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6. Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation (2014)
Opportunities for composing, assembling, and networking lives have expanded exponentially since the advent of Web 2.0. The sites and software of digital media provide occasions for young people to narrate moments in coming of age; for families to track and narrate their genealogical histories; for people seeking friends and lovers or those with similar hobbies to make connections; for political activists to organize around movements and causes. These everyday sites of self-presentation appear to be categorically different from what is understood as traditional life writing, be it published autobiography, memoir, or confession. And yet, as Nancy Baym (2006) observes, “online spaces are constructed and the activities that people do online are intimately interwoven with the construction of the offline world and the activities and structures in which we participate, whether we are using the Internet or not” (86, qtd. in Gray 2009, 1168). Thus, online lives exist in complicated relationship to offline lives and to what has been termed the “outernet” (Nakamura 2008, 1676). And “electronic persons” have multiple connections to “proximate individuals,” as J. Schmitz (1997) has observed (qtd. in Kennedy 2006, 4). For these reasons, the analytical frames and theoretical positions of scholarship on life writing can provide helpful concepts and categories for thinking about the proliferation of online lives in varied media and across a wide range of sites.
Our contribution to understanding subjectivity and identities online, as well as the modes and media mobilized to present and perform lives, is this toolkit, organized alphabetically through rubrics derived from the framework we developed in Reading Autobiography (Smith and Watson 2010). Studying the presentation of online lives makes clear that both the self and its presentation are only apparently autonomous, as many life-narrative theorists, as well as media theorists, argue. In fact, online lives are fundamentally relational or refracted through engagement with the lives of their significant others: the lives presented are often interactive; they are co-constructed; they are linked to others—family, friends, employers, causes, and affiliations. Many online lives profess attachments not to flesh-and-blood others but to media personages, consumer products, and works of art or music linked to online resources such as YouTube videos. As N. Katherine Hayles asserts for electronic literature, so for online relationships and subjectivities: they are re-described and re-presented “in terms of a networked environment in which individual selves blend into a collectivity, human boundaries blur as people merge with technological apparatus, and cultural formations are reconfigured to reflect and embody a cyborgian reality” (Hayles 2003).
Here we offer two preliminary comments. The first clarifies the key terms “self,” “subject,” and “subject position” as used in this toolkit. Throughout, we use the term “self” as a pronomial marker of reflexivity, the shorthand term for acts of self-reference. This sense of the term should not, however, be conflated with the liberal humanist concept of the self as a rational, autonomous, self-knowing, and coherent actor, which is a legacy of the Enlightenment. Indeed, this liberal humanist self, understood as essential, free, and agentic, has been a focus of critique for four decades. When constructing personal web pages or the like, users themselves often imagine that they are revealing their “real” or “true” essence, a person or “me” who is unique, singular, and outside social constructions and constraints. Theorists of media and autobiography, however, approach the constructed self not as an essence but as a subject, a moving target, which provisionally conjoins memory, identity, experience, relationality, embodiment, affect, and limited agency.
In online self-presentation as in offline life narration, then, the “I” of reference is constructed and situated, and not identical with its flesh-and-blood maker. Moreover, that “I” is constituted through discursive formations, which are heterogeneous, conflictual, and intersectional, and which allocate subject positions to those who are interpellated through their ideological frames, tropes, and language. Those subject positions in turn attach to salient cultural and historical identities. Both offline and online, the autobiographical subject can be approached as an ensemble or assemblage of subject positions through which self-understanding and self-positioning are negotiated.
Our second comment clarifies what the term “online lives” encompasses in this chapter. Many media theorists invoke the term “digital storytelling” to refer to the transmission of personal stories in digital forms. Nick Couldry, for example, refers to “the whole range of personal stories now being told in potentially public form using digital media resources” (Couldry 2008, 347). We follow Couldry’s lead in limiting online lives to “online personal narrative formats . . . [now] prevalent: . . . multimedia formats such as MySpace and Facebook, textual forms such as webblogs (blogs), the various story forms prevalent on more specialist digital storytelling sites or the many sites where images and videos, including material captured on personal mobile devices, can be collected for wider circulation (such as YouTube)” (381–82). We oscillate between the forms attached to particular sites, and the acts and practices of self-representation and self-performance employed by users on a range of standardized forms and templates.
Further, we do not take up oral storytelling such as co-produced stories told in offline workshops and then mounted online. Others have focused on the contrast of online narrative forms to practices of oral storytelling and projects involving listening to others’ stories, as does Joe Lambert (2012) and scholars and writers affiliated with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California. Nor do we consider the collective websites that make available collaboratively produced life stories of ordinary people, such as StoryCorps, Lifebio.com, or My Life Is True. While many kinds of online life stories use autobiographical templates for narration, not all are produced by the single subject/user telling, performing, and/or imaging a life, the focus of this chapter.
In our online toolkit of fifteen concepts presented in alphabetical order, each brief discussion is followed by questions to enable scholars and students to productively engage with the vast variety of sites presenting lives online. You might pose these questions as you produce or interact with online “life” presentations of many sorts: an opinion blog, a profile of a desirable self on a dating site, a webcam “reality” video, a Facebook profile or LiveJournal entry. The questions offer points of entry for analyzing online self-presentations and points of departure for constructing, and critiquing, your own online life and those of others.
Archives and Databases
Online sites gather, authorize, and conserve the version of self a user is assembling. Various kinds of documents become evidence capturing varied aspects of the presenter’s life, habits, desires, and the like. That is, a site incorporates and organizes documents about a self as a personal archive, and that personal archive may become incorporated into other archives, official or unofficial, designed or accidental. Moreover, the algorithmic data generated by the site directs information about the self into online databases. The prodigious capacities of online archives have therefore shifted how we understand the relationship of archives to databases. Tara McPherson (2011) argues that today’s database has supplanted the archive, and distinguishes the archive—which has an archivist of some kind, a principle of collection, and a design for storage and structure for categorization—from the database, which is an instrument of a governmentality that bureaucratizes and commodifies bits and pieces of information.
