of the self, the experimenting with gender, age, and ethnicity in IRCs and MUDs as a crucial experience of the other and an extension of the self. The role-playing and interaction with anonymous people in other locations and culture permitted by the internet seemed to be the answer to the “tyrannies of intimacy” that sociologist Richard Sennett had described in his book The Fall of Public Man (1974).
What first was enthusiastically welcomed as “culture of simulation” and “identity tourism” soon was revised as a superficial and reversible play of otherness. The “ethnicity tourism” (Gonzales 2000, p.49) and the “episodic experience as a racial minority” (Nakamura 2002, p.131) were accused of being forms of symbolic colonialization and “eating the other” (Hooks 1992), in which for example the white male takes a “bit” of the specific identity of the female black without having to cope with the difficult consequences of that racial and gender identity in real life. A similar critical turn took place with respect to online communication, first optimistically announced as a new public space with no gate keeper, social distinction or national border lines, a space where everybody identifies himself or herself by what he or she types. The euphemistic titles to describe the situation read: Virtual Community (Howard Rheingold 1993), Digital Nation (Jon Katz 1997) or Collective Intelligence (Pierre Lévy 1997). With the turn of the century online communication was believed to not only present opportunities for enhancing citizen participation, but also to undermine the foundation of democracy. Keywords such as “group ethos” (Gurak 1999), “polarization and cybercascades” (Sunstein 2001) or “neighbourhoods of shared interest” (Bell 2001) emphasized the lacking engagement with alternative and conflicting arguments in online communities thus fostering an attitude to the “daily me” and “daily we”.

Expressing/Escaping Oneself
Nonetheless, the development of what has become known as Web 2.0 gave ground for further enthusiasm. MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Weblogs were seen as media of the self where teens modelled their identity, could “write themselves and their community into being” (Boyd 2007, p.2), and exercised an “ethics of the self” as discussed by Michel Foucault with respect to Greco-Roman culture (Zylinska 2009, p.76). However, soon the situation again raised critical questions. To what extent is a social network coercing everybody to join in order to avoid the risk of becoming isolated and invisible a means of individual emancipation and expression? William Deresiewicz, in his much discussed essay The End of Solitude (2009), for example complains that in a culture of total connectivity young people “seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can’t imagine why it would be worth having” and adds: “[…] but no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.” In this light, technology eventually prevents the contemporary self from discovering itself. However, it also prevents from really connecting to the other, since the other can always be turned off. An option that, in return, liberates from risking oneself in the encounter with the other and thus from better getting oneself to know, as Roger Scruton argues in his allusively entitled essay Hiding Behind the Screen (2010). But even Turkle is rather concerned in her most recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), where she states a human separation in the face of expanding virtual connections. As Turkle notes in her contribution to this catalogue about our new relationship to new technologies: “We do not so much work at computers, keeping them busy. They keep us busy.” Technology, once offering us to “eat” the other, now is eating us.
However, this might only be a new response to an old fear: the angst of being alone with oneself. This angst or horror vacui – discussed as early as in Seneca’s essay De Brevitate Vitae in the 1st century and revealed as a driving force for all kinds of distractions by Blaise Pascal in the 17th century – has been seen as the central problem of the modern subject. In the 1920s Kracauer calls the movie theater the asylum for the metaphysically homeless. Today, nonstop connected to the entire world, we are never alone anymore when being alone, as aptly illustrated by Even Baden’s Illuminati. In this circumstance “illumination” no longer refers to the Enlightenment or its secret society the Illuminati. Rather than the use of reason it signifies distraction; as Kracauer holds for the cinema of distraction: light effects darkness. From this perspective, the celebrated “Me-Volution” (Horx 2007) appears as nothing else than a permanent escape from the I. The language of new products supporting the escape, such as iPhone and iPad, is distorting. The real shelter is the We, be it as anonymous, vague and indifferent as the followers on Twitter or Facebook. When Turkle rephrases the most famous line about identity to “I share therefore I am”, we should note that the sharing starts before personal data. Who can still stand it to stand still in front of a rainbow? Who will not escape into action sharing a picture or tweet about this event with his or her many “friends”? Technology ensures we never ever have to be alone with us again. At the same time, the technology of permanent connection “dials down” human contact, as Turkle puts it, and keeps the people we connect to at bay. We don’t want to be alone but we also fear coming close to others. Identity is lost in mobile media communication.

