The role of library and information services in navigating onlife and questions of identity

*** Melissa analyses the effects Web 2.0 has on an individual’s sense of identity in the context of Floridi’s ‘onlife’ whilst addressing how approaches to digital literacy can aid us navigate the hyper-historical society . Melissa is on Twitter @tequilab00kw0rm***

The new millennium heralded the advent of Web 2.0 – which introduced the ability to interact and participate on the worldwide web, allowing users to actively engage and create content through social media tools such as networking sites, blogs, wikis and other publishing mediums. This shift from a passive consumerism to a “participative producerism” (Searle, as cited in Anderson, 2006, p. 64) also impacted on the formation of identities – creating new opportunities for exploration, expression, playfulness and performance and consequently, also irreversibly affecting the way in which humans perceive and project themselves to others around them – both online and offline.

Web 2.0 was the equivalent of colour television as the exciting iteration to the previous black and white format – creating a “much more rich and complex information environment” with more availability of information, in many more types and formats and available through many more forms of media and communications (Bawden and Robinson, 2009). It has provided the tools to enable us to carry out most aspects of our our lives online. Whether it’s ordering groceries, attending a virtual meeting, reading the daily news, updating our Instagram profile or communicating with friends and family, every minute of every day can be (and often is) pervaded and affected by online media, social networks and other digital platforms and applications.

In this essay I will explore how the perception and formation of identity has evolved in the 21st century as we have moved towards Floridi’s onlife (2014, p. 43). As part of this, I will look at the impact that Web 2.0 has had on shaping the concept of ‘self’ and consider this through the framework of Erving Goffman’s theories of social performance. Finally, I will examine the role that library and/or information services can and should play in contributing to a better understanding of this evolution of identity through the promotion of a digital literacy that empowers individuals to better assess and cope with this new reality.

Luciano Floridi explains that a proportion of humanity is living in a hyperhistorical era – a time in which ICTs are no longer just helpful tools, but have become essential and non-negotiable for the ongoing development of our knowledge-based society. As a consequence of this, ICTs have come to define the construction of our identities in the 21st century. Floridi goes so far as to say that “they are the most powerful technologies of the self to which we have ever been exposed” (Floridi, 2014, p. 59).

In order to understand how the development of identity has been impacted by this new era, we must take a step back to understand how it is different from the way in which identity has previously been defined and shaped. To begin with, it is helpful to consider what Floridi outlines as three ways of viewing the ‘self’ – through our personal identity or who we are; through self-conception or who we think we are and finally, the social self – the self created through the influence of others telling us how we should act or be (2014, p. 60).

Our social selves are the part of us that is formed by and engages with the infosphere – actively consuming and producing content that reflects who we want to be and who we want others to believe we are. In addition, these social selves are also affected by factors beyond our control – by how others perceive us to be. In the digital world, we are producing and consuming micro-narratives on an unprecedented scale; these can operate as ongoing streams of consciousness as well as tidbits of information – both of which affect our social selves (Floridi, 2014, p. 64). No bit of information is too small or inconsequential to impact on our identity or linger for longer than we may wish it to remain.

In the pre-industrial age, identity was much simpler and clear cut – a person could fairly easily change both their personal and social identity as their world and its reach was limited. Simply moving to a new village could create an opportunity to completely redefine yourself and start afresh. During the industrial age, attempts to control our social selves became more difficult as urbanisation, transportation links, bureaucracy and an increase in publishing formats exposed us to many more people and institutions who could impact and keep tabs on our social identity. Suddenly, wiping our personal history slate clean was not so easy.

The digital age has brought about another marked shift in the way identity is formed and perceived. The development of personal identity has still not changed much, but the concept of our social self has been significantly impacted.

A digital native is someone whose entire life has been spent in the digital age and exists in a world that makes no distinction between living online and offline; they are the embodiment of Floridi’s onlife. And as part of this merging of worlds, the identity or identities that they create are performed in synch, both in their virtual and physical worlds. This approach is in juxtaposition to the way in which older generations (commonly referred to as digital immigrants) view identity as immutable and make strict distinctions between their online and offline lives. Digital natives see identity as fluid, with more experimentation happening and reinvention taking place, as well as many more platforms to express and perform these identities (Palfrey & Greer, 2008, p. 21).