Neither the archive nor the database has a fail-safe delete button for past tidbits of the self. Code may break down, and the new service industry of reputation management may eventually delete substantial data archives. Nonetheless, online users are implicated in contributing user-generated content, which can return in digital afterlives, as online archives and databases become ever more searchable. Thus, the archival possibilities of the Web include deliberate efforts by users to store a profile that becomes an online version of the self; the random bits that are dispersed across the Internet that could be pulled in to construct, alter, or contest a user profile; accidental archives assembled by others such as Wikileaks, which disseminate personal data that has been kept out of public circulation; reassemblages of the data of the self, circulated by others with varied motivations; and the “digital character” (Noguchi 2011) that data aggregators assemble from user’s buying habits, GPS locations, phone connections, and the like.
In examining an online site of self-presentation, consider the following questions related to archiving and producing data. What comprises a database through which “digital character” is constructed? Who benefits from the accumulation of data about users? What comprises an archive of self and how is it built? Are official documents scanned in, such as birth, marriage, or death certificates, or citizenship records? How are the documents authenticated, and is that certification persuasive? What kind of authority does the user seek to establish in assembling documentation to curate a life? Is a motive or purpose given for this documentation? Are the testimonies of others included or links made to them? Is there a link to evidence asserting the history and legitimacy of a larger group?
Over time, online presentation of embodiment creates an archive of the body. What kind of archive of embodiment can be observed on various sites? Does it make visible segments of the life cycle, or particular bodily forms, or particular conditions of the body? Which aspects of the body archive are drawn from history, and which are projected as fantasies of a future moment in the life cycle?
For what occasions, to what extent, and for whom is an archive or database being assembled? Which media of archiving have been employed and to what effects? Is the purpose of self-archiving to build a legacy, to mislead or deceive by creating a false identity, and/or to register a history of successfully overcoming a past identity? Has the user’s life story been inserted into someone else’s archive, for example in the collection of stories amassed by the StoryCorps project on National Public Radio, in sports histories, or in opposition research for political campaigns? What larger story does the archive produce? Does the site construct a history that aims to counteract or undermine other information available online about the user?
Digital archives are unlike print archives in several ways: the categories and hierarchies of information storage are leveled; the incidental and the characteristic seem of the same magnitude and significance. Careless users can lie and conflate people sharing a characteristic such as name or birthdate. What is involved in searching an archive for some part of one’s story or history? How do the archives of such institutions as the Church of the Latter-day Saints or websites such as ancestry.com contribute to a user’s story and how might their protocols co-construct that story?
Online venues assume, invite, and depend on audiences, sometimes intimate, sometimes not. Both how a site appeals to an audience and the kind of response it solicits deserve attention. It may seek to enhance its authority with endorsements from, or links to, celebrities, experts, or an index of commercial success. It may invite a voyeuristic response by offering access to intimate details about the subject of the site or others. It may feed an appetite for the melancholic, sensational, morbid, or violent. Visitors also need to follow the money, evaluating who has funded and who is asked to contribute to the site. It may espouse a social need or cause, but users may want to determine who paid to mount the site or who ultimately profits from it.
What kind of audience does the site call for? Whom does the site explicitly address as its imagined audience? What verbal or visual rhetorics does the site deploy to engage visitors? How does the site attempt to bracket out potentially hostile users from its audience? What is the reach of the assumed or desired audience—local, national, transnational? Are issues of language or cultural difference foregrounded and are ways of translating those differences provided on the site?
What action does the site invite its audience to undertake or support? What affect does the site seek to produce in readers—for instance, shame, pity, anger, or melancholy? And how might actual users respond in ways aligned or unaligned with an affect? How is audience interaction incorporated into the self-presentation? Over a longer period of time, how much change or continuity can be observed in the self-presented?
In terms of actual users, who are the frequent users, and what are their demographics or characteristics as a group? What other audiences might use or interact with the site? Are there potentially hostile users, or user groups, that the site tries to bracket out? Has the demographic of the audience changed over time, and if so, in what ways? Is the audience a potential market, and what kind of a market?
Users find online environments potent sites for constructing and trying out versions of self. The availability of multiple and heterogeneous sites for self-presentation promises seemingly endless opportunities for conveying some “truth” about an “authentic” self for those with access to web technologies. The selves produced through various sites can convey to visitors and users a sense of intimacy—the intimacy of the quotidian details of daily life, the intimacy of shared confession and self-revelation, the intimacy of a unique voice or persona or virtual sensibility, contributory to the intimate public sphere theorized by Lauren Berlant (1997) and Poletti (2011).
Yet cultural commentators question the extent to which presenters can be “authentic” in virtual environments. If by authenticity, one means the unmediated access to some “essence” or “truth” of a subject, virtual environments only make clearer the critique of poststructural theorists that all self-presentation is performative, that authenticity is an effect, not an essence. Jeff Pooley (2011), for instance, observes that “authenticity today is more accurately described as ‘calculated authenticity’— . . . stage management. The best way to sell yourself is to not appear to be selling yourself.” David Graxian even more strongly emphasizes that authenticity is “manufactured.” Graxian is exploring the ways in which authenticity is “manufactured” within the context of the Chicago blues club, but his observations on this offline environment are productive for thinking about digital authenticity: “Broadly speaking,” he writes, “the notion of authenticity suggests two separate but related attributes. First, it can refer to the ability of a place or event to conform to an idealized representation of reality: that is, to a set of expectations regarding how such a thing ought to look, sound, and feel. At the same time, authenticity can refer to the credibility or sincerity of a performance and its ability to come off as natural and effortless” (Graxian 2003, 10–11; cited in Gray 2009, 1164).
