When you traverse that vast, seemingly endless, digital landscape, you carry with you an identity, reflecting your beliefs, your motives, ideologies, likes, dislikes, friends, family and history. They are tied to you through your actions and engagements. You are Malcolm, or John, or Angela or Donald, and people engage with you based upon their reading of this identity. How people interact with a white middle-aged, male public servant may be different to how they engage with a young indigenous Australian female student. Your experiences online are coloured and shaped by an individual’s perception of you.
If online social interaction is simply an extension of an interpretation of identity, why do we so often find our online comments misinterpreted? What makes online social engagement so different from real life?
But maybe you aren’t you. You could be someone else, an identity constructed for the digital realm, a persona of your own design. You are Stargirl66, or Adam3ez. But even if the name is different, that online identity has its own lived uniqueness. The difference between being oneself, and being designed, is the context in which our interactions are understood; between lived contexts, and those developed within a digital landscape. This has been true for much of the Internet’s lifespan- the creation of alternative identities. That twenty-three-year-old woman playing an Elf Ranger may actually be a thirty-five-year-old school teacher; that silent dwarf in your video game may be a thirteen-year high school student. Unlike the use of our real-life identities, the creation of an alternative persona allows us to create a new lived context.
If online social interaction is simply an extension of an interpretation of identity, why do we so often find our online comments misinterpreted? What makes online social engagement so different from real life? Let’s imagine that you are casually browsing the web, when you come across, quite by chance, a solitary comment on a non-descript, generic forum. The comment has no author: no username, pseudonym, or collective identity. It is a comment in and of itself, and it reads: “A world without men would be a wonderful thing; at least then we’d get something done”. How do you respond to this? What is the meaning behind the comment? How do we determine intentionality, when the author ceases to exist? Perhaps it is a joke, or a political statement. Maybe it is a continuation of a previous conversation, or reference to a real world event. Perhaps it is all of these, or none. When we have access to an identity, real or not, we can often ascertain intentionality by situating it within the context of the author’s self. Yet, without an author, how do we discern intent? In this sense, there is a certain power to authorship.
Online interactions are based upon interpretations of intentionality- the motive or meaning behind a specific action. In real life, away from digital environments, intentionality, though not always straightforward, is linked to tone, context, body language, syntax and a host of others elements that facilitate successful social engagement. The ability to understand the meaning and intention behind statements and actions, and then select the correct response in turn, relies upon the interpretation of an individual’s intention. However, intentionality becomes blurry when transposed to the digital realm.
Even when an author is visible, our understanding of intentionality is influenced by our interpretation of the agent themselves, and this interpretation is not uniform. No single interpretation will ever be the same as our relation to the agent, their actions and intentionality is tied to our reading of their context and its relation to our own. Thus, the above comment, while sexist for some, becomes empowering for others, and infinitely more complex for others again. Give the same comment an identifiable author and its intention morphs once more, as our own understanding and interpretation of intentionality is influenced by personal experiences, and our relationship to the author’s own.
When viewed in this way, online interactions take on an interesting additional element. Does someone disagree with you because they are ideologically opposed to your beliefs, or is it a unique interpretation of intentionality? Moreover, does your interpretation of their intention align with their own? Certainly, navigating a digital space never calls for us to be this aware of intentionality, as a result, there is a tendency to rely on gut feelings and impulse.
I’ll leave you with my own experience with this issue of intentionality. Not long ago, my wife had begun to explore feminist theory. She was drawn to writers who utilised social media to help explore notions of inequality in an open forum. Of these, noted social commentator Clementine Ford was one of her favourites, as she represented, to my wife, a strong independent woman who was not afraid to fight back against online misogyny and sexism. Curious, I looked into Clementine’s work, and was somewhat shocked by what I interpreted as aggressive commentary. I read her work as angry, mean-spirited, and perhaps even bordering on ‘man-hating’. My interpretation was based upon my understanding of her identity, limited as it was, and in this, the intention behind her commentary.
Not long after, I was invited to speak at an event where Clementine also featured. Upon meeting her, I found her to be a polar opposite of the person I had constructed in my head. In adding to my understanding of her as author, this changed my reading of her work. The same comments which had been interpreted as aggressive, now took on a humorous tone, consistent with the woman that I had met. My interpretation of her as an author was influenced by my own understanding of her identity and intention.
An online identity is tricky. How we interpret someone’s commentary online is ultimately influenced by our reading of them as a person relative to our own experiences.
Obviously, you think that you are you, but do others see you the same way?