Web 2.0 has given us the platform(s) and the flexibility to experiment with identities, including how little or how much to expose about our ‘real’, offline selves. Online, the idea of ‘identity as performance’ is taken to the next level. Bullingham and Vasconcelos use sociologist Erving Goffman’s studies of the way humans communicate face-to-face as a framework for looking at the performance of identity in online spaces. Using analogies from the world of theatre, Goffman’s work examined the “front stage” and “back stage” behaviour that we (as “actors”) adopt when projecting an image of ourselves to others and interacting with them (as cited in Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2013, p. 101).

In the “front stage” we are aware of our audience and proactively choose what to reveal or conceal about ourselves to create a perception(s) for others. In the “back stage” there is no performance and there is an assumption of privacy. Goffman also explains that there are expressions which individuals give, which are intended and expressions they give off, which are unintended, yet still received by the audience (as cited in Bullingham and Vasconcelos, 2013, p. 101). Bullingham and Vasconcelos found that whilst most people did not look to create entirely new identities of themselves, they did often project an enhanced, ‘better’ version of their self when performing “front stage”. Their conclusion shows how we create and perform affectations of our offline selves to develop the social self online that we want others to see.

“For Goffman, performance is a theatrical metaphor that can be used to articulate the shifting calculus of interpersonal relations that occur as we engage with others as well as exchange information – both factual and social” (Pearson, 2009). Pearson further explains that in an online context the idea of front and back stage can be blurred – front stage performances that we explicitly create may go entirely unnoticed and performances we consider to be private may be watched by unknown audiences.

Web 2.0 has presented us with unlimited spaces and opportunities to create personas, express opinions, align ourselves with certain groups and make many more connections with people around the world than ever before. It has also enabled us to shape and perform these identities in any way we like, exposing a little or a lot, and to do this on a much larger scale. Consequently, this has also meant that our social identity has become increasingly difficult to control as it is defined and scrutinised by a much larger number of people. Furthermore, our social selves are also defined via links with third parties which are easier to find through the very public associations and alignments we ‘like’ and follow online.

“One of the paradoxes of the Internet Age is that while a digital native’s use of various technologies allows her a nearly infinite array of possibilities for recreating herself in a wide range of virtual platforms, it has bound her ever more tightly to a unitary identity in the real world” (Palfrey & Greer, 2008, p. 22).

The information we consume and produce online is critical to the formation of our social selves. In a hyperhistorical society, onlife is all-consuming and one consequence of this is that we have become entirely reliant and beholden to the information we interact with online. The news sites we read, the prose and images we post on our blogs, the groups we join and follow via social networks, as well as the messages people post to our social feeds are all examples of our front and back stage performances and contribute to the development of our social selves.

The blurring of the boundaries between consumption and production can also cause problems. Self-appointed ‘experts’ abound online, many whom choose to remain anonymous or pseudonymous, and without any form of quality control or liability, we can fall into the trap of imbuing these people with the same trust as we do legitimate professionals who abide by established codes of ethics. Granted, ‘traditional’ media has had its fair share of trust issues, but with less accountability online, the scope for error, whether intended or unintended, is more likely.

Bawden and Robinson also discuss the loss of identity that has arisen from Web 2.0 and the consequent attack on the authority of recorded information online, which has led some commentators to suggest that this is tantamount to the “end of Western culture and civilisation” (2009, p. 186).

Our reliance on forms of media that are often produced by a collective or ‘hive mind’ or anonymous/pseudonymous sources forces us to trust the performances of others and puts us in a position where it is difficult to hold any one person accountable for content creation. Foucault’s idea of the death of the author has become a reality – anonymity is commonplace and absolves content creators from responsibility.

“The internet seemed to provide a context and means to assume pseudonyms and preserve anonymity without any social obligations” (Huvila, 2012, p. 92).

So, the question is, if there is so much fluidity and identity performance online, then how do we validate what we are consuming and how do we hold to account who is producing content?

It is here that library and/or information services have a central and defining role to play in helping people navigate and comprehend the intricacies of being active and informed participants in onlife. To do this, they must equip onlife citizens with the skills to evaluate and use information critically in this digital environment.

Bawden and Robinson are clear that digital literacy and critical thinking are crucial to the promotion of an open society, as set forth by Karl Popper and George Soros. An open society is one in which there is no ‘ultimate truth’ – every source is admissible, but none has absolute authority and all sources are open to criticism. Perfection is unattainable and there is always room for improvement and learning (2001).