If authenticity can be “manufactured,” if it is an effect of features of self-performance, then credibility, veracity, and sincerity acquire a slipperiness that can prompt suspicious readings (see Smith and Watson 2012). And indeed, users themselves often read sites with a skeptical eye, assessing the presenter’s degree of sincerity or speculating about whether he or she is posing as a false identity. Alternatively, authenticity can be rethought through the concept of “realness” proposed by Judith/Jack Halberstam. Halberstam shifts attention from questions of authenticity to the unpredictability of effects in the world. She/he defines “realness” as “not exactly performance, not exactly an imitation; it is the way that people, minorities, excluded from the domain of the real, appropriate the real and its effects” (Halberstam 2005, 51; cited in Gray 2009, 1163). Appropriations of realness in online environments may reinforce social norms and they may open a space for recognition of the constructedness of those norms.
In interacting with online performances of self, the following questions arise with regard to authenticity and realness. Is this a site where the authenticity of self-presentation matters and if so, for whom and for what reasons? What strategies for creating a situated, historical subject does the user or site mobilize? Does an aura of authenticity attach to a particular identity category on particular kinds of sites; for example, sites acknowledging victimization or transgression such as coming-out sites, weight sites, illness sites, or grief sites?
What strategies for winning belief are deployed? What are identified as guarantors of authenticity on a site? How convincing are those guarantors? Are there different kinds of guarantors for different kinds of sites? For example, webcam sites seem to guarantee the moment-to-moment authenticity of the subject of their surveillance, and yet “surveillance realism” can be manufactured as reality show. The web-based video series that began in June 2006 named LonelyGirl15, for instance, was unmasked in September 2006 as inauthentic, a bid to gain celebrity status for an aspiring nineteen-year-old American actor (Jessica Lee Rose as Bree Avery). The narration of personal histories on video sites such as YouTube appears to be a slice of life, but the production of a video is a collective project involving a camera person, a sound person, and sometimes a director other than the performing “I.” How, then, is the aura of authenticity attached to an online performance constructed by a crew, which could include a camera person, sound person, director, and script-writer? Do you find this self-presentation to be sincere or to be calculated authenticity, a pose or “manufactured” pseudo-individuality?
How is “authenticity” surveilled online? How does the site try to convince visitors of its creator’s “truthfulness”? What degree of fabrication or exaggeration do visitors tolerate and correct for in an online environment? For instance, on dating sites users may expect idealized representations of others as younger, thinner, and more attractive, and adjust for a vanity-driven profile. How does an aura of authenticity get attached to “anonymity” in sites where the user is not identified? Can a fabricated online identity contribute to a different kind of “truth” aimed at correcting a social harm or inequity? That is, to what extent does it matter that an online identity is inauthentic if the blogger or journal writer claims to speak on behalf of victims who cannot dare to risk speaking out publicly? What are the larger politics of authenticity in the global traffic in narratives of suffering? What is the relationship of authenticity to the ideological formations of global capitalism, to transnational activism, to online marketing, to reputation management?
Scholars in media studies and autobiography studies invoke a set of related terms to illuminate the relationship of technologies and subjectivity: medium, mediation, mediatization, automediality, autobiomediality, and transmediality. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (2000), for instance, describe the relation of medium and mediation in this way: “A medium is that which remediates. It is that which appropriates the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real” (65). British cultural studies theorists are concerned to distinguish mediatization generally from mediation. “Mediation,” observes Nick Couldry, “emphasize[s] the heterogeneity of the transformations to which media give rise across a complex and divided social space” (Couldry 2008, 375). Mediatization, in contrast, “describes the transformation of many disparate social and cultural processes into forms or formats suitable for media representation” (377). His argument is that media cannot simply be conceptualized as “tools” for presenting a preexisting, essential self. Rather, the materiality of the medium constitutes and textures the subjectivity presented. Media technologies, that is, do not just transparently present the self. They constitute and expand it, and imagine new kinds of virtual sociality, which do not depend on direct or corporeal encounter. (See Smith and Watson 2010,168.)
The concept of automediality (or autobiomediality) directs the concept of mediation to the terrain of the autobiographical and the self-presentation of online sites. It provides a theoretical framework for conceptualizing the way subjectivity is constructed online across visual and verbal forms in new media. Brian Rotman (2009) places the concept of autobiomediality in the long history of encounters between modes of self-enunciation and locates the present moment in “a radically altered regime of space-time” in which there is “an emerging co-presence of mobile, networked selves with identities . . . ‘in perpetual formation and reformation at the moment of use’” (121). Scholars in Germany and France, among them Joerg Dünne and Christian Moser (2008), have focused on the concept of automediality as well. Ruth E. Page refers to transmediality and multimodality as forms of electronic literature that are gaining attention in narrative studies (2008). Automediality implies an aesthetics of collage, mosaic, pastiche. Subjectivity cannot be regarded as an entity or essence; it is a bricolage or set of disparate fragments, rather than a coherent, inborn unit of self. Automedial practices of digital life writing impact the prosthetic extension of self in networks, the reorientation of bodies in virtual space, the perspectival positioning of subjects, and alternative embodiments.
How does the choice of a medium or media contribute to the construction of subjectivity on a particular site? If you observe multiple media of self-presentation, where do you see them merging or conflicting in a self-presentation?
Embodiment is a translation in various media of the experienced and sensed materiality of the self. While the body is always dematerialized in virtual representation, embodiment in many forms and media is a prominent feature of online self-presentation. The possibility of configuring oneself as an avatar with nonhuman features and capacities on sites such as Second Life or World of Warcraft offers new dimensions to the performance of the self. Bodily extensions and fantasies (e.g., of animals, cartoon heroes, or machines; enhanced, streamlined, or transformed human capacities) are enabled. And yet, while avatars are assumed to function as the erasure of identity markers such as race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and age, the choice of an avatar can be a form of what Lisa Nakamura (2008) labels “identity tourism.” This troubling practice, according to Nakamura, “let users ‘wear’ racially stereotyped avatars without feeling racist, yet it also blamed users who reveal their real races and were victims of racism online” (1675). She argues that the Internet is not “a post-racial space” where users can “‘choose’ a race as an identity tourist” or withhold a racial identity (1676), and therefore that the avatar is not necessarily a medium for escaping identity.
