To begin with, it is important to define what is meant by identity. “Identity relates to the understandings people hold about who they are and what is meaningful to them” (Giddens, 2001, 29). One of the ways in which people build up their identity is by interacting with others and experiencing things. In the pre-internet world, all the people with whom it is possible to interact with and the experiences available are limited by geography, ie. it is only possible to interact with people who you can meet face to face.
It is possible to have a relationship with someone based purely on the use of telephones of letter writing, however, it is unlikely that random mailings will inspire long term friendships. The internet, however, seems to be unique in that random people can end up talking and building friendships. The possibility for a far wider range of interactions means that the possibility for identity building is greatly enhanced. The power of the internet and the services available cannot be ignored, to the sceptic; the internet is just a lot of text with a few pictures thrown in.
The total immersion necessary to simulate a new reality is still the stuff of science fiction. However, Heather Bromberg argues that through the use of “MUDs (multi-user dungeons/dimensions… and IRC (internet relay chat)… the experience of networked, text-based virtual reality can be at least as intense as that of multi-sensory VR” (Bromberg, 1996, 144). In this way, humanities greatest asset – the imagination is used to the full to transform the text on a screen into an all-encompassing new environment.
Is this therefore, any less of a valid experience than that of reading a book or watching a film, where the user loses themselves in the plot, the advantage of the internet is that rather than the activity being solitary, the user is actually interacting with people across the globe. The rise in the use of the internet means that there are vastly more possibilities for communication. On an anecdotal level, I have used the internet to keep in touch with my friend in Washington DC and read reports from another friend’s trekking holiday in Vietnam.
Only a few years ago, this kind of communication and ease of communication would have been unthinkable. As Marshall McLuhan prophesised, technology is making the world a smaller place. For example, it is possible for me to watch a live stream of television from Hiroshima (www. rcc. net/live/live. ram) or anywhere else in the world for that matter. The internet enables the user to build a global identity rather than being restrained by geography.
Shopping can be done on American websites and shipped to any location in the world, indeed I have bought books from Amazon. com (www. amazon. com), buying books which aren’t published in the United Kingdom and had them shipped to my address in England with very little delay or increase in cost. The use of file sharing programmes like the late Napster and more recently second generation programmes like Kazaa mean that music from all over the world from bands and artists who maybe don’t have recording or distribution deals is readily available.
At a slightly less frivolous level, websites such as Reuters (www. reuters. com) mean that rather than read a daily national newspaper and get the limited world view which that provides, I can access a global news agency and read stories about regions which interest me. The internet provides a truly global view which is reaching to the possibilities of McLuhan’s global village. Further to the issue of location, it is also possible to find information and groups on any conceivable hobby or interest. MSN. com (www. msn. om) lists over 50 different categories under which groups can be listed and include interest groups, I could join a group dedicated to racing small model cars which has 397 members (http://groups. msn. com/TheAdmiralsLair) or a group called World Socialism Now! which has 424 members (http://groups. msn. com/WorldSocialismNow). Further to actually joining individual groups to create and identity, an overall picture of the way I see myself could be easily created using internet community groups and e-mailing lists.
It is possible to join a Huddersfield community and receive e-mails containing news about Canada, check my friends website who lives in Brazil and join communities concerned with stamp collecting, folk music, far left politics and cricket. In this way, the social and intellectual needs of a person can be easily met from one computer console. I can meet people who share similar interests and converse with them in chat rooms, and the plethora of groups and websites I use would give a fairly clear indication of the interests I have and the sort of person I am.
An identity can be made up as a composite of internet usage. The potential for gathering information about different demographics isn’t lost on big business. It wouldn’t be too cynical to say that the reason MSN provides one login and password to log into any of their thousands of groups you want and to access your email allows them to build up a fairly detailed picture of a persons likes and interests, especially if that same email address is used for the purpose of internet shopping.