This concept of an open society remains the same in onlife. With the exponential amount of information available online, digital literacy is vital for the full engagement of citizens in onlife. Bawden and Robinson maintain that libraries, as information providers, are best placed to provide these critical evaluation skills to guide users through the ‘overload’ of digital information that exists and is continually produced. (Robinson and Bawden, 2001).

It is not only the quantity, but also the quality and diversity of information available online that is infinite. Furthermore, the presentation of this information is often homogenised, losing the look and feel (and sometimes authority) of physical information sources such as printed books, magazines, newspapers and academic articles (Bawden and Robinson, 2009, p.181). This also causes a serious problem when trying to determine the value and reliability of what we are reading online.

Gillmor explains that the saturation of media puts the onus on us to be more proactive as consumers so that we can manage the sheer amount of information and also make critical assessments about the value and credibility of what we are considering.

Taking a step back, it is important to clarify what is meant by digital literacy. Paul Glister’s definition of the term as “literacy in the digital age” is a straightforward approach which views it as “the current form of the traditional idea of literacy per se – the ability to read, write and otherwise deal with information using the technologies and formats of the time – and an essential life skill” (as cited in Bawden, 2008, p. 18).

Eshet-Aklalai concurs, viewing digital literacy as more than just mastering the use of technical skills and digital sources, but as a new way of thinking. He opines that it requires users to have more than “the mere ability to use software or operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex, cognitive, motor, sociological, and emotional skills, which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments” (Eshet-Aklalai, 2004, p. 94). Put simply, he sees digital literacy as “survival skills in the digital era” (2004, p.102).

Eshet-Aklalai proposes a new framework made up of five other types of literacy which aim to define and address more clearly all aspects of digital literacy: photo-visual literacy; reproduction literacy; information literacy; branching literacy and socio-emotional literacy (Eshet-Aklalai, 2004, p. 94).

Photo-visual literacy is the the ability to read and understand graphic interfaces online; similar to the age old communication via pictures (as opposed to an alphabet). Reproduction literacy addresses the capacity to take information that already exists and repurpose it in a new way to create a true, independent work of your own. Branching literacy promotes non-linear thinking, a vital aid in understanding how information is found in the digital space. Information literacy is the development of critical thinking to evaluate information and socio-emotional literacy is the ability to assess and understand the abstract social and emotional aspects of ‘being’ online. Mastery of these different types of literacy will equip and enable online users to assess the reliability of information they engage with in the digital sphere.

In an environment that is overloaded with information, it is not enough for libraries to act as gateways, but instead, they must actively provide the tools to assess and interact with this information. In fact, Bawden and Robinson consider this such a fundamental role for libraries that it forms one of their suggested seven principles for the role libraries and librarians should plan in an open society.

The Internet and the increased amount and importance of information available online has made digital literacy a non-negotiable skill which every onlife citizen should possess. In an age where misinformation and ‘fake news’ abound, I posit that Eshet-Aklalai’s idea that digital literacy is “survival skills in the digital era” can be taken further and considered survival skills for onlife – for the way a large part of humanity now live.

REFERENCES

Bawden, D. (2008) ‘Origins and concepts of digital literacy’ in Lankshear, C. and Knobel, M. (eds.) Digital literacies: concepts, policies and practices. Bern: Switzerland. pp. 1–16.

Bawden, D. and Robinson, D. (2009) ‘The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies’, Journal of Information Science, 35(2), pp. 180-191.

Bullingham, L. and Vasconcelos, A.C. (2013) ‘The presentation of self in the online world: Goffman and the study of online identities’, Journal of Information Science, 39(1), pp. 101–112.

Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2004) ‘Digital literacy: a conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era’, Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 13(1), pp. 93–106.

Floridi, L. (2014) The fourth revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gillmor, D. (2008) ‘Principles for a new media literacy’, Media Re:public Side Papers, pp. 1–9.

Huvila, I. (2012) Information services and digital literacy: in search of the boundaries of knowing. Oxford: Chandos Publishing.

Koltay, T. (2011) ‘The media and the literacies: media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy’, Media, Culture & Society, 33(2), pp. 211-221.

Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2008) Born digital: understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.

Pearson, E. (2009) ‘All the world wide web’s a stage: the performance of identity in online social networks’ First Monday, Available at: https://firstmonday.org/article/view/2162/2127 (Accessed 13 April 2021).

Robinson, L. and Bawden, D. (2001) ‘Libraries and open society: Popper, Soros and digital information’. Aslib Proceedings, 53(5), pp. 167–178.

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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