The human experience of identity has two elements:
a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate.
Windley, Phillip J. Digital Identity. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2005.

Now that we say more of our selves, are we saying less?

In 2006, for the first time in history, the Canadian National Census questionnaire made its way to the country’s 32.5 million residents. It included a new confidentiality question that asked Canadians to approve or disapprove of their personal information being included in the census. Historians feared that survey participants did not realize the importance of the option and initiated a publicity campaign to educate the country on the implications of such question, and on why people should care about it even though this census is released to the public in 2098. It was an education on how the information will be useful then, specially in regards to identity and the social way of living.

Contemporary digital environments have allowed a re-thinking of our selves and of how we relate, connect and present to/with others. The popularity of digital social networking sites, instant messaging platforms, discussion forums, email, the emergence of the blog as a publishing tool, collaborative online games, and live digital worlds like Second Life have transmuted the way personal identity is thought of and handled.

Online environments allow the users to digitally curate their own lives. The creation of these selves is managed through text, images and as of recently, video. Users can write/post/upload any information they want. Further depth can be achieved by having the digital content annotated, commented and further developed by others. This process is reciprocal in nature, for users can simultaneously act as others, commenting and annotating content. Someone’s digital public image is the product of the sum of individual interventions and social contributions. Personal and external texts are illustrating the image of who we become in a digital realmRoland Barthes in Image, Music, Text talks about this change in roles. “In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image. Formerly, the image illustrated the text (made it clearer); today the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination. Formerly, there was reduction from text to image; today, there is amplification from the one to the other”.. Therefore, we exist by implication.

In the digital realm there is no longer a singular visible self, but a sum of many different selves created from a plurality of options available by the simultaneous participation in various digital social platforms. What we do, where we are, and who we are in real life have no bearing on what others now learn about ourselves (unless we want them to). We constantly juggle between who we are and what we digitally allow others to see or know about us.

This split has extended to the social and cultural spheres. The physical world is no longer a unique reality. The digital environment has developed a life of its own. People can now have a digital life, even though it must still be framed to biologically respond to the impulses and needs generated by their physical self, and this new social being allows people to externalize themselves in an ideological manner in as many digital ways as wanted (or needed).

The social migration to the digital pluralization of the self raises concerns over the implications of such a shift to generations that follow. Digital information is not tangible information. In these digital realms, we don’t have original paintings, but digital creations from which multiple originals can be made. Our cemeteries and burial grounds are now inactive web pages and broken links. Scrolls and documents do not have weight or presence. These cannot be dusted for no dust falls on magnetic streams of information that cannot be seen or touched. The tactile world is being deposited into an abstract and ungraspable set of ideas. Identity is moving along too as part of the crowd.

What kind of mark, if any, is being left for others to decode once we are gone? What part of us will we leave for others to know who we were? How will the future handle so many of one? Will there be a way to understand that many can be the same one? Will we be able to leave a legacy if who we are may not be clear?

In 1976, two paleoanthropologists led by anthropologist Mary Leakey, found, not far from the village of Laetoli in Tanzania, two pairs of footprint fossils that challenged the existing human evolutionary framework. The discovery, as any of this nature, fuelled much debate. Some argue the footprints were made by early hominids who resembled contemporary humans in stride and standing posture, in which case this would represent the earliest proof of bipedal locomotion in the archaeological record. Merely from these marks, information about posture, stance, height and weight of their makers has been deduced. Other professionals, rooting their argument on the historical and artifactual record, challenge the idea that Laetoli marks were made by possible ancestors since there is no evidence of human culture or intelligence during the time period to which the fossils are being credited to. It is of no particular importance to this essay if the footprints actually date as far as the discoverers argue, but the fact that a debate exists over some physical marks left in the ground millions of years ago. There is tangible evidence that can be studied and talked about. What really matters is that a legacy was left behind.

We know of early pre-historic hunting strategies from the Lascaux Cave drawings. We study Egyptian pharaohs and their burial techniques because we were able to find mastabas, pyramids, temples and scrolls. We can imagine the Loch Ness Monster because we have seen blurry images. To Catholics, Jesus Christ is God, not human, because it was so decided, and we have proof, through the documents from the Council of Nicea. We can visualize Jesus’ face because we have seen it in the Turin Shroud. Stonehenge is an international mystery because of the unexplainable rocks still standing in its space. We believe man has visited the moon because we all have seen the video of it. As the digitalization of society pluralizes and infects every aspect of our daily lives, how will later people know about us?

