The Fragmented Self

Jeff Pack '99, Brown University (English 112, 1996)


...The Net's despatialization of interaction destroys the geocode's key. There is no such thing as a better address, and you cannot attempt to define yourself by being seen in the right places or in the right company.

--William J. Mitchell, City of Bits

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," or so the cartoon goes. (Actually, there are usually ways of matching on-line identities to real-life people who don't want to be found, but most involve actions outside the Net, such as calling a sysadmin, and are widely regarded as "cheating".)

Digital spaces allow one to define and redefine one's self more completely. Whether one wishes it or not, one's physical appearance conveys information about one's self. A three-piece suit, ripped blue jeans, even the complete absence of clothing carry particular predefined stigmata. In a digital space, however, one can redefine physical features that are impossible to alter in real life, so that (ideally), even traits such as race and gender are as easily changed as clothing.

The anonymity and control offered by the digital space permits the fragmentation of the self into multiple personalities. Whereas in the real world this would be a serious mental disorder, as personalities must fight each other for existence, it is commonplace on the Net, where one can create a new persona for every interaction. While this can lead (again, ideally) to self-discovery, as aspects of one's personality that are normally repressed find a means for expression, it more often leads to thoughtlessness, as one becomes distanced from the consequences of one's actions. Flaming is arguably the most popular pastime on the Net.

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