Keynote: Ego-Media – A Group Portrait

who-does-the-internet-think-you-areEds’ note: we chose our inaugural Online Symposium theme ‘Digital Selves’ because we as PhD researchers wanted to think more critically about how we engage with our subjects of study.

We wondered how we were different as researchers because of how we access and create our work: how does working between books and pixels, pens and touchscreens, affect our methods and conclusions? How does being able to look more closely than real life at manuscripts with a pinch and zoom, relying on journal search algorithms over catalogue cards, or using ctrl+F to skim for keywords make our work different to the pre-digital academic?

Of course, we also wondered about how all these technologies of paper and plastic might be changing us at a more personal level, or, outside of the thesis, professional level. Platforms such as Twitter and Academia.edu let us join our global research communities more easily than ever before. From the beginning of our PhDs we might start to think about how we start to build up our web presence, with openness, impact, and public engagement being the order of the day. Gone are the days of the cloistered academic, and we welcome this. But we also want to ask questions about what we are getting ourselves into, and ask again how we are being shaped by as well as shaping these spaces.

Which led us to the Ego-Media team. We invited Professor Max Saunders, principal investigator of the Ego-Media project to contribute a keynote precisely because each member of the group researches in various ways about how we form and navigate personal and collective identities across online and offline spaces. We are excited to introduce Ego-Media’s response to the prompt ‘Digital Selves’ here: typed portraits of some of the early career and PhD researcher team members, and Professor Saunders. Each snapshot reveals the impetuses, ideas, and questions driving each of their individual projects, whilst making visible the common threads between each.

We love this response, which we feel is exemplary of the sort of collaborative and non-hierarchical, yet often ethically or personally tricky, work that being digital facilitates. We’d love to hear your responses and thoughts on the team’s prompt questions, on what ‘real life’ is for you today, as we move more and more fluidly across space, time, and hypertext transfer protocols.


In October 2015 our Ego-Media postdocs, Becky Roach and Rob Gallgher, participated in an event at the Science Museum on “Women and Computing”. They contributed a session called ‘Who does the Internet think you are’, asking visitors the following questions:

  • What is your first memory of going online?
  • How much information do you share about yourself online?
  • Does the Internet know who you are?
  • Is “who you are” online the same across different sites?
  • Has the Internet changed how you think about romance?
  • Do you use any apps or wearable technologies that try to influence your behaviour?
  • Where are your old online selves now?

We thought the best way to give an online group-portrait of the Ego Media would be to try to answer some of these questions for ourselves.

*

Becky Roach, Postdoctoral Research Associate

Becky Roach Ego-Media Digital Selves Still Point

Does the internet know who you are?

The internet thinks I am a worker. Googling my name gives a set of professional biographies (a very specific kind of profile, the genealogy of which would be fascinating to trace – some weird amalgam of the dating profile, criminal profiling and the cv?) outlining research interests, institutional affiliations and publications, at various points along this particular timeline.

I have internet Others in this respect: a lecturer in philosophy and neurology and one in food nutrition, for whom I regularly receive email congratulations for articles published and requests to meet drug reps. I am also a catholic blogger who, “When not doing laundry or making memories with her kids … enjoys diet coke and date nights with her husband” and was recently embroiled in a row with Lady Gaga.

I have no doubt that my online identity outside of work is surveilled, quantified, analysed and marketed, but it remains a black box; leaving me to play with the metaphor.

*

Rob Gallagher, Postdoctoral Research Associate

What was your first memory of going online?

IT classes at school in the mid-late 1990s, watching footage of Virtual Fighter 3 in a miniscule Quicktime window.

How much information do you share about yourself online? 

More than many people who study digital culture seem willing to, and less than many other people who study digital culture seem willing to.

Does the Internet know who you are?

My name is pretty generic, my friend and follower counts are modest. YouTube seems to think I’m interested in metallurgy.

Is “who you are” online the same across different sites? 

You’d probably get a good sense of my cultural investments (and my interest in avatars, animation and networked voices) one way or another.

Has the Internet changed how you think about romance? 

The idea of what romance must have been like before the internet scares me more than the idea of what the internet’s done to romance.

Post-it notes collected by Ego-Media @ the Science Museum, October 2015
Post-it notes collected by Ego-Media @ the Science Museum, October 2015

Do you use any apps or wearable technologies that try to influence your behaviour? 

By default my new phone displays a guesstimate as to the kilocalories I’ve metabolised daily and the steps I’ve taken on its home screen.

Where are your old online selves now?

MySpace (assuming anything from the pre-Timberlake era’s still on servers somewhere?), Blogger, the Dreamcast Visual Memory Unit containing my Phantasy Star Online avatar.

