Identity and Presence Online

x-posted to the Civic blog

Last week, I had the honor of speaking on one of the plenary panels at the Media in Transition conference at MIT.  I talked about an idea I’ve been playing with, identity versus presence in the online space. People seemed interested in hearing a little more, so here are my thoughts on the subject right now.

The theme of the conference was public and private media, and there were lots of amazing panels talking about, in one way or another, performances, manifestations, usurpations, and repurposings of identity online.  The presentations were brilliant, but as I’m coming down off of writing my masters thesis on activist DDOS actions (ten days till final submission!), I found myself thinking about the concept of “presence,” and how the online space, and the civic space in general, is and is not structured to allow manifestations of presence over performances of identity.

Collective actions, like marches, sit-ins, occupations, and activist DDOS actions, don’t primarily rely on the discreet, performed identities of participants to be effective. Rather, they rely on manifestations of “presence,” which I’m preliminarily defining as anonymous or named manifestations of individuals or communities without many of the performative or explicative aspects we associate with (online) identity.  Ricardo Dominguez of the the Electronic Disturbance Theater often described their activist DDOS actions with appeals to the concept of an observing group, or as he put it with regard to the toywars action in 1999, “the presence of a global group of people gathered to bear witness to a wrong.”  Activist actions which invite the participation of the public, like marches or petition drives, invite that participation on the level of largely undifferentiated collections of people who are performing one or two functions: witnessing a wrong, standing against injustice, showing interest in a cause or question.  Who these participants are at an individual level is not really relevant to the purpose they serve by being there.  The anonymous vote is similar, the identity of the vote should not be relevant to the fact that they cast a vote (though vote ID laws may be chipping away at this).  It is the manifestation of presence, not identity of the individual participant/voter.

The online space as it has developed, with its current emphasis on constructed/generated profiles, individual-level social networking, and the variety of social rankings that accompany it, is skewed to favor performances of individual identity.  This is useful for many things, and is certainly desirable by the commercial entities which currently dominate that space.  But though it is easy for an individual to create an identity performance online and to engage in a myriad of individual speech acts, it is difficult for that same person to simply add their presence to a online-based collective action (and I thank Biella Coleman for pointing this out in one of her comments on my thesis).  This discourages certain types of civic and activist action online.

I see identity and presence not as oppositional concepts (the title of this blog post notwithstanding), but rather as points on a continuum of ways of being in the world.  Right now I see the emphasis on identity online crowding out presence, though it is there if you look.  Search and popularity algorithms incorporate the presences of millions of users to determine search and “what’s hot now” rankings.  Clicks, views, and likes are manifestations of presence once collected and presented as an artifact’s modifying statistics, though they may be performances of identity for an individual clicker or liker.

I’m left with a giant pile of questions, and few answers.  Is “presence” primarily something that is observed from the outside?  Can the same action be a manifestation of presence AND a performance of identity?  Is there a space for this concept of “presence” on the internet as it currently exists?  How does data privacy and anonymization fit in with “presence”?  How can collective action and other “presence”-based civic activities be enabled online?

What do you all think? If you’ve got questions or comments (or recommended reading!), please leave them in the comments.