One of our basic human acts is that of inhabiting, of connecting ourselves with a place that belongs to us, and to which we belong. Context is important. We use it in the development and management of understanding our identity. We are good evaluating and deciphering the information handed to us as we experience the physical world around us. The digital world thus presents an interesting challenge: there is no actual space around us. Virtual space is somewhere, just not here or there. We cannot be in it. It cannot be around us. We do not exist in it. We can only control a representation of ourselves.

People are visually mapping new creations of/for themselves.

Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace provide personal homepages (that become altars to the ideal self) as templates for the users people to fill-in and let others know about who they are. The content on these pages is becoming a sort of social truth, empowering users to make whatever they want of themselves. We can become what we pretend to be. For some, this is the opportunity to be someone they had always wished of being or to become their ideal selves. For others, this is a unique way in which they can explore the possible self that they can never be or to behave in ways they never thought possible.

In one such case, a girl was impregnated in a one-night stand and due to the strict beliefs and traditional values of the family, ended up engaged to the father of her yet to born child. She, in order to avoid her reality, used her Facebook profile to show others how happy she was with her engagement and her future marriage. She posted photos, texts and videos of herself and a guy (whom she lovingly referred to as her boyfriend) showing off the engagement ring without ever mentioning the coming child. In real life she was impregnated, in digital life she is happily engaged.

In another example, companies now research social networking sites before hiring potential new employees. There has been the case of a person, whom upon attending a job interview, had to talk about annotations made to some photographs of him drunk displayed on his Facebook page. He may or may not be drunk every weekend, but the employer just has to read the comments left by some of the friends on certain photographs to get the wrong impression.

Virtual worlds like Second Life, contrary to the previous examples, build on a framework of disembodied visual, audial and tactile exchanges. In this alternate reality, those who choose to join the service are asked to create an avatar, or a visual digital representation of their own creation, which can be whatever their imagination allows: a man, a woman, a cat, or a human dressed as a dragon Roland Barthes said “a myth is a system of communication, that it is a message”. In a sense, through the creation of these avatars the users of Second Life could be creating myths of themselves. As per Barthes in Mythologies, “The myth of the Abbé Pierre has at its disposal a precious asset: the physiognomy of the Abbé. It is a fine physiognomy, which clearly displays all the signs of apostleship: a benign expression, a Franciscan haircut, a missionary’s beard, all this made complete by the sheepskin coat of the worker-priest and the staff of the pilgrim.” In Second Life, users have all that is necessary for them to create their own physiognomy.. Once the avatar is ready (by the user’s wishes), he (maybe now a she) or she (maybe now a he) can have it teleport through three-dimensional spaces where it can communicate with other avatars, own money, be part of an economical system, purchase virtual land, build property, own material artifacts, attend concerts, stay in hotels, have sexual relations, be run over by a car and not die, swim without the necessity of air, or even get married. The avatar can be made to have a complete life of its own.

The extent to which the participation in these social environments enables us to establish a self that contains meaning is questionable. The digital realm voids the human experience of physical presence or permanence. We have no point of reference on any person we meet in these digital spaces. We cannot grasp how much of the physical self is evident in these digital recreations. There is no understanding of the relationship of this digital persona and the physical counterpart that is communicating through it. As in the case of the person whose photo annotations were brought up in a job interview, there is no real way of knowing if his friends exaggerated, if they were telling the truth or simply being funny. When facing Second Lifers, the relationship between avatar and creator multiplies intentional ambiguities before our eyesMichel Foucalt uses this idea to delve into the ambiguities of having two representations of the same object come together in the painting Les Deux mystères (1966) by René Magritte. He ponders, “There are two pipes. Or rather must we say, two drawings of the same pipe? Or yet a pipe and a drawing of that pipe? Or yet again two drawings each representing a different pipe? Or two drawings, one representing a pipe and the other not, or two more drawings yet , of which neither the one nor the other are or represent pipes? Or yet again, a drawing representing not a pipe at all but another drawing, itself representing a pipe so well that I must ask myself: To what does the sentence written in the painting relate?” The relationship between an Avatar and its creator is thus looked at in this paper with a similar lens. What is it that we are really looking at in Second Life? . We are not really there, even though we are thereRoland Barthes’ study of the photographic message in Image Music Text seems fit to expand on the problematic viewpoint of having to face an avatar. “It is thus at the level of this denoted message or message without a code that the real unreality of the photograph can be fully understood: its unreality is that of the here-now, for the photograph is never experienced as illusion, is in no way a presence (claims as to the magical character of the photographic image must be deflated); its reality that of the having-been-there, for in every photograph there is always stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered. This kind of temporal equilibrium (having-been-there) probably diminishes the projective power of the: the this was so easily defeats the it’s me.” It is here thought of an avatar as a photograph as here explored, not being able to consider avatars as real interpretations.. This second life, as any other digital experience, creates no physical record of events that take place, which represents a dilemma since leaving a mark is an important part of human nature.

