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Surplus Identity On-Line

Ultimately -- and, perhaps, sadly -- the freedom to be someone else on-line is an illusory freedom. We do not escape real life on-line, anymore than we escape the realm of necessity by working 40 or more hours a week.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #18, January 1995

When I log on to the Internet, one of the first things I do is finger my friends. Finger is a UNIX command which allows you to peek at another user's account (you can also finger yourself, which I do often); when I write "finger," I will see my office number, the date and time of my most recent login, some clever quotes I've put in my .plan file, and two versions of my name. Across the top of my account, it reads: Login name: annaleen; In Real Life: Annalee Newitz. I have had to alter my account to include my name in real life. Many accounts you finger will simply say, for example:

Login name: boop
In Real Life: ???

Sometimes this is because the user doesn't know how to add her real name to the finger file. But sometimes it's because the user wants to distinguish her on-line identity from real life so much that she refuses to divulge her real name to the casual fingerer.

On-line Personas

To me, the idea that Net identities are divergent from identities in the flesh is common sense. As a teenager in the mid-80s, I was part of a group of computer geeks who met on-line in a primitive version of what the Internet is today. Called WizNet, this local Orange County BBS sponsored e-mail and a multi-user chat capacity. Mostly, we met to chat, which meant that up to nine of us could log on and speak to each other. In chat, the screen looked like a play in the process of being written by its own actors. Each of us had an on-line alias (called a handle), and whenever we typed something it would appear after our handle, like so:

Gonif: Hi everybody, whats up with you today?
Shockwave Rider: <yawning> I'm really bored. Do you guys want to see a movie later?
Gandalf: I don't want to see another one of those fucking art movies. Can we see Terminator again?
Ectoplasm: Sounds good to me! <grins happily>

As you can see, we could emote by putting our facial expressions or feelings in <this format>. We would change our handles if we wanted to appear as someone else. The Gonif, quite famous in on-line Orange County for his cracking skills, often came to WizNet undercover as Jeff... (with ellipsis), which was his name in real life (without ellipsis). Had he always come as The Gonif, he would have been inundated with questions from his fans.

The odd naming and speaking customs of Internet users have been well-documented by high tech journalist Howard Rheingold (Virtual Communities: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier), Ed Krol (The Whole Internet Users Guide and Catalogue), and others. In the main, what has stuck with us from the days of WizNet and its ilk is a lingering sense that when we are on-line, we are somehow not ourselves. It is quite common for people to assert on Internet newsgroups or mailing lists that they behave very differently in real life. "Usually I'm very shy," a person told me recently in e-mail, "but on-line I'm quite talkative." I have never failed to be shocked, at some level, when meeting somebody in person after corresponding or chatting with them on-line. Rarely do they match my mental image of them, as bodies or personalities. I suspect that other people have had the same experience. Something about communicating on-line seems to change who we are and how we interact with others.

This is simply to say that one of the most prevalent customs of the on-line world involves changing our identities. Of course, we do not really become someone else on-line; what we are actually doing is splitting our identities into real life and on-line parts. On-line, we put a different face forward, as it were. We invent an on-line persona for ourselves. This persona may differ from us only insofar as it can access vast amounts of information and resources quickly. Or it may be a self we use to communicate socially, in which case it can take on personality traits unlike those we display in real life. That it is common to take on an on-line persona indicates how different we feel when we communicate in cyberspace — a medium which seems to erase our physical bodies.

Indeed, there are certain regions of the Internet (and other large-scale services like CompuServe or America On-line), where it is inappropriate ever to be yourself. Two regions in particular, known as MUDs and MOOs (multi-user dungeons and multi-user environments), require that each person participating become a character with fictionalized attributes. A MUD (based in part on the popular role playing games inspired by Dungeons and Dragons) works something like WizNet: your screen represents the dungeon and its inhabitants by writing a script of what is occurring. The entire MUD is built by its creators and users with various commands — it is an interactive environment, with a huge geography. Depending on where you go and who you go with, various adventures ensue. There are no graphics in MUDs or MOOs, hence your character sees this:

> It is dark all around you. You can hear water running.

In response, you might say:

> Go west.

And the computer will reply:

> You are now at the top of a small hill, and can see a waterfall. A dryad looks at you shyly.

If you meet another character (who is, like you, inhabiting a persona), you might see this:

> Aethelrad: Would you like to go in search of some enchanted armor with me and my party? We have some magic users, and could use a warrior like yourself.

To this, you might respond by looking at Aethelrad to see what kind of character he is, how much MUD experience he has, and what kind of gear he is wearing. Everyone's character can be looked at in this manner, simply by executing a command such as "look Aethelrad". Maybe you will go with Aethelrad and his party, or maybe you will just stop and talk to Aethelrad for a while.