What possibilities of avatar identity are generated by site templates and protocols? How is the avatar stylized—through, for instance, adornment of the contemporary or a historical period, body markings, prostheses, or amputation? What does the choice of an avatar suggest about the relationship among bodily systems and organs, visible bodily surfaces, and bodily histories and meaning? How might the codes or rules of a community affect the choice of an avatar?
What social boundaries are crossed or transgressed through self-presentation as an avatar? Are scenarios of desire or violence or mystical transformation enacted and to what end? Are fantasies of embodiment engaged through dreams, rituals, myths, or other projections? How is the avatar of the user related to other bodies? What are the effects of capturing the body in other ways than photos and video? If identity markers are referenced, is there evidence on the site for determining whether they are markers of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, age? What contextualization in the form of chatting or blogging surrounds the avatar?
Online environments are fully corporatized, with sites ripe for data mining by aggregators and marketers. So, we can’t be surprised that the discourse of corporate management has promoted “Brand Me” as the mode of online self-presentation. Or as William Deresiewicz (2011) observed, “The self today is an entrepreneurial self, a self that’s packaged to be sold” (7). That is, the self is regarded as a commodity to be packaged for brokering in a variety of media sites, including videos such as YouTube, the personal websites of entrepreneurs, and product-related sites.
Online venues are preferred vehicles for composing, circulating, monitoring, and managing one’s brand. Individual users adopt the methods of corporate marketers, simplifying and honing their self-images and presentational behaviors to project a desirable brand “Me”—digitally hip, successful, fully sociable, intriguing. Some identify what sets them apart in their quirky individuality; some emphasize achievements. Some turn themselves into a kind of “logo,” which will consistently deliver a product and up-to-date status reports. As self-curators, users utilize the Web to create a multimedia CV that marks “you” as a brand. The brand is consolidated and marketed through narratives and images, especially those on social networking sites. Thus, telling personal stories or performing one’s sense of one’s personality is critical to the conveyance of the brand “you.” Narrative, profiles, images all link aspects of your experience and your character into a coherent presentation.
With the imperative of branding, however, comes the necessity of managing the brand by managing online reputation. To do this, users may contract with any one of the many reputation managers advertising their services, such as www.reputationmanagementconsultants.com and www.ironreputation.com. The message here is that the impulse to online self-disclosure can be reckless and can undermine the self-image or brand a creator wants to project.
Is the creator branding herself or himself on the site? How is the brand linked to autobiographical stories about experiences, character features, achievements? And how convincing is the assertion of brand coherence? How consistently and coherently is branding employed on various sites where the user appears?
Many consider confession a prime motivation for self-presentation in online environments. The sense of intimacy within anonymity that a virtual community of sharers experience in online sites provide may encourage users to disclose secrets but at potential risk to their privacy. Many online sites invite confessional disclosure and set out protocols for the degree and kinds of intimacy they invite. PostSecret, one of the most widespread and intriguing of these, combines the discourse of confession with the material traces of personal forms such as handwriting, photos and drawings, and small objects to secure the promise of authenticity for the secrets disclosed on the handmade postcards mailed or uploaded (which are in turn adjudicated by the site’s manager, Frank Warren). As Anna Poletti (2011) observes, the “confessional meta-narrative” of PostSecret protects anonymity through the postal system while connecting the secret to both the body of the creator and to the intimate public who comes to possess it. “The secrets,” she emphasizes, “remain secrets” (32). The technologies that mark the confession as such may be multiplied and focused in online environments to emphasize its special status for creators and to call site-users to an ethical response to it, though the boundaries of the genre seem more blurred than in its written form as practiced by, say, Augustine, Rousseau, or Joan Didion, Annie Ernaux, and Maya Angelou.
How does the site invite confession of secrets, self-doubts, or fantasies? What guarantees of protection does it offer users, and are those reliable? Does the site link confession to anonymity? What form does the confession take? Is it framed as a “sin” by a religious template? Told as a psychological disclosure? Acknowledged as a political transgression? To what extent does the confession seem “sincere,” and why or why not? (Consider both internal evidence within the narrative and its reference to external data.) Is the confession a reference to an incident in the teller’s past or to an ongoing habit pattern? In what ways is, or isn’t, the narrating “I” distinct from the narrated actor who did the deed or had the thought? Are others implicated as victims or as beneficiaries? Has some form of retribution been made, and if so, how? In your view, was it sufficient to redress the harm? Is the confessor overly scrupulous about her or his actions or motivations? Who benefits from this act of confession? What politics does the confession seem to serve? What communities?
What risks and rewards of the online confession are observable? What role did or do site visitors play in pardoning the confessor? Do they remain a multiple, impersonal audience or are they personalized? Does the confession generate similar acts by visitors, and if so, to what effect?
The Web seems to be a fluid environment in which “anything goes”; but increasingly, users, corporations, and managers are confronting difficult ethical issues related to online behaviors, borrowing, copyright, repurposing of gathered materials (such as video clips and images), surveillance, and data-mining. Ethical questions about appropriate online behavior, for instance, relate to the site and its management and to users.
Site management can be a form of self-care or a form of surveillance. Does the site articulate an ethics as a protocol for its use, and does it observe that ethics? How do the site and its management assert or delimit zones of privacy? How does the site address issues related to disclosure of intimate details? Does the site protect anonymity? Does the site propose a code of use relating to borrowing from other sites? Is some form of remedy available to users with respect to these ethical issues? What implicit dangers or risks to self-disclosure exist on this site? Does the site address the implications for vulnerable users such as children?
Users engaged in acts and practices of online self-presentation also confront pressing ethical issues. Does the user assert or imply an ethical code or practice on his or her site? What is the ethics of going public with intimate material about family and friends in the context of online self-presentation? What is the ethics of appropriating materials from other people’s lives or sites? How can users manage their personal sites to care for their privacy and vulnerability while pursuing self-exploration or trying out versions of selves? How does a personal ethics of online self-performance intersect with a corporatized system for developing and managing one’s public image? What is at stake in the conjunction of excessive attention to performing one’s self and the increasing scope of surveillance enabled by the technology and by site monitors?