Radical Transparency
The 21st century has turned the virtual communities of the 1990s into social networks. The most successful, Facebook, has restored the intrusion of intimacy into social life. Not only with respect to open access but also to the concept of identity, Facebook is the negation of the “old internet”. It turns the metaphor of the “global village” – that Marshall McLuhan coined for electronic media such as radio und television and that only with the internet became an honest metaphor allowing people to talk back as typical for a village – in an unexpected way: the social network has become a form of observation and social control known from villages in contrast to cities that provide the space for foreigners to interact without knowing much or anything about each other. In this spirit, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg proclaims the concept of radical transparency and states: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (Boyd 2010). In this concept of identity there is as much space for a secret or second life as in binary code between 0 and 1. Forgotten the days when serious academics promoted role-playing and identity tourism. Past the time when lived-in writers embraced the inevitably ambivalent and inscrutable nature of human life. A new wave of rigid morality – Sennett speaks of a new tyranny of intimacy – is imposed. The irony: it does not come from the older generation but from a twenty something one. While Zuckerberg is excused for he is making millions with all the personal data shared, one wonders why everybody else seems to comply and what this tells us about current cultural and social norms. The online exhibitionism of pioneers such as Josh Harris or Jennifer Ringley in the late 1990s – who broadcasted their private life via webcams 24 hours a day – anticipated (warningly) what has become normal. Today identity spells as identification, not only via IPA (the service welcomes its visitors with the declaration: “Your IP address is your ID”) and cookies but also by social media monitoring and Web scraping mostly in order to establish costumers profiles. In the age of social networks and search machines, identity is thought of as personalization and customization. Peter Schaar finds a threatening symbol for this by showing, on the cover of his book Das Ende der Privatsphäre: Der Weg in die Überwachungsgesellschaft (2009), the strips of a barcode as silhouettes representing people; Chris Oakley illustrates the same situation disturbingly in his work The Catalogue. The fact that half the youths between the ages of nine and sixteen in European countries don’t know how to change the privacy settings on their social networks (Nippard 2010) demonstrates how naturally meanwhile identity is being established in the public eye. Young people don’t care too much that social networks and search machines together create a panoptic society in which everything that is online about a person is traceable. If the German secretary of justice Max Stadler in September 2010 proposes – inspired perhaps by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (2009) – an expiration date for the content people have posted on a social network (, he actually requests the kind of suicide Seppukoo by Les Liens Invisibles designed for Facebook. The irony, however, is that this data suicide allows regaining command over one’s own life, providing the chance to establish an identity freed from the data produced in the past. The problem is, that our identity online is also made of data produced by others. We don’t control the stories posted by our friends or the name-tags in their photographs.

However, there may be no need for Seppukoo and expiration dates if people approve Facebook’s dictum of radical transparency. Wondering why they would, we may consider the search for transparency and integrity as a response of the younger generation to relativism, disorientation, and the lack of reliability characteristic of postmodern identity. Criteria known from lonely hearts ads – age, profession, favorite book, film, music, and cuisine – put the process of self-description back on factual ground. This new form of accurate depiction employs an essential feature of the new medium: the link. Defining oneself first of all becomes creating links: to artifacts of culture and consumption as well as friends who also link themselves to artifacts and friends. As a consequence, relativism is cured by relations; ambiguous utterances by statistic. The perfect symbol for the ongoing shift from quality to quantity is the invention and huge success of the “I like” icon that signifies a new form of identification. The common report “x people like this” actually reads as “x people are like this” and underlines that this new form of identification omits the explanatory Why in favor of the computable That. The attention on connections instead of utterances may be the most characteristic facet of today’s search for identity. In a way, it is the counterpart to the observed end of solitude. In the age of digital media, identity is defined by links and computation.

The Self as Found Object

The presentation of the self on social networks turns the self into a found object applicable in social network art. An example online is We feel fine by Jonathan Harris and Sepandar Kamvar that, since 2005, searches a large number of weblogs for sentences containing the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling” and presents them as a collection of colored, animated, and clickable particles. Every single utterance links to its origin on the web where it continues to serve its original purpose as a part of a specific communication without the author knowing of the role his or her expressed feeling plays in the context of We feel fine. The same is true for the installation Listening Post (2000-2001) by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin that – on a large sculpture of 231 miniature text display screens – presents phrases starting with “I am” taken from thousands of chat rooms and other public forums on the internet.

