3. Race, Identity, and Interactivity
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 Despite the fact that early advocates of the internet praised its potential to transform identity (Sherry Turkle famously extolled its ability to create “a more fluid sense of self”), more recently scholars have leveled that some identities may be more “fluid” than others because “individuals can experience more or less interactivity and representational power depending on what they are doing on the Internet.” In other words, the internet as a medium may create opportunities to challenge unitary and fixed notions of identity, but it does not do so for everyone at every moment equally. As Lisa Nakamura enumerates, there is a complex web that affects identity formation on the internet:
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The multilayered visual culture of the Internet is anything but a space of utopian post-humanism where differences between genders, races, and nationalities are leveled out; on the contrary, it is an intensely active, productive space of visual signification where these differences are intensified, modulated, reiterated, and challenged by former objects of interactivity. . . . Object and subject are not mutually exclusive roles: it is not possible to definitively decide who is being interacted and who is being interactive except in specific circumstances.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The medium creates an environment that enables individuals to play an active role in their identity formation—both on a personal level and a public one—but at different moments those same individuals may be the object (instead of the active subject) of someone else’s online interaction.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Of course, the tension between who is the being interactive and who is being interacted upon, to borrow Nakamura’s terms, occurs both textually and visually as the internet has developed to incorporate multiple media. Cyber-passing—the act of presenting oneself as a different race, gender, and/or sexuality online—provides an interesting example of the ways objects and subjects of interactivity are unstable. Early internet critics, like Jerry Kang, celebrated the potential of cyber-passing because “the racial signal I broadcast becomes the product of voluntary choice and intentional experimentation. This might prompt me to look at race differently, as less fixed.” Kang focused on the individual who chooses to enact the cyber-passing because that is a “voluntary choice” that could potentially destabilize fixed notions of racial identity. When Kang wrote his influential essay for the Harvard Law Review, however, the internet was still predominantly text based: so cyber-passing would have been an act through, and of, words alone. MUDs (multiple-user dimensions) and MOOs (multiple-object oriented) were sites that enabled user interaction, but they did not have a visual component. While it becomes clear that cyber-passing is viewed as less utopic when the internet encompasses visual culture, it also becomes clear that cyber-passing does not work the same way for everyone. There are those who actively choose to enact another race, gender, and/or sexuality, and there are those whose races, genders, and/or sexualities are deemed desirable or undesirable. Often this is dictated by another significant difference: there are those who are afforded the luxury of being interactive—those who have the tools, skills, and resources to be interactive online—and those who are interacted upon—those who have not been afforded the tools, skills, and resources to master interactivity.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Despite the fact that the young adults who make up Generation M are often discussed in the mainstream media as being the post-race generation, linguistic research of online chat rooms proves that race remains a salient point of discussion for members of Generation M. Analyzing 38 half-hour transcripts of online chat rooms whose participants reported themselves to be between the ages of 13 and 17, Brendesha Tynes found that “high school and college students often mention their own race and request the race of their conversational partners.” In fact, race and ethnicity were frequently mentioned: “37 out of 38 half-hour transcripts had at least one racial or ethnic utterance,” and the “mean number of racial utterances in each transcript, that is, within a half-hour of chat, was 8.” Furthermore, the research conducted by Tynes complicates the conclusions of “offline research” which argued that race is a “less salient” category for white adolescents: “in our data, this was much less the case,” with white adolescents using both implicit and explicit racial discourses. Thus, not only is Generation M actively engaged in employing and keeping “salient” racial discourses, but also this occurs more online than it does offline. Far from embodying the utopic space that Sherry Turkle imagined, the internet may actually push racial discourses to the fore more frequently than offline interactions do.