The instantaneity and reach of Internet technologies join people together as what is considered a global community of users. But access to online technologies remains unevenly distributed across the globe. Moreover, the asymmetrical distribution of access and benefits; the differential treatment of the labor forces producing hardware, software, and cloudware; the differential degrees of technical literacy; the incommensurability of culturally specific idioms of self-presentation; and the persistence of larger formations of imperialism and neocolonialism all impact the lived realities of the digital divide and the digital future. At the same time, though, the increasing digital literacy and access to some kind of technology such as cell phones, the proliferation of translation sites, and the availability of nonlinguistic modes of communication mean that the possibilities for linking one’s story and self-presentation across geographic, languages, and political borders have expanded.
To what extent does online self-presentation map onto transnational social identities, political movements, activist causes, or transnational formations such as global youth cultures, human rights movements, and transnational community-building among indigenous peoples across the globe? On sites that assemble an archive of life stories, such as those witnessing to histories of violence, how do paratexts around them, testimonials embedded in them, and their placement online affect the subject position of the witness, the form of story told, and the projected audience? What kinds of responses are invited from visitors to the site, for instance, a donation of money or a pledge of advocacy? To what extent is an online self-presentation implicated in programs and policies of a neoliberal nation-state or in efforts to subvert or challenge a neoliberal ideology? How might online acts and practices of self-presentation reassemble the textual legacies of one or diverse cultural traditions that extend back over centuries?
What means of self-translation are available to users addressing a global audience? How are photos and videos mobilized to translate a self across differences of language and culture? What kinds of online lives gain salience and why and how?
While identity is often regarded as a set of components of personhood, such as markers of gender, race, nationality, class, sexuality, generation, family genealogy, political belief, and religious affiliation, theorists have come to view identities as multiple, provisional, contextual, intersectional, and historically specific. That is, people are situated and situate themselves discursively in relation to context-specific social norms, which determine and constitute identities as subject positions. In the expanding array of virtual environments, identities become increasingly manipulable. Indeed, for some commentators, online identity, as virtual, seems unbounded, purely a matter of choice and invention among avatars, roles, and subject positions. Paul Longley Arthur (2009), for instance, observes that “online identities are easily manipulated at any time by the individual subject or by others” and this “ability to ‘manage’ online content at will is changing the way we see ourselves and each other” (76).
The malleability and interchangeability of identities online, however, is qualified offline in several ways by both the complexity of identity performance and the Realpolitik of situated subjects. Considering the performance of identity, the sociolinguist Ruth E. Page (2011) distinguishes between those aspects that are “transportable identities,” traveling across several kinds of discursive situations, and those aspects that are “discourse- and situated-specific, . . . locally occasioned roles adopted in relation to a particular speech situation” (18). In RealLife (RL) social settings as well, Page observes that not all aspects of identity are intrinsic to a person’s performed characteristics; some may be provisionally adopted for a particular occasion or context. While the origins and correlatives of virtual identities are not embodied as are those presented in RL social settings, distinguishing between transportable and role-based or assumed aspects of identity may enable more nuanced theorizing.
Furthermore, not all valences of identity are equalized and sharable online. New media scholars such as Lisa Nakamura, Helen Kennedy, and Mary L. Gray caution that the utopian vision of an Internet where the free play of identity is unbounded obscures the persistent asymmetries of power and access that attach to marginalized and normative identity positions on and offline, and to the labor of producing, circulating, and consuming lives in Web 2.0. Nakamura (2008, 1678), for instance, asserts that “the ‘larger flows of labor, culture and power’ that surround and shape digital media travel along unevenly distributed racial, gendered, and class channels” (see also her chapter ).
In this environment, at once fluid yet inflected by asymmetrical power relations, some artists have created meta-identity projects that reformulate identity as contingent and arbitrarily networked. The Australian painter Jennifer Mills (2009–11), for example, developed What’s in a Name? Googling her own name, she found more than 325 women from across the globe, especially the English-speaking world—the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand—who shared it. She then used their websites or Facebook pages to make candid watercolor images of her avatars as intimate “secret sharers.” Exhibited at the Queensland Art Gallery, What’s in a Name? illustrates how self-representation through online avatars is an increasingly important aspect of contemporary self-identity, yet it fractures social identity. One of Mills’s “Googlegängers,” Australian writer Jennifer Mills, notes the compelling but dislocated intimacy of the Internet: “The idea that in the mass of difference and differentiation you might have something in common with a stranger has a kind of dizziness about it. . . . These Jennifers have traveled through the hyperreality of the network, and come back home.”
What components of identity are presented in an online site, and which ones are assumed? How do site protocols and templates manage identity? Do discourses of a “true” self or an imaginary self inform the site? To what extent are distinctions of social identities blurred and dispersed in the online environment of self-presentation? To what extent are an individual’s multiple or conflicting identities homogenized? Do you observe ways in which normative identities—as effects of racialization, heternormativity, or ableism, and the like—are invoked, sidetracked, queered, reformulated, rematerialized?
Some self-presenters consider themselves as primarily embedded within online collectivities; that is, they are part of a group of actors speaking as a homogenous “we.” How would you describe the community or collective? How large is it? How connected in time and space? Is the community multigenerational? Does it make links across sexes, ages, national, ethnic, or linguistic boundaries? What shared characteristics make this “I” part of a larger “we,” and which are inherited, which consciously chosen? Is there a set of beliefs or an ideology at the core of the group’s formation? Does the site assume that visitors are members of a particular community or provide a way for them to claim or participate in an identity through membership and/or IRL (In Real Life) meetings, activities, and rituals?
Processes of individual and collective memory are both changed and enabled by the Internet. The encoding of memory is also technologically vulnerable in that data may be lost or corrupted. But, as scholars of life narrative have argued, memory was always more than the storage of impressions of past events. There are many processes of memory: retrieval, association over time, flashback and flashbulb, dreams, traumatic memory, postmemory, and prosthetic memory, to name some kinds (see Smith and Watson 2010, ch. 2). It is important to distinguish between the “stored” memory of an online archive or database and what is available as historical and collective memory through other sites and non-online sources.
