Walther et al: If everyone else were jumping off a bridge, you would, too

Walther, Joseph B., Caleb T. Carr, Scott Seung W. Choi, David C. DeAndrea, Jinsuk KIm, Stephanie Tom Tong, and Brandon Van Der Heide. “Interaction of Interpersonal, Peer, and Media Influence Sources Online.” A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. Ed. Papacharissi, Zizi. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.


This chapter is essentially a lit review that examines how the convergence of mass (cnn.com), individual (IM), and community (facebook/newsgroups) media affects how people are influenced by information about current events. The authors’ point is that scholarship on mass communication and scholarship on interpersonal communication have typically been conducted in isolation from each other. With the convergence of media online, however, this division no longer makes sense and, indeed, can be detrimental to our understanding of the relationship between media and the public.

Perhaps the authors’ biggest point is that peer validation has a huge impact on the perceived value of information. Studies supporting this conclusion have found that: 

  • When a story appears to have been chosen by peers, readers find it to be better quality, more enjoyable, and more representative of the day’s news than stories that are perceived to be selected by a news editor or algorithm.
  • Ratemyprofessor.com has a measurable effect on students’ perception of the clarity, intelligence, and attractiveness of instructors, and
  • The positive or negative direction of the comments on a news source influences readers’ perception of its quality.

Although the article doesn’t discuss this as such, it seems to me that the convergence of individual and mass media outlets is at its zenith on sites where the architecture allows users not only to comment but also to review and rate the content provided by the media outlet—this explains the popularity of sites like Reddit and the now-defunct Digg.

Interestingly, discussions in chatrooms apparently exhibit “enormous pressure” for people to conform to the prevailing opinion in a way that in-person discussions do not—perhaps because the persistent traces of the conversation allow for disagreements to remain in a much more concrete form. This is another nail in my imaginary coffin for Yun and Park’s “fear of isolation can only happen in person” argument. Having the conversation transpire in a persistent, reviewable format completely changes the dynamic.

I do like that the authors refer to online communities as “sources of peer-generated information.” The implication that the communities are generative of knowledge and not just of discourse is interesting and possibly significant.

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danah boyd talks SNS norms and identity (3 times)

boyd, danah. “None of this is Real.” Structures of Participation in Digital Culture. Ed. Joe Karaganis. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2008. 132–157. Print.

boyd, danah. “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites.” First Monday. 11.12 (2006): n. pag. Web. 28 January 2012.

boyd, danah. “The Significance of Social Software.” BlogTalks Reloaded: Social Software Research & Cases. Thomas N. Burg and Jan Schmidt, eds. Norderstedt, 2007. 15-30. Print.


First: “Digital networks will never merely map the social but will inevitably develop their own dynamics through which they become the social.” THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE TO PUT IN YOUR DEFINITION ARTICLE, DanBo!

Anyway. These three articles cover much of the same information, so I am going to address them together. The main takeaway of all three, I would say, is that if you have a functional and populated social network site, it can be very difficult to scale it up. Doing so too quickly disrupts the norms that have been established by early adopters, and even at a steady pace, the audience eventually becomes so diverse that impression management is difficult, particularly when others’ participation affects your own identity presentation.

More specifically, in “The Significance of Social Software,” boyd argues that social software is not just a set of technologies, but a set of technological goals—a mindset, a kind of practice.  Social software is people-centered rather than commerce-centered, and intentionally or not, it is controlled largely by the users, who utilize the affordances to meet their own needs rather than those of the site developers.

Boyd highlights Friendster and MySpace as emblematic of social software developers’ movement away from pre-packaged, usability-tested and perfected software to the eternal beta test, in which the “shitty first draft” is released to the world and peppered with updates and changes following public response. At Friendster, users had to work within the system as it was laid out by the developers. With MySpace, however, consumers had become a part of the process of design—it was a matter of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. Early adopters were therefore not just the people who were there first, but the users whose agendas and desires literally shaped the architecture of the space they inhabited.

A major point that boyd makes is that norms spread through networks. As long as only a few people join a given network at a time, everything is stable—when most members of a community are oldtimers (or at least are there for the same purpose), it is easy enough to socialize newcomers into How Things Are Done. If growth is too fast, however, the carefully moderated norms are disrupted in an influx of barbarians, as when Flickr was sold to Yahoo! and the press garnered a flood of new users who disrupted the experience of the early adopters.

