Life on the Screen (And the 20 years since)

Posted: September 7, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

In the 1990s, Sherry Turkle looked at the state of online society and wrote a bit about that society, about the lives of people behind and on the screen. One of the things she wrote was the book Life On the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster New York 1995). There is a lot to this book, and it is important, despite being dated.

Turkle is talking about MUDs (Multi User Domains), since those were largely all that existed at the time of her research.  So we should take what she wrote with a twenty year grain of salt; there are things we do now on a regular basis that wasn’t even imagined in her time. Even still, she has some amazing insights.Turkle is big on the opportunities for identity. She writes that “In cyberspace, we can talk, exchange ideas, and assume personae of our own creation” (9) and that “one’s body is represented by one’s own textual description, so the obese can be slender, the beautiful plain,the ‘nerdy’ sophisticated” (12). There is a lot of opportunity for identity development and identity exploration online. At the time, there was no choice but to create a personae, the accuracy of which was determined by each individual. This lack of body, so to speak, allowed people to experiment with new identities, and to see how others were treated.

Sherry Turkle does discuss ‘netsex,’ now more commonly known as ‘cybersex.’ She says that “Many people who engage in netsex say that they are constantly surprised by how emotionally and physically powerful it can be. They insist that it demonstrates the truth of the adage that ninety percent of sex takes place in the mind” (21). Cybersex is sex without bodies, purely minds. Aside from how interesting it is that people can be emotionally and physically satisfied by engaging in ‘sexual’ activity online, this is fascinating because it again suggests that online, we don’t have bodies. It’s all in the mind, as they say.

Turkle thinks, and I agree, that “We are moving toward a culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real” (23). In the past 15 years since the book was published, I think we have already taken great steps towards this culture. The number of people who not only play online games like World of Warcraft, but who even go so far as to have virtual weddings, funerals, and even virtual children certainly attests to that. Even blogs like this one are a substitution of a representation for the real. This isn’t an actual log of my thoughts and research; it’s a computer screen, a journal open to all. But I’m comfortable with that, with substituting the representation of reality for the real. I still ‘hear’ what people ‘say’ when they’re just writing, putting words on screen (not even paper!).

Online is a world of new identity. Turkle writes that “When we step through the screen into virtual communities, we reconstruct our identities on the other side of the looking glass” (177). Of course, we don’t literally step through, but we do create a new identity. One that may be actively separate from our real life identities. And that’s okay; it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It’s okay to have more than one identity. “in postmodern times, multiple identities are no longer so much at the margin of things. Many more people experience identity as a set of roles that can be mixed and matched, whose diverse demands need to be negotiated” (180). Multiple identities is not the same as multiple personalities. Online, it’s not the body. It’s a whole different world.

And there are different rules in this different world. In this world, we create personae, not bodies. “Creating screen personae is thus an opportunity for self-expression, leading to her feeling more like her true self when decked out in an array of virtual masks,” which means people can explore and express themselves online. And not just once; “Traditional ideas of identity have been tied to a notion of authenticity that such virtual experiences actively subvert. When each player can create many characters and participate in many games, the self is not only decentered but multiplied without limit” (185). Online, someone can be multiple people, sometimes at the same time. And there is no way to authenticate who that person ‘really’ is; they are all of those people, all of those identities.

It’s not all creation, though. Most of it is exploration; “people don’t just become who they play, they play who they are or who they want to be or who they don’t want to be. Players sometimes talk about their real selves as a composite of their characters and sometimes talk about their screen personae as means for working on their RL [real life] issues” (192). Online, it is possible to explore aspects of personality by focusing and enhancing that aspect for an online persona. It is also possible to learn how to be something or someone that a person wants to be. Online, they get to ‘practice.’

Turkle goes on to talk about gender identity, and about the ease of ‘swapping’ genders online. I can agree with this, but there’s a lot of legitimacy issues that come up when that happens. Also, it’s the subject of a lot of my other research, so I won’t touch on it here.

What I will say is that as insightful as Turkle’s book is, we must keep in mind that it is horribly outdated. There are pages explaining what a ‘Window’ is, or what a ‘desktop’ is; both terms that probably did need explanation when she originally researched and wrote the book, but today are part of common parlayance. She is also unable to discuss the effect of avatars, or even images, in online identity. There is a lot of work done since, and a lot of important things that Turkle was unable to discuss. That doesn’t make it any less of a great book; I only bring it up to remind us to take that grain of salt when reading it.

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