MUDs — and MOOs especially — are as much social environments as they are games. People go to meet other people and talk. Conversations on the MOO I used to frequent (the Postmodern Culture MOO in North Carolina) brought people together from all over the world. Of course, I didn't ever know their real names, nor did I know them. They didn't know me either — my handle was "Human", and if you looked at me, you would discover that I had no gender. MOOs and MUDs are famous for being places where you can become whomever you desire. People will cross-gender, or become another species, or simply assign attributes to themselves which they wish they had in real life. I have known many computer geeks, shy and awkward in person, who become brazen warriors on their favorite MUD, raping and pillaging like pros. Indeed, one of the clandestine activities of the MUD and MOO is cybersex, in which two personas make love to one another with words and <gestures>. Stereotypically virginal in real life, the geek or Net surfer can be as romantic and erotic as he wishes on-line, where no one sees him for who he really is.

This dissociation of a "real life" self from an "on-line" self can be similar to the separation we expect to exist between somebody's face-to-face behavior and their written work. For instance, one might distinguish between Annalee-the-critic and Annalee-the-person, because when I write criticism I am far more careful and organized about what I say. For many people, the difference between their on-line persona and their real life identity boils down to such a distinction — they will claim that they are someone else on-line in the same way T.S. Eliot is one man in the flesh, and quite another in his poetry. You might say that the on-line / real life split identity exists on a kind of continuum: on one end, there are those who completely rebuild themselves on-line (such as going from Jeff the geek in real life to Aethelrad the warrior on a MUD); on the other end, there are those who feel they are different only insofar as written communication is different from face-to-face communication.

While there is some validity to the claim that we are not the same in writing as we would be in person, writing on the Net is not equivalent to writing an essay, poem, or novel. In general, writing on the Net — especially if you are chatting — is quite informal, often obscure and elliptical. It is hardly the mirror of formal writing, which is done alone and without a specific, individual reader in mind. Of course, some writing on the Net is formal, but this is not the writing I have in mind here. What I mean is the writing we do to each other on-line — the way we communicate ourselves to other people we know on the Net. If our on-line selves are so disconnected from ourselves in real life, how can we claim that interpersonal communication occurs at all in cyberspace?

Split Identities

To understand the importance of other selves in cyberspace, we need to step back a bit and consider what exactly we mean by "in real life" and the self who exists there. Obviously, "in real life" refers to how you appear physically, since you cannot literally be seen on-line. But it also indicates something about who you are in person — a set of behaviors which cannot be seen even in pictures — the way you express yourself verbally, your hand gestures, a certain demeanor.

Most importantly, perhaps, existing "in real life" means dealing directly with the material world. This may mean the sheer, physical fact of our racial, gendered, and sexual bodies and how other people react to them without bothering to learn about who we are as individuals. On a more general level, the material world is what Marx calls the realm of necessity, which requires us to eat, breathe, and sleep safely so that we may be healthy and reproduce as a species. Human labor, according to Marx, is most importantly an effort to escape the realm of necessity: we work in order to get beyond our material needs to the realm of freedom. In the realm of freedom, we can invent philosophies, sciences, identities, and societies which are not strictly material.

In a capitalist culture, where work means selling your labor time to someone else, it is hard to survive in the realm of necessity (real life) without developing what amounts to a split personality. Your personality and behavior change at work. You must smile at the customers and thank them even if you feel sad, or keep working in spite of your fatigue. Outside work, you are free, and often behave quite differently. You do this to survive, to make money.

Therefore, that we feel compelled to change ourselves in order to enter cyberspace is not due to the nature of cyberspace itself. Rather, it is an extension of the way our real life society operates. In everyday life, people are encouraged to split themselves: with two personalities, they can function more effectively at work, and then return home to play, to the family, to a club, etc. Quite simply, we are used to conceiving of different social environments — like cyberspace — as requiring us to be different people. In fact, one might argue that MUD and MOO identities are versions of the masks we wear in any work or public situation. On-line, we are more self-conscious (and perhaps more in control) of the masks we put on to meet people, but I would not want to argue that Aethelrad's swordplay on a MUD is any less real than a CEO's arrogant bluster at a meeting.

Considered in this light, it would seem that our on-line personas are just one more series of selves our everyday lives ask that we create in order to deal with a variety of situations. The difference between a cyberspace persona and an ordinary workplace persona is that it is one more step removed from material reality. Unlike a workplace persona, the cyberspace persona does not exist in a direct relationship to survival on any level. It is a surplus personality, a self we take on for pleasure or just because it seems right. We are no longer simply split between a "work" self and a "not work" self; we have a series of selves we put on which seem to serve no useful purpose. Mainly what these extra selves do is reassure us how distant we are from a realm of necessity in which we are all just biological organisms trying to survive.

Perhaps, as Alvin Toffler muses in Future Shock (1971), contemporary life calls for a new kind of consciousness, one which seems crazy to us now. This new form of consciousness, which is basically schizophrenic, does not require that we be a whole self. Describing the development of virtual reality economies (like those associated with cyberspace), Toffler asks:

What happens when an economy in search of a new purpose, seriously begins to enter into the production of experiences for their own sake, experiences that blur the distinction between...the simulated and the real? One of the definitions of sanity, itself, is the ability to tell real from unreal. Shall we need a new definition?