We feel fine and Listening Post are the textual predecessors of Christopher Baker’s Hello World or How I learned to stop listening and love the noise (2009) featuring over 5,000 video diaries found on the internet in a large-scale installation of hundreds of video screens. The subject of this work – “a meditation on the contemporary plight of democratic, participative media and the fundamental human desire to be heard” ( – is true for the other two examples as well. However, while We feel fine presents itself as a database that can be searched using specific criteria (such as type of feeling, gender and age of the author, location and time of the utterance), the starting point of Listening Post is, as Rubin reveals, not content but spectacle: “What do 100,000 people chatting on the internet sound like?” (Hansen/Rubin 2001). Consequentially, the theatrical setup of Listening Post (sonification of the text by eight computer voices, dimmed light, benches positioned away from the curtain of small LCD screens) shifts the attention from reading (or listening to) the specific text towards taking everything in as a hypnotic, overwhelming, sublime event, a shift that Baker already announces in the subtitle of his work. The collage of “linguistic ready-mades” (Groys 1996, p.385) in mapping art such as We feel fine and Listening Post surrenders art towards facts and undermines the process of artistic creation even further than the case with pop art or ready-mades. Not only is the process of mechanical reproduction carried out by software without the artist carefully choosing the object of reproduction or duplication, but the artist himself does not really know the result of this process, since the texts or videos offered are too many (or are changing too fast if constantly updated by the software) to be perceived by any person in total. As if a camera automatically produces pictures without the photographer looking at them. Without audience, however, the “stubbornness of the fact”, as Roland Barthes states with respect to pop art, is met by neglect and becomes disrespect if “facts”, as is the case at hand, are human beings. The inevitable by-product of such ignorance towards the content presented is the aesthetic shift from narrative to sound, i.e. from meaning to sensation.

Art and Identity
In this light, the spread of documentary genres and its growing legitimization as art, observed by Bourriaud for the 1990s (2009), has to be put into perspective. Bourriaud points to Kutlu─č Ataman’s installation Küba (2004) which assembles forty television sets in a large hall on each a resident of a unique community in Istanbul telling his or her story (or fantasy) at length. The artist had interviewed those people in order to pass on their story to the audience that, to support careful listening, is provided with a chair in front of each television. Such circumstances of production and perception allows the interviewed to leave a lasting impression with their arresting stories and to that extent Küba aims at the “redemption of physical reality”, as Siegfried Kracauer subtitled his Theory of Film in 1960. However, Küba stands for a rather old technology in a quite traditional environment: the audience deeply engaged with the work carefully created by the artist. The situation changes, if data are taken from and processed on the internet. The works of mapping art mentioned above demonstrate that artists themselves often are unable to identify their own message and rather hide behind the facts copied from the internet. It has been claimed that it mirrors the mood of the internet if one let data achieved online speak for themselves. It should be added that such procedure also mirrors the mood of contemporary self understanding: The absolute control over data goes hand in hand with a reluctance to form them into ones own specific message. The examples of mapping art demonstrating such lack of will are self-portraits of the artists representing the metaphysical disorientation of the postmodern subject. After the end of Grand Narratives, identity vanishes into facts.

Of course, there are examples of exception. One is Natalie Bookchin’s Mass Ornament (2009) whose title alludes to another famous essay by Kracauer (Ornament of the Masses, 1927) in which the author reads the synchronized movement of chorus line dancers as a reflection of the mechanized logic of the industrial age. Bookchin’s video installation is a montage of hundreds of clips from YouTube showing people dancing alone in their rooms. This public privacy is the perfect symbol of our time. The Lonely Crowd (1950), as the American sociologist David Riesman entitled his famous study of the masses in the age of mass media, is no longer sitting individually in front of the TV but becomes (more or less) visible at websites such as YouTube. Those individuals are signified by creative consumption but also by repetition, seriality and replaceability, which Bookchin makes clear by bringing them together in a combination and synchronization of their dance movements. The point is that Bookchin has them dance to a music different from the original, diverse music in the original YouTube clips. The nameless and partly faceless individuals – neither identified nor identifiable by links to the original sources – are symbolically deprived of their individuality. At the same time Bookchin identifies herself as an artist who appropriates the documentary footage found online not only in a carefully crafted but also in a sophisticatedly conceptualized way. Being far from the redemption Kracauer has in mind and from Ataman’s Küba exercises, Mass Ornament redeems the artist herself, as a person that is not lost in or excluded from the material found but confidently uses it as components of her own message. The situation is complex and paradoxical: exactly because Mass Ornament colonializes the bodies of the nameless dancers it gives a name to the artist. Thus, this work about various nameless prosumers proclaims the identity of a prosumer standing out of the chorus line of all the playful but shallow examples of “productive consumption”. A return from sound to meaning. An example of how to create ones own identity by dealing with identity in digital media.
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From the exhibition catalogue "Virtual identities", published by Silvana Editoriale, 2011.


Special project: I AM NEDA
Special project: ME 2.0