Identity as a multilayered self in web 2.0 environments

by Alessandro Ludovico

The dissolution of the ‘identity’ as we used to know it (before the networks) has led to an ongoing fragmented and fast evolution. In the networked era identities can be formed by extremely varied and juxtaposed layers of the enriched self. This process derives from the constant mediation that internet applies to every identity through multiple platforms and standards such as the popular web 2.0 ones. This leads to multiple partial representations of the self in a multilayered form. What happens is that out of the ordinary physical life, our mind has already started to think in this terms.

We feel our identity not anymore as an indivisible whole, but as composed of different pieces that are deeply and reciprocally influenced by our online experience. Aesthetically wise these juxtaposed layers have different shades of transparency and they are redundant, hosting similar scattered bits of personal content. And the transparency of the self seems to be reflected in different cultural fields. Mainly aesthetically as in the pervading use of glass in public architecture or in the transparency textures of fancy dresses, or functionally in the continuous recording of every electronic move we do. We are then (voluntary and involuntary) coding new parts of our informational body. That’s why real persons can be undistinguishable from the character they should assume on an online platform. The avatar, for example, has evolved from an iconic pixelated representation of the self into only one of the many virtual layers on which we stratify our public presence. Online identities can be typified in a sort of “species” taxonomy. It’d be summarized as: the real person, a real person assuming a famous character and playing as him/her, a real person creating and playing a plausible fictitious character, and finally a computer generated and self-sufficient character. Cheating in an online profile is as common as the projection of a desire or an emotion on a networked environment, and in the end conscious and unconscious emotions are actively building the enriched self.

The emotion of triggering off a new or re-enabling an old human relationship, for example, is one of the most precious goods that social network platforms sell to customers. In a certain sense, it can be pushed to the extreme, as Ramsay Stirling does in his “Internet delivers people”, with user identities being analyzed as the final goods traded on the net. But it’s not only about emotions and meeting of individualities. It’s also about the intertwining of the different relationships that starts to move on the matrix where the loosely attached piece of the self move onto. The hundreds of Facebook “friends”, coupled with the offline ones, and the others scattered on the other different platforms are writing a sort of automatic narrative that can always be dreamed as “fatally wonderful” at some random point. In this sense “The Big Plot” by Paolo Cirio is a multifaceted plot that after creating the intertwining paths between its four protagonists let user create other characters that would interact with them in a quite engaging and complex narrative. This narrative involves the so-called “alternate reality game”, then actively implementing a part of it in real life as well. This “recombinant fiction” results then quite close to our multi-mediated and multi-dimensional self of the everyday. This injection of reality into the screen-based relationships is then definitely balancing the fictitiousness of programmable illuminated pixels with the flesh of reality. This definitely adds a stable character of fluctuation to the self, that varies continuously and in multiple forms the individual position in the contemporary mediated social landscape.

Alessandro Ludovico is a media critic and chief editor of the Neural magazine  from 1993. He is the author of several essays on digital culture, and he co-edited the ‘Mag.Net Reader’ book series. He’s one of the founding contributors of the Nettime  community, one of the founders of the Mag.Net (Electronic Cultural Publishers) organization. He teaches at the Academy of Art in Carrara  and is a research fellow at the Willem de Kooning Academy . He also served as an advisor for the Documenta 12’s Magazine Project. With Ubermorgen and P.Cirio he developed ‘Google Will Eat Itself’ (Honorary Mention Prix Ars Electronica 2005, Rhizome Commission 2005, nomination Prix Transmediale 2006) and ‘Amazon Noir’ (1st prize Stuttgarter Filmwinter 2007, Honorary Mention Share Prize 2007, 2nd prize Transmediale08) art projects.

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