Toffler's questions suggest that we may be clinging to outdated definitions of sanity. We should not worry about whether our behavior on-line is true to who we are because the idea of "real" is itself meaningless. Nor should we wonder at an economy which encourages us to forget the distinction between material reality and virtual reality. Confusion about who we are and what is real, Toffler claims, are not danger signs, however frightening and upsetting they may appear. But offering schizophrenia as a solution we might embrace is essentially to propose that we enjoy a state of mind that clearly alarms us.

Against Surplus

I would argue that our confusion about what constitutes "real life" does not come from virtual and simulated technologies themselves, but something fundamental to the way capitalist ideology encourages us to structure our identities. In order to induce people to work, capitalism promises them freedom from necessity. This is not unlike what any economic system might promise. But, in capitalism, the promise goes beyond simply freedom from necessity. It is a promise of surplus, or absolute transcendence of the realm of necessity. We find the allure of surplus everywhere in capitalist societies: capitalist production generates surplus value; advertising seduces us with surplus pleasures; and at present cyberspace promises us surplus identity.

Capitalism is a system which tries to deny that the realm of necessity exists by focusing our attention on the accumulation of things and sensations which are not necessary for survival. Thus the person in a capitalist culture avoids remembering that she works to survive by concentrating instead on working for a surplus of free time known as leisure. She also obscures the relationship between work and survival by inventing a false relationship between work time and free time (play time). Those who embrace capitalism claim that its beauty as a system resides exactly in an ability to produce such surpluses of luxury and progress. Ironically, no one seems to remember that if we worked simply to survive we would have far more free time than we do at present. Surplus labor (extra work) is required to produce surplus value. And ultimately, for most people, overwork is what drives them to seek out leisure cultures — such as those in cyberspace — which promise an escape from the real world.

Indeed, Henri Lefebvre argues in his Critique of Everyday Life that the relationship we set up between work and leisure is, in fact, a warning to us that our everyday life is deeply alienating. Why invent leisure if work is fulfilling? And why work so hard to have fun? We work to earn our leisure, and leisure only has one meaning: to get away from work. "A vicious circle," Lefebvre writes. Work and leisure identities, trapped in a vicious circle, are not as separate as we might like to believe. Seen from this angle, Toffler's new definition of sanity is just wishful thinking. In the end, he is merely demonstrating that it is easier to be insane than to experience a unified identity in contemporary capitalism.

To a certain extent, I want to suggest that capitalism — and its attendant phenomena like cyberspace — keep us crazily lusting after surplus in order to distract us from criticizing what it represents. In this instance, it represents a force which is obstructing us from understanding how our work is inexorably linked to our survival as a species in the material world. Without a link to the material world, our work comes to seem meaningless. We work hard so that we can get more work, and more money, and perhaps a better job in the future. Rather than genuinely enjoying the fruits of our labor, we are burdened with the constant question, "How can I get more?" In a culture of surplus value, freedom is understood to mean possession: the more objects you own, the freer you are. Perhaps we think of ourselves as "free" in cyberspace because having an account on the Net allows you to own yet another extra space, and a new version of yourself in it.

Ultimately — and, perhaps, sadly — the freedom to be someone else on-line is an illusory freedom. We do not escape real life on-line, anymore than we escape the realm of necessity by working 40 or more hours a week. Getting a different name, leaving your body behind, or writing rather than speaking do not mean you are any less the person who has to get up at 6:00 am to make your morning commute. Nor will it be any easier for you to deal with your physical characteristics if you can pretend sometimes, on-line, that you do not have any. Inventing a self on-line which contradicts other aspects of your identity only perpetuates the problems we associate with real life and its vicious circles. Cyberspace personas do not free us; they doom us to an endless series of half-lives and partial selves which cannot adequately express who we are and what we desire.

If we are not required to desire anything other than the elusive surplus promised to us, our identities themselves seem to hinge upon useless accumulation. We are taught, in effect, that our essences are constituted by the act of acquiring more selves. Rather than acknowledging that we are physical beings dependent upon the material world to survive, we fool ourselves into thinking that basic, healthy survival is somehow animalistic, and hence degraded. Owning as many selves as possible is supposed to be the measure of our freedom. Were we to have more time to think, rather than to perform surplus work, I believe we would wish for a society in which material reality is not so radically removed from the rest of our lives. We might yearn for and begin to build a society in which we do not wish to become someone else — on-line or anywhere — because we are generally satisfied with our identities in real life.

I am confident that we desire a world like this because, as human beings, we are always searching for ways to reimagine ourselves and our relationships with each other. Society on the Net reminds us that we want be changed, both as individuals and as a community. It is true that the ways people alter their identities on the Net are not always Utopian or progressive. But sometimes, a new culture like that found in cyberspace gives us a taste of what the world would be like if we were to change what we are by becoming who we want to be. One day, perhaps, we will know what it is to experience our identities as the unity of necessities met and freedom gained. We will always have separate selves and different parts to our personalities. But hopefully we will not always accumulate surplus identities to forget who we really are and the life we have in common with one another.

Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer and Co-Production Director for Bad Subjects. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in English at UC-Berkeley, writing her dissertation on monsters and psychopaths in American popular culture.

Copyright © by Annalee Newitz 1995. All rights reserved.