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Tim Devane

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Online Identity: Alone In The Car

Posted: 09/28/11 04:21 PM ET

I've read a ton of posts over the past month about identity and how online experience influences identity. Some of my favorites are: Everybody Wants To Be Special Here and Identity Online. Maybe I'm just delayed in my thought process around identity or maybe it took me re-reading a favorite section of Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men to begin to represent online identity in my head.

There is a quote in the first half of Warren's novel from narrator Jack Burden, who is discussing being alone in the car on a rainy night -- the whole quote is below; I recommend reading the whole thing:

"There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other people there wouldn't be any you because what you do which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren't you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under you foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal guy like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn't really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be where you get to the other place."

In some ways, the Internet is the car and while it's more like being in Ken Kesey's bus than being alone, I relate the vacation from being you to existing as different yous on the Internet. Some of the theses outlined in a few of the posts I referenced above are about how the Internet allows you to be another persona, not just once but as many times as you want. You might exist as a wild and crazy DJ with tons of fans and a reputation for bringing every room to head-bobbing life on Turntable.FM and only be known as your handle (like DJDaddyLongLegs). The point is that there is an escapist silver lining to the diversification of identities online. The Internet allows us to not be us as much as it allows us to be someone else. The you who you are in the physical world, to your family, friends and colleagues, can disappear entirely as you mount the DJ booth, post the tumblelog, or comment mid-track on SoundCloud.

This is incredibly attractive and underscores how the Internet can let you represent yourself in ways that become challenging in the real world. How often to do you get the opportunity to reinvent yourself? Particularly as you get older? Although I have no justification for saying this as I'm only 24, I believe that life and the roles that people choose or don't choose to fill has a way of funneling you, pinning you down as one or a few faces, until at some point your just an old person who used to be those few identities... Yikes... the Internet blows the doors off of this notion. By dragging the funnel 180 degrees, it encourages you to redefine and reinterpret yourself; keeping your identities as wide as the mouth of a funnel you'll never be squeezed you down if you don't want.

I believe this is why older generations will stay and continue to come online. Its true that as we get older, the group that represents older generations will have been online their whole lives. However, I'm inclined to think that older people will be more in-tune with online identity because it enables you as a seventy-year-old to re-create yourself as if you were twenty years old trying acid for the first time. Returning to Warren's quote, the Internet let's you break from the you that you are between WiFi signals into a gloriously open world with a '?' over you and endless opportunities to make that question mark whoever you want it to be.

 

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