*

Stijn Peeters, PhD researcher

stijn digital selves

stijn digital selves
Images of activity from Stijn Peeters

These pictures quantify my usage of two online social platforms – Twitter and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Clearly, I’ve said more on IRC than on Twitter, especially considering the numbers for IRC only cover the past four months and the Twitter statistics go back to 2012.

But what’s the worth of an individual tweet versus a line on IRC? The latter makes it really easy to say a lot of things without really saying anything meaningful – at the same time, Twitter makes you carefully weigh your words to stay within the limit of 140 characters. It’s worth considering how much we really say – and why we say so much, or so little.

*

Mikka Lene Pers-Højholt, PhD student

I took my first steps online in a chat room for football fans. It was the mid 90s, I was in my early teens. I locked the door, drew the curtains, and, anxiously listening for my brothers’ and parents’ footsteps outside, waited for the dial-up connection. My (football loving) friend had told me about the chat and soon I found myself pretending to be a boy called Mike. Then Tom. I did what people around me had told me the Internet was for and the secrecy of hiding in my bedroom to switch bodies with Mike and Tom was thrilling, almost making up for the monumental dullness of having to discuss matches and players I didn’t care about.

Now I’m examining how women broadcast their lives in YouTube vlogs and invite others to become co-tellers of their biographies. These women, close to me in age, not only provide their real names, they show the insides of their houses, shopping bags, unflushed toilets, and wombs. And they don’t hide from family members. Instead they direct their cameras at them, letting wide and unknown audiences, including me, peer at them through the camera lenses.

TEDTalkPhoto-Ego-Media
Image via Ego-Media

*

Max Saunders, Principal Investigator

Weirdly I’m still using my first email address. Weirdlier still, my first experience which qualifies as ‘online’ wasn’t of the web, but of typing a PhD on a terminal connected to the university mainframe, back in the days when personal computers were beyond the reach of most graduate students. Arts students had to trek over to the computer lab in the evenings, when all but the geekiest of computer students had gone home. Who knew then that tapping out sentences on a device rather than talking to the person sitting next to you would become the norm?

In Ego-Media we’re studying things like the transformation of privacy; but I don’t find my own sense of privacy transforming much. The online sphere seems utterly public to me, and I can’t see why I’d want to tell everyone there about my every mood, meal, or conversation any more than I’d want to write to the newspapers about such things.

If anything, discussions with big data experts and media theorists have made me much warier about online ‘sharing’. Sharing seems often to have those scare quotes around it, even if invisible ones; perhaps acknowledging that it has become a cant term for neo-liberal times. Some forms of online sharing certainly exemplify the generosity, communality, and even altruism the term suggests; informing others for socially progressive activism; or to warn them of dangers or alert them to humour and beauty. But so much of what happens through the ‘share’ button is self-interested: concerned to rack up the social capital of ‘likes’ (another term sliding into cyber-cant); or even to accumulate actual capital as a ‘prosumer’; an entrepreneur of the self.

Ego-Media is ‘self’-interested in what I hope is an un-self-interested way. That is, it studies how social and digital media have impacted on how people present themselves. The amount of autobiographical material out there is so vast, and practice varies so much, that attempts to generalise about it tends only to add to the autobiography of the generaliser rather than provide helpful analysis. My worry about it is that as internet identities become increasingly ‘meta’ — constituted and maintained by sharing, liking, and re-posting material from other people — the social understanding of a self changes so much that what we have traditionally thought of it as being is in danger of disappearing. You wouldn’t go to Instagram or SnapChat looking for interiority, reflection, elaborate self-understanding, mental development and complexity. That’s not to say they’re not there, but it’s hard to know how to look for them.

The online mode I’m most at home in is email — even if it’s getting to feel more like a prison-house as the volume of traffic rises exponentially. It’s partly that I feel all thumbs trying to text, but can type without having to think about fingers. But also the lack of distractions from ads, apps, and algorithms is increasingly precious. So I suppose I don’t feel the ‘who I am online’ exists on websites at all, but in my emails. They keep me too busy to spend much time on social media; so I don’t think the internet knows who I am at all, even if some corporations know more about my shopping and travelling habits than I probably do myself.

But my email correspondents know as much about me as anyone; and I tend to identify others’ subjectivity more with their emails than their social media. That’s perhaps why originally I used to print them out, feeling they were too precious to entrust to something as intangible as magnetic storage. So I’d say my old online selves are in my old emails rather than on websites; whether on servers in the desert, or perhaps in a dusty box if anyone printed me out and archived me.


Ego-Media is a five year project funded by the ERC, and includes four academics (in English, Life Writing, Sociolinguistics and Neurology), two postdoctoral researchers and four PhD students. The project explores the impact of new media on forms and practices of self-presentation. Find out more about the research being done by the Ego-Media team at www.ego-media.org.

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