Where Nobody Knows Your Name and They Never Know You Came

I have a post up about the end of anonymity over at Generation Bubble. As I was writing it, half of it got deleted in a Word Press malfunction, so I’m afraid it became a little disjointed as I struggled to reconstruct what I had had before. My overarching point is that Web 2.0 innovations encourage us to eschew online anonymity and stay logged on as our actual selves — fusing more completely our online and offline social lives. More important, when we conduct various transactions online, whether they are purchases or pleas for attention, they are associated permanently with that integrated identity, enriching the data that can be mined from it. Consequently, we begin to believe that we deepen our identity by contributing more data to the online archive, despite the fact that it is being exploited by the corporate interests who control the archives. We become more of person, with a more compelling identity, the more through our online presence mirrors our offline existence.

I argue that this is the completion of a trend away from the impersonal markets that once signaled freedom from sumptuary laws and class-based discrimination in the world of consumption, and toward the idea that what we consume should be precisely associated with who we are. An anonymous purchase is a pointless purchase.This begins as a nostalgic movement to restore communal meaning to a world made atomistic and alienating, to make social relations more relevant in a world that has been structured to isolate us (a complaint I’ve made a lot over the years here). But what happens when markets become non-anonymous is that we become reliant on consumption more than ever to mediate our relations with others, so that friendships happen only within the context of brand communities and branded social networks and shared affinities for the same products. (What economists Wolfers and Stevenson call hedonic marriage: “what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption.”) The more transactions we make in the markets in which we can’t hide our identity, can’t pay cash, the more articulated our identities become. We “share” more and more in order to be.

An example of this process takes on a positive spin can be gleaned from this Amanda Marcotte post about karaoke and halloween. She argues that “Americans are increasingly putting a premium on fantasy and performance as valuable things” and that the popularity of karaoke, Halloween, performative video games like Guitar Hero, etc. are all manifestations of this. She notes that technology has helped usher in this change as well: “Social networking, blogging, etc. have created a huge incentive for people to put themselves on display, when previously they may have just kept their opinions mostly to themselves.” It is that incentivizing that worries me; that is what masks the joys of anonymity, the concordant satisfaction with more local and unmediated forms of attention and affirmation. Marcotte is not worried about the mediation of social recognition, its conflation with commercialized self-display and personal branding, regarding instead the right to public performance as merely a more rewarding form of recognition.

Performing for others has almost completely lost its stigma, and thank god. The performer enjoys it, and the audience enjoys it (even if they’re waiting their turn). It’s a lot like sex—once the taboo comes off for you, you wonder what you were so worried about for so long.

If only everyone were so intent on enjoying the performances of everyone else and reciprocating attention. Marcotte makes it sounds like recognition never shades into passing judgment (“Performing gives you a place to figure out what your strengths are, instead of focusing on the shame of having weaknesses”); built in to her analysis is the assumption that these spaces of costume parties and karaoke parlors are nonjudgmental. But the less stigmatized this look-at-me behavior is, the more necesary judgment passing becomes. Online, ceaseless judgment is implicit, as the fantasy of broadening one’s reach brings one into contact with strangers, whose affirmation takes on a greater value (i.e. “How refreshing it is to have strangers applaud blog posts than friends, who sort of have to say nice things”).

That kind of nonjudgmental mutuality Marcotte posits seems less likely the further we move from face-to-face interactions toward mediated online interactions. Social networks and so on keep score of attention in measurable ways, heightening the stakes, and our physical isolation erodes the traditional mitigating forces of courtesy (which is where the stigma against performing, of hogging attention, arose from in the first place). The danger is that performance as a gift, a carefree act of self-forgetting, instead becomes an ongoing requisite act of self-definition. We perform ourselves all the time, then, and make it act of striving — these performances I tend to equate with the identity-building rituals of consumerism.

Once we surrender anonymity, our consumption inevitably plays in various social hierarchies; we can’t avoid being judged for it, can’t avoid trying to use our transactions to enhance our social or cultural capital. The effort to escape the blank rational choice of impersonal markets, the sterile individualism, ends up making our economic behavior even more instrumental, as “economic behavior” now encompasses all our efforts at self-fashioning, which now happen in public, in real-time, in our online gambits for status. The best hope is that there are enough social hierarchies to play in that we can find one which matches our emerging predilections, validates us as winners. But ultimately the hierarchies themselves are made into metahierarchies to delineate the underlying class structure (inherited from the past, the same haves and have nots) once again.

I am wondering if it’s best to strive for an anonymity at the expense of social participation and concretized selfhood, or whether there is some balance to be struck between the implied atomization of impersonal markets and voluntaristic social relations that are not ultimately reducible to identity posturing. Can we separate consumption and identity by having some alternative way to make sociality robust? Does this question even make any sense? Can we refuse to have an identity, in the branded-lifestyle sense, but still have a stable set of social relations? Can social identity be divorced from status competitions? As Marcotte warns, “Once you get a taste for performance and self-expression, it’s hard to give it up.”

UPDATE: More from me on this subject here.