The Internet also provides technologies for creating what might be called “future memory,” which is prospectively retrospective. Consider an ongoing project by the multimedia artist Christian Boltanski. Titled “Storage Memory,” it is a project he hopes to continue for the rest of his life. Each month he will film ten one-minute movies, which can be watched separately but, as a set, will be a “jigsaw puzzle” as a “self-portrait depicting his emotions and sensations . . . a record as time goes by, of the transformations in his life.” Boltanski has solicited online subscribers (for an annual fee) to reach beyond his fans to individuals around the world. He describes the project as “a work in progress of unknown duration which only death will put an end to.” Here, future memory is enabled by technologies for recording, storing, and sharing what an artist becomes, on a regular basis throughout his life, merging past and future with the reflexivity of an ever-moving present.
What does memory become on online sites where entries can be made episodically, and where both the site and the Web itself serve as a kind of memory bank? In engaging a site, consider how it incorporates memory or practices of memory such as association, emplacements, or substitution? Are prompts to memory retrieval used, such as lists of “firsts” and genealogical trees? How is the emotional content or freight of a memory conveyed online? In authoring a self is there attention to forgetting or an effort to engage others in a search for lost memory? What sources of personal memory are mobilized online, such as genealogy, family albums, photos, and objects, and are they personal artifacts or public documents, events, or rituals?
How is individual memory linked to larger contexts, such as collective memory, historical record, and transnational processes of migration, exile, and diaspora? Does the user/creator highlight traumatic or belated memory as a self-authoring practice for telling about suffering or events that seem unrepresentable to him or her? Does the self-author use the site therapeutically for engaging, overcoming, and healing from painful memories?
Paratexts and Parasites
Paratext is the name given to material of several sorts, which supplements and mediates a written text, among them tables of contents, chapter headings, and endnotes; letters, documents, and endorsements; book covers, illustrations, and advertisements. Paratexts have various effects: they solicit specific audiences; they produce a certain “look” that brands a narrative for consumption; and they seek to influence reading publics (see Smith and Watson 2010, 99–102). In online environments, in addition to the kinds of paratexts associated with written texts, the screen content may include the visible features of the formal template, blog commentaries, hyperlinks, pop-up ads, associated inventories in sidebar suggestions, “I-like-this” options, and other algorithmically generated matter that mediates acts of self-presentation to contextualize an individual’s self-presentation differently with a rapid shifts in the environment. Constantly changing frames, driven by behind-the-scenes algorithms, contextualize self-presentation relationally and in ever-changing juxtapositions, affecting how site visitors and reading publics view, read, understand, and respond to the presented self. For instance, the paratextual box registering the constantly changing number of site visitors on a particular site informs viewers about its popularity and can even create celebrity. The sources, purposes, and effects of paratextual apparatuses are thus radically altered in virtual media. Most critically, online paratexts are not only part of author- and/or publisher-generated content; they are also effects of online environments, including site architectures and algorithms, and the economic transactions and business models based on Big Data.
There are also new and striking parasitical aspects of online paratexts. In online environments, as noted above, paratexts may have no intrinsic relationship to the autobiographical project of the user/author, in terms of values, beliefs, and intentions. Indeed, as uninvited occupiers of the screen, paratexts can establish symbiotic relationships with sites: the sites provide advertising space and Big Data for businesses while the paratexts net resources to support site owners. An effect of this symbiotic relationship is that paratexts also project readings of the life and self of site-users by imputing habits, values, and identifications to them. They make linkages unanticipated and unintended by site-authors, and these can inflect, in dramatic and subtle ways, how the presenter is interpreted. They produce “digital character” and project imagined desires, interests, and affiliations. As parasitic, online paratexts mobilize the transport of identities to unanticipated locations and stimulate surprising cohabitations.
Because paratexts can be modified over time, online authors may find their self-presentations framed differently whenever they return to their sites. For example, “thinspirational” songs and photos of stick-thin models might change the interpretation of disclosures on a site where users monitor their eating habits. Self-presentations surrounded by pornographic or political-advocacy paratexts might influence how visitors interpret the self-presenter’s motives and beliefs. Then, too, because fragments of self-presentations can be, and often are, copied without user-authorization, online lives can be resituated on another site, such as Tumblr, and reinterpreted through new paratextual juxtapositions. The circulation and recombination of paratexts open any online life to multiple framings, some of which are chosen by the author, some of which are algorithmic and impersonal, and some of which are effects of ceaselessly shifting placement and juxtaposition.
Consider what kinds of paratexts accompany and situate an online self-presentation. In what larger narrative does a particular paratext situate this self-presentation? For example, on sites that gather oral histories into an archive, individual stories are often organized within an interpretive apparatus dedicated to projecting a collective overview and a counterhistory. Are there contradictory, dissonant, or competing narratives set in motion by different paratextual frames? How might paratextual frames call into question the reliability or accuracy that a self-presenter claims?
Consider, as well, how the inevitability of parasitic paratextual frames commodifies a self-presentation as a demonstration of products, buying habits, and projected desires, making a “life” into a practice of self-branding. Can you distinguish between paratextual frames that impose branding and those that are intentional self-branding? And are there paratexts that are not oriented to commodifying the subject but rather to the projection of values or the exploration of ethical issues, such as a commitment to social justice or human rights activism?
Self: Computational or Quantified
The shift from an alphabetical to a computational self has opened the way for individuals to become their own quantification engines. A case in point is the “loosely organized group known as the Quantified Self,” centered in Boston. The Quantified Self is constituted of people who digitally self-monitor their bodily processes, intake, outgo, and activities. Gary Wolf (2010) has called this new dispensation of the computational self “the data-driven life.” And he asks: “Does measuring what we eat and how much we sleep or how often we do the dishes change how we think about ourselves?” (38). In answering his own question, he observes that “almost imperceptibly, numbers are infiltrating the last redoubts of the personal” (40).