This information can then be sold to companies wanting to target advertising, hence the large amounts of ‘spam’ most people receive in the in-boxes. Slightly more sinister than this is the power of Governments to tap into such information. A recent report stated that the US government was seeking the power to get credit card companies to disclose information about their customers to them, this would enable them to build up a picture of everyone’s spending patterns, and show up any ‘abnormalities’ (http://www. cnn. com/2002/US/11/20/terror. tracking/index. tml). Not only does the internet boom mean that my activities are more open to scrutiny, but as more and more people live more and more of their lives on the internet the amount of actual human contact could decrease.
The dystopian image of lots of atomised people sitting behind computer screens and never actually interacting is already a possibility. You can work from home over the web, using online trading and investing or writing and emailing it to a publisher. You can buy virtually anything online from the auctions on ebay (www. ebay. co. k) to a full food shop from tesco. com (www. tesco. com) and have it all delivered direct to your door and as already discussed leisure activity can take place across the internet in a variety of different forms. In answer to the criticism of atomisation Paul Curtis says: “if someone is spending a large portion of their time being social with people who live thousands of miles away, you can’t say that they’ve turned inward. They aren’t shunning society, they’re actively seeking it, and they’re probably doing it more actively than anyone around them. ” (Curtis, 1994, 147)
The common conception therefore, of the internet user shunning society by creating another world for themselves to inhabit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If the world in which you live does not satisfy you then why should you have to put up with it, actively seeking out a rewarding and fulfilling environment in which to socialise could be a far healthier alternative. However, this is interaction with a computer rather than interaction with people, and the way in which this is carried out and the effects of it are vastly different to those necessary for full and rewarding relationships with real people in real life.
The health implications of such a life style are also obvious, spending all day sat in from of a computer screen isn’t going to give any exercise of any sort, and the damage to eye-sight of spending hours and hours staring at a screen is high. However, the internet allows people to ‘be who they want to be’. This philosophy springs from the lifestyle perception that in real life you have to make sacrifices for other people or for financial reasons, and therefore cannot live in the manner you would prefer. The internet allows you to ‘pretend’ that you are whatever you want to be.
In essence what this means in reality is that people can lie in chat rooms about themselves and get away with it. There have been high profile cases of paedophiles using the internet to attract children and pretending to be children themselves to gain their trust. However, it cannot be taken that the internet is at fault in this way, the internet does not make paedophiles; the way in which people use the medium is the problem. Another major example of the construction of an online identity is the personal homepage; this is exemplified by websites such as livejournal. om (www. livejournal. com), which lets the user create an online diary for other people to read. These can sometimes include quite private details about a person, and these files are open for anyone coming across them to read. In this way, the website holds only the information that the creator wants to be seen, therefore it is possible to create a public image which can be previewed to present the desired persona. Jeanine came over on Wednesday. We stayed in and had a video night. I can’t even remember what happened. I know we came on the internet for a little while though.
Had some interesting chats with a few people. We were gonna make fairy cupcakes, but we didn’t cause we’re too lazy. We watched American Pie 2, and a few of my really old RAGE videos. We talked about the good old times. It was much fun. We eventually got to sleep, and woke up extremely early. We headed into the city, and went to the Zoo for some animal fun. We saw so many cute things. The winners of the cute awards go to the baby meerkats(15 days old now), and the noisy otters. The lions were really cute too. I want to pet one. They look so soft. (http://www. ivejournal. com/users/8balldecline/)
This is fairly meaningless information, I have no idea who Jeanine is and I don’t know which city they mean and therefore the zoo which was visited. However, from the extract presented above, I can start to build a picture up about the person who wrote it. This information was entered by the user and therefore gives only information that they want to present. There is also an email link available so it would be possible for me to email the user and start up a conversation based on the information that they have presented.
Indeed, this person has created an in depth online identity which I or anyone can access and contact – this person would have to spend a large amount of time on the site to construct such a thing, indeed there is an entry every day for at least the last week, this could be described as ‘sad’ or introverted, but this user is presenting themselves for all the world to see and interact with. The future of the internet could well be to allow people far more options in communication, and if this satisfies the individuals needs then this cannot be a bad thing.