Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dysfunctional identity

British PR guru Richard Stacy dropped a column into Social Computing magazine called "10 Predictions To Help Define the Social Media Revolution" which looks to be a lot of marketing-speak but has one nugget buried far down (prediction #10, actually) which intrigues:

Prediction #10: The emergence of 'Digital Identity Stress' and 'Digital Schizophrenia' as recognized medical conditions.
He elaborates at length on this, and it isn't easily encapsulated. Read the whole thing (well, the whole "#10" thing), but here's the flavor:

"Much of the interaction with online social networks involves constructing a form of identity. On the one hand, that identity can be very basic and related to a specific function, such as your identity as a reliable ebay partner, or it can be highly elaborate and revealing, such as the profiles teenagers build for themselves in MySpace or people put in blogs.

There are two defining characteristics of almost all forms of digital identity. The first is that they usually require significant amounts of time to maintain and there is a form of digital entropy that applies even more strongly than in the real world that dictates that digital information decays in its perceived or actual relevance at a tremendous rate (see, even entropy has its own digital identity). I recently came across a blogger who decided to re-blog some of his earlier posts because he thought they were actually quite good, but because they were more than a few months old, nobody would find or look at them under normal circumstances. Essentially, you have to manage your digital identities in much the same way as a newsroom – ensuring a constant stream of up-to-date output and there probably comes a time, at around about three months, where if an identity has not been refreshed in some way it will be assumed to be dead (or at the very least, dormant).

The second characteristic is that digital identities all differ in some way (either as a result of deliberate intent or circumstance) from an offline or real-world identity and from each other. We all know about the issue of people misrepresenting themselves in chat rooms and forums, but at a much less sinister level almost all forms of digital identity have a specific purpose and therefore represent a much more manipulated or crafted persona than that which tends to emerge more naturally through offline social interaction.

These two characteristics have the potential, either individually or in collaboration, to introduce enormous personal stresses. On the one hand the ability to create differences between digital and real-world identity and between individual digital identities presents huge opportunities to fuel schizophrenic tendencies or to actually bring about a form of schizophrenia where it didn’t exist before. And on the other hand the pressures of maintaining and reconciling a variety of digital identities will also generate problems – either because of the time and effort involved or because of the need or desire to create consistency.

We all experience a very mild form of this stress already when we are faced with the user name and password conundrum. Whenever we sign-up to a new digital Thing the inevitable first step is the creation of a user name and password. Now our experience with the emergence of email has taught us that selection of user name in particular is a highly significant event. User names can very rarely be changed and they are often a very visible component of an online identity. However, we are asked to select them at a time when we have no real idea what we are signing up to and what its future usage and implications might be. This is compounded by a recognition that getting in early and getting a “good” user name is highly desirable. Everyone wants to be John Smith@ rather than jr_smith9735@. The process of thinking of and registering an appropriate user name therefore becomes stressful. Passwords are less of an issue because they can be changed. The issue with passwords is more a consistency one – remembering and managing all the various ones you have established.

It can therefore only be a matter time before these stresses manifest themselves in defined psychological conditions – indeed I would be willing to bet that there already forms of schizophrenia where different personalities have already been allocated their own exclusive digital territories. At the very least we can expect a whole host of new forms of social behaviour to emerge – providing fertile territories for psychologists as well as market researchers who have found the market for conventional communications research drying-up as organisations no longer need an intermediary to tell them what their consumes think (reference Prediction #6)."

While we've been well aware for many years that an on-line personality can be, literally, an alter ego (i.e., "another self"), a projection of those personality attributes we wish we had, I can't remember anyone referring to this as a schizoid situation. But the possibilities are intriguing.

On the other hand, the stress engendered by trying to manage multiple on-line personas, each with a changing set of attributes and all needing some bits kept private while revealing others could become an issue - even if they were all more-or-less true to our actual, physical identities. Trying to juggle multiple fictitious personas could be debilitating or worse. Studies need to be done.

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