What is interesting is the example of the person who divorced her husband because he had married in Second Life. We have no physical proof or evidence of this act, the husband has never met the Second Life wife (we don’t even know if she is a woman) in real life, yet the digital world has drifted and caused a mark in the physical environment that has no real explanation outside of the digital context.

As the digitalization of society pluralizes and infects every aspect of our daily lives, some projects are reconnecting the digital sphere with the physical world that created it.

In the culture of Geocaching, members geo-annotate a physical space with a message for others to track and find. Every one of these personal annotations boils down to marking in relationship to presence. This space now has information that allows others to decipher who was there or why they were there: “This is the place where he proposed”; “I’m a tourist and really having a great time”; “I lost a bet, as part of my payoff I have to mark the spot where….” If the coordinates of one of these geo-annotations were to be tracked down, one would find a physical artifact marking the proof that someone was there before.

The Yellow Arrow project is trying to create a global public art community that uses the digital world to annotate the physical one. In this project, stickers in the shapes of arrows are left by people to “point what counts” in their own respect in the physical environment. One can choose to point to anything personally interesting. Once decided, one places the sticker on the environment and dials a special number printed on it. This allows for a text-message annotation. Someone else can then go by, dial the number, and receive the recorded annotation. The arrows serve as captions to things that people may not necessarily pay attention to. Locations are then recorded on a website where people can go to and read the annotations.

Esquire Magazine’s The Napkin Project goes out into the physical environment to collect and bring back stories by people, in a bar somewhere, scribbling on a napkin. This person is writing the kind of story/list/note that might be crammed in a pocket and pulled out years later to tell something deep and forgotten. In this effort, Esquire has asked a variety of authors who are now used to writing or publishing digitally to submit handwritten stories on a napkin. This project uses analogue techniques to create narratives that are shared digitally with others.

These three previous examples serve as case studies for the relationships between digital and physical realms, but most importantly, about how people are interested in leaving an individual personal statement. These are efforts in which, even though the digital expression is present, the importance lies on the physical mark being left behind.

Individuals want to be remembered. This behavior is part of our human traits. We have always, whether in an intentional or unintentional manner, strived to make ourselves known. Our current perceptions of identity cannot deny the amalgam between our physical selves and our digital representations of our self. This relationship only leads to making this inchoate digital identity more real. The digital creation (or creations since there is an opportunity here to create more than one of us) takes life. In the near future, one will bring the digital selves at all times and as Sterling recognizes, “…we want to know what the thing looks like at every stage of its lifecycle, not just when its fresh from its shrink-wrap and styrofoam blocksSterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005. .” There will be an interest in all its aspects and on how it relates to us.

Our individuality is a construction that takes place through ideology, language, and representation. Today, users have the ability (and choice) to communicate with others from different, possibly global locations. Contemporary relationships are no longer necessarily based on territorial restrictions, rather in electronic associations that transcend physical frameworks. Online has become a way to experience this individuality. It is now feeling in-line. Interaction and sharing (of various kinds) take place with others unknown to us. We establish connections. We create abstract lives.

Contemporary digital realms, be they social networking sites or worlds like Second Life, allow for a feeling of individuality in all of us, yet they minimize the physical impact we shall have for future generations. In 4 million years, will someone be able to find a trace of who we are today? If we continue on this path of digital self-identification, our physical identity will decrease while our digital self will grow. Computer game players sometimes talk about their real selves as a composite of their characters and talk about their screen personae as means for working on their real lives, but for future historians every person will then become a puzzle that needs to be deciphered and evaluated, but lets not delve into such a distant future yet, for it used to be that archaeologists were those uniquely interested with understanding what came before us. It was them who worried with digging up for clues, answers and history, but contemporary socialscapes have mutated. As we move towards a more stable and profound idea of the digital self, we will all need to become digital archaeologists to decipher and understand as much as we can about the people with whom we are interacting online.


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