- Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online ed. by Anna Polettti and Julie Rak
How have new media technologies impacted the ways we construct ourselves online? This is the central question explored in the anthology Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, edited by Anna Poletti and Julie Rak. The book is a welcome contribution to the study of online identity because it includes classic reprinted texts that allow us to think back on central questions that have evolved over time, current empirical research, and reflections from leading scholars. Taken as a whole, the book provides a useful framework for understanding and investigating the field, and offers an agenda for future research.
One of the main goals of the book is to problematize “identity” as a frame through which to examine online texts and practices. Thus, the authors state that the goal of the book is to create a bridge between auto/biography studies and new media studies. Auto/biography studies have framed identity as a product of the writing process, not something essential that just exists. New media studies offer guidance for analyzing identity practices beyond text-based forms of writing, yet have a narrow view of self and self-representation. In their introduction, Poletti and Rak highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of these fields, making the case for examining the process of mediation in self-representation. As they write, “[we] must remain attentive to the self as an effect of representation—the affordances, strategies, techniques, and intended audiences—rather than one’s identity being expressed through online practices” (6).
Many of the chapters draw on the work of Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, whose book Reading Autobiography was published in 2001 and revised in 2010. Smith and Watson introduced several ways to think about “life narratives,” marking a critical turn in auto/biographical studies. Their work lays the groundwork for analyzing identity as both a process and a product in the digital age, where people simultaneously engage creatively with multiple forms of digital media while their information is increasingly turned into commercialized products. The book extends Smith and Watson’s work by [End Page 1133] examining how different forms of technologies can be used to write the self, and how they evoke power and knowledge formation.
The book is organized into four sections. The first section, “Foundations,” includes classic texts in the field as well as recent research that offers a theoretical foundation for merging new media studies with auto/biographical studies. The section begins with Helen Kennedy’s 2006 article reprinted from New Media & Society. Kennedy reviews over twenty years of research into online identity, arguing that Internet research in the 1990s was largely uncritical of the term “identity.” Scholars such as Sherry Turkle embraced cyberspace for its ability to free us from the constraints of our physical bodies. Instead, Kennedy draws on the work of cultural studies scholars Stuart Hall and Gilles Deleuze to frame online identity as more complex. Kennedy reports findings from her late 1990s ethnographic research on how ethnic minority women in the UK constructed their webpages. Kennedy found that there is a difference between being anonymous and feeling anonymous. Although her participants used “real” identity markers, they still felt anonymous. Kennedy’s research foreshadows work by scholars such as dannah boyd, who have argued that social networking sites (SNSs) make identity much more nuanced due to “networked publics,” and that we experience “context collapse” as we negotiate presenting ourselves to different audiences.
Lisa Nakamura’s classic work “Cyberrace” is also a must-read for critiquing early notions of online identity. Nakamura is critical of those who advocate that the Internet provides a disembodied experience where users can take on a range of raced identity categories. Nakamura argues that this narrow view creates a “false feeling of diversity and tolerance born of entitlement” (43). In her work, she is critical of “identity tourism,” which she found when MUD users created racialized avatars that reinforced racist stereotypes instead of opening new possibilities for...