Identity in the Networked World

Hypertext and Identity

The relation between language and identity has evolved quite a bit over time. In the early days, man communicated perhaps by means of symbols or signs in a face to face manner, and it was easy to know whom you were communicating with. With spoken language, man could increase his range, yet the ones he spoke to could probably still easily identify the speaker. Even if she was out of sight behind a door, or concealed by dim light, the voice of the speaker itself might carry recognizable traits and give the identity of the speaker away. Though some potential for severances existed, the connection between language and identity remained palpable.

With the onset of writing, identity faded slightly further. If the author wrote in a standard alphabet and language, but didn't clearly identify the piece as his own, the reader might not be so sure whence the writing came. Works could be anonymous, and eventually ghostwriters also came about. Some time ago, women were able in this manner to conceal their gender while writing under a man's name, and subsequently could be published despite the prejudices against female writers at the time (A cyborg merger between woman and pen, Haraway-style).

Yet even with writing identity was still mostly preserved. Books usually have an author one could seek out if they so desired, letters have a signatory, and academic papers have researchers who wrote them. Usually it isn't hard to identify whence a printed text comes.

But now we have hypertext; everything has changed. Language is no longer static or linear. With a book, you can pick it up, and see its beginning and end. The author presents a story to the reader with an intent that the reader will receive it exactly as they intended. Thus they command control over the message they send, unless you start reading at a random spot in the book. But with hypertext, the reader is almost always thrust into the information somewhere in the middle. Search tools seldom provide a page with all the answers all at once—that's not how hypertext is structured. Most likely, a short piece will be found, perhaps completely out of context from where the author intended it. Perhaps you, the reader of this right now, found this piece randomly, and have no idea where it is from. The identity can be lost if the author provides no link to other explanations.

Hypertext doesn't present a rigid storyline; rather, the reader creates it for themselves. Hypertext is merely code, a string of ones and zeros. The reader can change the code, displaying the text in a manner completely different from the author's intention, which would be impossible in a printed book. Lexia can be cut and pasted and trimmed and rearranged.

Hypertext is a living, breathing way of communicating. It can carry some of the author's identity, but as a reader accesses it the text gains some of the reader's identity as well. Thus as the code is copied and spread throughout the networked world, and accessed millions of times, identity is continually blurred. Hopefully as we become more and more dependent on the networked world to survive we can keep our identity above water in the never ending pool of ones and zeros.