I’ve been thinking about identity and Gergen’s (1989) notion of the Vertigo of the Valued.
The Vertigo of the Valued is the idea that the more connections, spheres, communities, etc. you belong to, the broader the range of ideas, goals, and values you incorporate into yourself. He explains that the “technology of social saturation” (all the ways we communicate with and understand others) increases the number of “local definitions” of the self – of roles, in a sense.
This results in expanding our perspectives and responsibilities more and more:
As others are incorporated into the self and their desires becomes one’s own, there is an expansion of goals – of “musts,” wants, and needs… As relations accumulate and expand over time, there is a steadily increasing range of phone calls to make and answer, greeting cards to address, visits or activities to arrange, meals to prepare, preparations to be made, clothes to buy, makeup to apply… Liberation becomes a swirling vertigo of demands.
Alongside this the expansion of self into multiple spheres (school, work, WoW, family, sports team, book group, blogosphere, drinking buddies…), but also comes an expansion of, essentially, what makes you “hip,” comfortable, valued, etc. in each sphere. Meyrowitz (1989) explains this wonderfully. A college student goes to Europe for the summer. Upon his return, he tells his parents about how cultural it was, his pals how much he partied, his professor how educational it was, etc. Each of these is absolutely true, and told because they are of the most interest and relevance to different groups of people – aligning with his role as son, friend, student, etc.
Gergen points out that participating in more and more such spheres results in “social saturation,” in which we have an “enormous array of new criteria for self-evaluation.” So,
A friend from California reminds one to relax and enjoy life; in Ohio an associate is getting ahead by working eleven hours a day. A relative from Boston stresses the importance of cultural sophistication, while a Washington colleague belittles one’s lack of political savvy. A relative’s return from Paris reminds one to pay more attention to personal appearance, while a ruddy companion from Colorado suggests that one grows soft.
Each choice that is valued by one sphere might be an inadequacy in another: five hours topping the DPS charts in WoW is laziness and sloth in my exercise routine. Writing daily entries in this blog is distraction from academic publication (or evokes “where were you for our raid?!” in WoW). Each activity or value “at odds with one’s current conduct,” is hidden, rationalized, downplayed, or guiltily confessed. Internally, says Gergen, the voices of the other possibilities “stand as internal critics” and “rob action of its potential for fulfillment.”
And so I consider my participation in my many online communities / spheres / groups. I confess my coping mechanism is rationalization: playing WoW is part of my research (even when it’s not); blogging is participating in Web 2.0 (finally); exercise makes me a better scholar (more energy); going out to the bar helps me relax. Each of these is certainly true, and for me, very valid. But each brings that little voice nagging, “you really should be getting more exercise / writing more papers / showing up for more raids / call your friends more often.”
Related to all this, I believe, is each associated role, as Meyrowitz notes. The “Lan” of this blog is necessarily different than the Dr. Professor of my work, the R. of the bar, and even from the “Lant” who raids. In fact, a major hesitation for me of starting this blog was that very blending and potential conflict among these roles.
Are my students reading this? Likely some are. So make sure nothing too racy or immature emerges. Are my academic colleagues reading it? Perhaps. Be careful to write well, with proper references, and with academic depth. Are my friends reading? Be your usual light, fun self. Are WoW guildies reading? Respect them and the game. My mother? My boss? My partner? My co-author? It’s a wonder I can even find one acceptable sentence.
And indeed, once I started writing, I had to accept that some things here would seem “weird” to my students, “waste of time” to my dad, “frivolous” to academics, “overanalyzing” to guildies.
So when friends, co-workers, colleagues, bloggers, students identify “me,” what are they looking at? When and where are they looking? If we want to understand the people around us – and importantly for me, if we want to discuss notions like “online identities” – such questions radically change the answers.
Sherry Turkle (1997) calls the internet “a social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self.” I’m not sure we do this quite as actively or consciously as she implies, but I do believe that questions about who we are, definitions of ourselves, what it means to be female, or in my mid-30s, or a US citizen, or “fun” or “cool” or “accomplished” necessarily changes across contexts. Simply calling someone “antisocial” as was debated recently on Pink Pigtail Inn, or labeling some players as “hardcore” as spinks recently discussed on her blog, isn’t quite as revealing when you take into consideration the range of roles, contexts, and moments, even within one sphere like WoW or the classroom. I’m not hardcore in WoW, it’s true, but I’m core in many ways. I am active in the guild, talk to people, know who they are, am visible and present. I used do a lot of raiding, but not at the moment. Among those who don’t play, I am certainly “hardcore.” Within WoW, not so much.
I am probably among the most “social” in my guild, but several offline friends berate me for not being social enough – I don’t go out as often as they do. At academic conferences, though, I’m going out every night. Am I “hardcore”? Am I “antisocial”? Depends on the day, the place, the sphere.