One might think of the self in this context as a site of time-stamped data. But what is interesting about the Quantified Self is the capacity of people to become contributors to Big Data; they can increasingly contribute their personal data to large databases, which will become a source of research in the biomedical sciences—through applications such as Foursquare and various weight-tracking programs and sites such as fitday.com or thedailyplate.com, as well as the online journals myfooddiary.com and weightwatchersonline.com. Emily Singer (2011) observes that “the most interesting consequences of the self-tracking movement will come when its adherents merge their findings into databases. The Zeo, for example, gives its users the option of making anonymized data available for research; the result is a database orders of magnitude larger than any other repository of information on sleep stages” (41). She also notes that “[p]atient groups formed around specific diseases have been among the first to recognize the benefits to be derived from aggregating such information and sharing it” (43). The quantified self, then, is more than a practice of self-monitoring; it suggests a shift to sharing such information for collectivized profiles of groups that serve as authorities on themselves.
Wolf recognizes that the Quantified Self, as an assemblage of data driven by the body and by habits, will reorient us to ourselves, even if the impetus to quantify remains attached to a logic of self-development, which is part of the cultural imaginary. “When we quantify ourselves,” he observes, “there isn’t the imperative to see through our daily existence into a truth buried at a deeper level. Instead, the self of our most trivial thoughts and actions, the self that, without technical help, we might barely notice or recall, is understood as the self we ought to get to know” (Wolf 2010, 44). Paradoxically, the Quantified Self is at once located as a singularity and made anonymous in numeric code.
Efforts to quantify the self, however, occur not just for the purpose of monitoring bodily functions. The Bangladeshi American media artist Hasan Elahi, for example, has created an ongoing project called Tracking Transience—The Orwell Project, which records his movements in multiple, specific ways on his website. He began in response to being detained by the FBI on September 12, 2001. Elahi, an American citizen with a Muslim name who does not speak Arabic, was repeatedly questioned, nine times over six months, and given lie-detector tests concerning his whereabouts during the terrorist attacks (Mihm 2007). Despite his protestations, he remains a “person of interest” to the FBI (which has never charged him); but because of his status he cannot be issued an official letter of clearance and therefore remains vulnerable to re-arrest.
As a response to his situation, Elahi has chosen to wear a GPS-positioning device and uses Google Earth to track his movements to and from airports and hotels, as well as his meals in restaurants and even use of public toilets. He regularly posts his movements, using a red arrow to show his location. As Siegel (2012) observes, the anonymous “eye” of the satellite camera acts as a kind of all-seeing, superhuman surveillance mechanism (94). In 2011 Elahi wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine, “You want to watch me? Fine. But I can watch myself better than you can, and I can get a level of detail that you will never have.” Elahi’s website, which is open so that all can track his movements, contained more than 46,000 images in early 2012 and is regularly updated. He points out that continuous self-surveillance, exposing everyday details about oneself, can be a response to the misapplication and uncritical use of identity management technologies. Elahi’s strategy is to show his location every day but never any part of his body. Elahi’s self-tracking project, which uses uploaded photos to quantify locational aspects of himself, suggests that the Quantified Self concerns not simply measurement but may be employed in self-representations with aesthetic and political implications. His response to government surveillance in “quantifying” himself, yet not revealing his own body, reverses the logic of public disclosure as a means of “establishing the paradoxical condition of public privacy” and suggests an innovative means of intervention in the imperative of Big Data (Siegel 2012, 92).
Can aspects of the quantified self be observed on a personal website—data about the body, habits, or measurable achievements of the site creator? To what extent does quantified data dominate the self-portrayal? Is there much personal narrative or self-reflection? How does this quantification shape the kinds of interactions the site invites or permits? For example, on a weight-monitoring site, what informs your response?
Self-presentation in online environments, unlike in analog life writing, does not have narrative beginnings and ends distinguishable by birth or death. Its structuring is primarily episodic rather than emplotted. In this way, online presentation is located in time and ever-changing. This mobility of selves in online environments complicates our notions of temporality: it is both an eternal present of moments of self-accretion and extensible across time through the archive. Online, the chronicle is one temporal mode of self-presentation. On sites such as Facebook and blogs, time is successive and accreted, a form of chronology ever changing through modification. Temporality can also be organized by associative memory, by dispersed status updates, or by larger frameworks of historical periods, such as the framework of music history implied in changing attachments to certain kinds of music. Moreover, users can “go backward” in time to delete or amend content. For example, bloggers time travel when they edit earlier posts, which have been criticized as slanderous or offensive.
What time or times, whether a specific moment or a more general time, does the site set up? Does it situate itself in an ongoing series of moments, as in a blog or online journal or webcam site? Are temporal moments signaled through dates or other chronological distinctions? If the site is interactive, how do other users temporally mark their engagements in time? To what extent is the site changed or added to over successive moments? Is there a pattern of self-modification? How are the temporalities of different archives of the self that are mounted at different sites interarticulated? To what other temporalities is the site linked? Is the self-presentation conscious of the subject’s location in generational time, or national time, or a religious moment, or a collective time? Can there be said to be a temporal “end” to a site and the creator’s self-presentation? How many temporal dimensions are observable on a site?
User-authored and/or Protocol-Driven Sites
It is helpful to distinguish between two kinds of online sites. Protocol-driven sites have elaborate formats, driven by algorithms that dictate how users organize what they tell or present themselves. The protocols of Facebook, for example, require that users enumerate themselves in established formats, which may suppress some aspects of individual difference. Users can, however, modify or disrupt some site formats, which seem constricting or incomplete, in order to create more nuanced and complex self-presentations. They might add photographs or mention distinctive features of tastes to customize a self-presentation, or they might add a link to another site of self that complicates or expands the limits of the protocol template.
While user-authored sites observe some protocols, they are looser and may be minimal. For example, personal websites, such as LiveJournal and collaborative diary sites, permit blogging of unspecified length without a narrowly scripted protocol and extensive commentary by site visitors. Blogs permit users to modify their entries in successive posts and invite interactive comments from others.
