Friday, January 7, 2011

A Heap of Digital Images: Identity in the Age of the Internet

This week, online tabloid Jezebel posted a lengthy email chain between three old college buddies, concerning their competition to sleep with as many women as possible. If you're feeling extra slimy today and want to read the exchange, you can find it here, but there's not necessarily any reason to look at it. It's not particularly humorous, and the misogyny and maturity are about what you would expect from the sort of person who would engage in this contest in the first place. Jezebel tries to add fuel to the fire by framing the men as "Princeton alums" [sic] and pointing out that one apparently works for the State department. 

Let's get this straight right away - this is a very scummy activity, and it's depressing to read three men boasting about wooing and bedding girls they're not attracted to just to up their statistics. It's a sick idea, through and through. 

That being said, why is this being published at all? Is it any surprise that their are some seedy men out there that engage in this sort of activity? The article ends with Jezebel also directing the reader to these upstanding citizens' blogs and Twitter accounts, apparently trying as hard as possible to get the violent cybermobs riled up to action. The website is doing it's best to fire up some sort of controversy. 

This isn't the first time this has been done. A few months ago, Jezebel published a female college grad's "fuck list," a tongue-in-cheek Powerpoint slide chronicling her sexual exploits over her academic career and assigning each partner a rating. Numerous writers have pointed out the reverse sexism in that the female responsible for the "fuck list" had her name censored, but Jezebel not only published the names of the men engaging in their competition, but even directed readers toward their blogs. 

But to examine this sort of activity solely as a gender issue misses the point. By publishing these "shocking" sexual exploits, Jezebel is clearly relying on cheap gimmicks and the baser side of human nature in order to drum up hits. They're also publishing personal correspondence. This is not the matter of a political sex scandal, where it can be argued that such sexual activity is in the public's interest to learn about. These are the private Powerpoints and emails meant to circulate among a small group of friends. I certainly don't have any email records of crazy sex contests in my Gmail account, but neither would I like the entire account published for the world to see. 

The fact of the matter is that our emails are not who we are. Neither are our Facebook pages, our tweets, our blogs or are text messages. They're certainly a record of things we did, a historical account of things that we've created. But, as scummy as the sex contest emails are, to judge these three men as human beings based on this small collection of emails is unfair. As much as websites like this would have us believe otherwise, human beings are more than the sum collection of their emails. 

The New York Times Magazine published an article last week entitled "Cyberspace When You're Dead." The article tackles the growing legacy that many of us leave on the Internet after we pass away - if I keeled over at this keyboard right now, I'd leave a 18-month collection of Charge Shot!!! posts and a Facebook wall with inside jokes about that damn Yogi Bear movie. Is this who I am? On the one hand, it certainly reflects facets of my personality. On the other hand, I like to think the sum total of my existence is worth more than a handful of blog posts I write in my free time and Yogi Bear

The Times confronts our digital possessions as an extension of who we are, citing mild-mannered citizens who, as it turns out after their death, were digital legends on some obscure corner of the Internet. Parents who had no idea about their childrens' web presence now get to sift through emails, Facebook photos, blog posts, and other things that might have been blocked or unknown before. 

More and more, it's becoming understood that these digital remains are the new archives for our lives, the new fodder from which future biographies will be written. No longer do we keep collections of hand-written letters and Polaroid pictures. But we do keep emails and digital photographs, and it's from these that our future descendants will be piecing together our lives, from our altruistic endeavors to our sexual exploits.

In previous eras, the only record for biographers were hand-written letters, laboriously composed and meticulously edited. In this era of instant gratification, it's easy to think that our digital records might provide a more complete picture of who we are. After all, I haven't written a letter in weeks. But I have updated Facebook, uploaded photos to my computer, sent text messages, and written this blog post. Can you use all these tracks I've left behind to triangulate who I am as a person?

Jezebel would say "yes." So would the New York Times. I'm not so sure. The records we leave behind, though more numerous and more instantaneous than in the past, are still mere records, not full-fledged identities. Living, breathing human beings are not creatures with personalities fixed in stone, and can't be summed up through a Facebook profile or a photo album. Our online fingerprints are static material, a snapshot frozen in time, an unchanging memoir of a specific point in the past. But human beings change and grow as they live; no man or woman is as unvariable and consistent as records might make them out to be. As a human being, I'm slightly different from day to day (or even hour to hour). As a digital presence, every interaction is recorded and preserved for all eternity - but these are motionless snapshots, hardly a window to the soul.

While our digital records are important tools for our future descendents, and traces of who we are and who we were, they don't sum up the entirety of our identity. Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, blogs, text messages, and emails are reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's "heap of broken images." They are traces of our lives, but they cannot represent our entire identity. No records can. The fragmented digital pieces of ourselves might be able to be pieced back together to provide a fuller picture, but these records are still a two-dimensional representation. 

As the 21st-century progresses, I have a feeling that we'll see more and more of these digital exposés, purporting to reveal some dark identity of a mild-mannered human being. But I would urge us to be wary of these things. It's easy to look at those sex contest emails and judge the personalities involved as irredeemable douchebags. Perhaps they are, and those emails certainly don't paint them in a very positive light. But I'll refrain from casting judgment on private citizens I've never met based on their digital communications. Technology has increased at an impressive rate, but we can still only leave behind mere traces of who we are as people. Let he without the embarrassing Facebook photo or drunken text message cast the first digital stone.