What are the norms and rules of the site? What does it allow users to include or require that they exclude? What kind of “life” does the site’s format solicit? If it employs the ready-made templates of protocol-driven sites, how does the template shape the user’s projection of identity and communal affiliation? How do more constricting formats normalize or typicalize or deindividualize a certain kind of subject as a general social type? What is excluded, obscured, or deformed in a life ready-made through a template? What kind of subject is rendered abnormal through a site format? Are there ways that users can intervene in or innovate upon the protocols?
We regard this toolkit as functional. The questions are intended to supply concepts and prompt analysis. They attend to new ways of presenting a self online, and new formations of subjectivity generated by combinations of media enabled by the Internet. We hope this assemblage of questions contributes to a better understanding of the transformations of subjectivities and lives that the revolutionary shift to digital environments has enabled.
Online self-presentation raises provocative questions for scholars of life narrative and cyber-environments alike. We might ask whether the formulas, protocols, and ready-made environments of online sites call the singularity and uniqueness of the authored self into question. Is this a new critical formation distinct from a postmodern view of subjectivity, such as Derrida’s, that written selves are always already citational assemblages? Will the potential of online forms provoke new innovations in self-authoring to convey explorations of self-experience digitally in ways similar to the powerful innovations of Augustine and Rousseau in their Confessions and Montaigne in his Essays? Or will radically distinct models of prosthetic personhood emerge, as posthumanist theorists suggest?
Online environments can incorporate multiple media and juxtapose them in ways that produce new possibilities for self-representation. A site can configure the self of the user as, for example, a map, a puzzle, a portrait, an assemblage of tastes and habits, a genealogical chronology, a type representative of a group, an aficionado of particular celebrities, heroes, or sports figures. Users may choose to encode themselves through fantasies of being someone or something else, as avatars or alternative identities. The notion of “bricolage,” assembling a profile from disparate parts and allowing other users to recombine it differently, is also a feature of some online sites.
Reflection on online self-presentation leads us to wonder what is added, what lost by the ease of assembling multiple versions of a self in disparate media, with different limits and emphases. And it provokes some concluding provocative questions:
- What consequences might the explosion of virtual self-authorship have for the de- or re-formation of subjectivities?
- How does the flattening of online lives into a successive chronicle of moments or an ongoing, updateable present alter expectations that the self in visual and written forms is a construct of depth, interiority, and reflexivity?
- Does the archival capacity for searchability among earlier entries on, or versions of, self-presentation foreclose or expand the prospect for complex self-representation?
- Do self-presentations and extensions through assemblages, links, and avatars signal the emergence of a new posthuman subjectivity? Or is the virtualization of the subject only a neoliberal manifestation of the mind-body split as a legacy of Enlightenment humanism?
- Do the archives and architecture of the Web transform the self into a “switching point” or “transit” or “node”? That is, should acts of self-composition that are nonverbal and in constant flux be conceptualized as the extension of a self into multiple relations, or its evacuation?
- What becomes of the concept of agency ascribed to the self constructed through autobiographical performances in writing or other media? Where does agency reside in the narrating and performing subject; as a co-construction in networked interactivity? in the ideological orientation of templates and protocols? or in their intersections? Or is agency delusory? Because of interactivity and transpersonal fluidity, are “virtual me’s” post-agentic?
- To what extent are the risks of public disclosure balanced by the new possibilities of self-exploration and self-expression for generations of users who were formerly inhibited about constructing versions of themselves and making enduring multimedia portraits?
- How might the social work of life narrative—for instance, memorialization of family or nation, political activism, group identification—be modified by the archiving, storage, and communicative networks and rhetorics of online environments?
- How might disciplinary norms and practices of online environments for self-presentation contribute to increased commodification and surveillance of selves and life stories? And how might the protocols, politics, and frames of online sites prescribe and enforce ideological norms of identity, belonging, and communicative practice?
We do not have answers to these questions, but we regard online self-presentation as neither Huxley’s “brave new world” nor REM’s “the end of the world as we know it.” The prospect of being simultaneously self-presenters, self-curators, consumers of others’ lives, and bricoleurs of individual and collective subjectivities heralds a new age in which the old certainties no longer apply, but spaces of experimental combination are likely to provoke new formations of self, relation, and community. As we confront these transformations, we might recall Sherry Turkle’s trenchant observation: “We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us” (2012 ch. 13).
We are grateful to Tony Smith-Grieco, James Hixon, Andrew Mayer, and Kate Black for consulting on online concepts and environments. In the United States, David Herman was a resource about work on narrative aspects of online storytelling. In Berlin, Steffen Siegel helpfully enhanced our knowledge of the work of Hasan Elahi; and Christian Moser and Regina Straetling organized the “Ludic Self-Fashioning” Conference at the Free University in October 2012, a productive forum for presenting and receiving feedback on a condensed version of this chapter. Julie Rak and Anna Poletti provided insightful editorial suggestions.
2. We have not found the term “user” sufficiently distinctive for online self-representation but have not been able to come up with an alternative. Sometimes we use alternate words such as person, people, author, or individual.
3. In Reading Autobiography, we theorized the “I”s of autobiographical acts, distinguishing the flesh-and-blood historical “I” of the outernet, to whom others have no direct access, from the speaker or narrator or composer of the textual “I”; we also noted that that textual “I” is always composed of multiple narrated and narrating “I”s. (See Smith and Watson 2010, chs. 2–3).
4. We have not, by and large, pursued the burgeoning corpus of electronic autobiographical literature as such, that is, narratives composed as literary creations conceived for the Internet. Dr. Ruth Page, who focuses on electronic “semi-autobiographical” narratives, trenchantly discusses new possibilities that consciously literary electronic self-presentation can achieve and the effect they may have: “By defamiliarizing the linear reading process through hypertextual fragmentation, electronic literature reminds us that self-representation is inevitably partial, and storytelling an illusory creation of coherence. In a parallel move, readers might then reconsider their own attempts to build mental profiles of narrative participants as similarly partial and open to reconfiguration” (“Stories of the Self”).
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