Boyd points out that Friendster was originally populated by a few distinct groups (Burning Man attendees, gay men, and bloggers), but because each group grew organically through member networks, for a long time they remained relatively isolated from each other, each feeling that the network “belonged” to them. As a result, conventions emerged so that the individual profiles within the groups tended to resemble each other heavily—particular kinds of profile photos, particular kinds of names, etc. Because the community was assumed to be homogenous, the choices members made were tailored to a singular audience. When networks expanded enough, however, the gay Burner bloggers faced a collision of their worlds, and choosing how to present themselves was no longer a simple matter. Once people had multiple kinds of relationships in the same social network, their identity performances became disrupted. It didn’t help that these networks tend to flatten all relationships under the label of “friend.” Indeed, boyd tells an anecdote about how a particular constellation of profile information caused someone to assume she was a porn actress—her own information combined with that of her networked friends to send the wrong impression. 

The private owners of these spaces are not always thrilled to see their intentions thwarted by the users. While MySpace has historically been pretty game for user manipulation, Friendster (and now Facebook) has a much more rigid set of written and architectural guidelines for acceptable practice. Friendster opposed the idea of “non-authentic” self-representations and fake profiles because it seemed to them to undermine the credibility of what they were trying to offer. Unfortunately for them, consumers weren’t interested in a strictly enforced arbiter of identity—they wanted to play, or at the very least, to resist the kind of identity performance Friendster had envisioned. When the site owners and the site users had different agendas, inevitable conflicts led to an atmosphere of anger and paranoia; most users eventually decamped to MySpace.


Because social network sites do not provide physical walls for context, the context that users create is through their choice of Friends. They choose people that they know and other Friends that will support their perception of what public they are addressing through their presentation of self, bulletins, comments, and blog posts. This completely inverts the norms in early public social sites where interests or activities defined a group (Usenet, mailing list, chatroom, etc.) and people chose to participate based on their interest in the topic. In these environments, search collapsed context by connecting disconnected groups. Furthermore, these groups were simply unable to scale. While it was once possible to gather all cat lovers into one Usenet group, the size of this group would be beyond unbearable today. By restructuring social clusters around networks of Friends, social network sites have allowed for a new way to build social context.

I love the point made here about how different the SNS structure of social is from the online groups that preceded it. However: is there such a difference between norms that are developed as a bunch of Burners gather on Friendster and those that develop when a bunch of Burners gather on Usenet? It seems to me that it’s the multiplicitous audience that makes SNS different—that the social networks through which things spread DON’T just include one particular kind of shared interest.

And, for today at least, that’s what I have to say about that. 🙂

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in which I challenge danah boyd and Nicole Ellison to a semantic wrestling match

boyd, danah and Nicole Ellison. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13.1 (2007): Article 11. n. pag. 28 January 2012. 


True confession: I didn’t even reread this piece before I wrote this response. THAT’S how well I know it. And it’s a good thing, too, because man did this ever take me a long time to write. 

Since 2009, I have probably read this article nine or ten times, and I find it to be a terrific and important history of how social networking as we know it today came to be. But it is the definition, seemingly the simplest and certainly the shortest part of the article, that I have been stumbling over for three years. I can’t get entirely on board with their take on what social network sites are because, like off-the-rack clothing, it is too baggy in some places and too restrictive in others. But neither am I willing to get entirely off board–even that looseness and tightness is useful. And so, before taking up any of boyd’s other work, I’d like to attempt to articulate my reservations.

There are essentially two parts to the definition the boyd and Ellison provide. The first defines the apparatus that makes a site qualify as an SNS:

Web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.

That is, for something to be an SNS, users have to be able to make their own profiles and friend lists and search through those made by others. Pretty basic, no? Under this large and capacious umbrella, not only sites like Facebook and Twitter but also those like photo-sharing site flickr, Flash gaming site Kongregate, and (of course) Jezebel count as social network sites.

And in some ways, this is terrific—the openness of the definition provides us with the ability to constellate seemingly disparate sites based on a key affordance that shapes the ways in which users can interact with the site and with each other. Identifying a social networking functionality tells us something about a site, whether or not that site is primarily intended for social networking.

My issue is this: while B&E’s definition is broad enough to draw a connection, it is too broad to draw many conclusions. This problem manifests itself in what I consider the second part of the definition when boyd and Ellison explain their choice to use the term social network rather than the participial social networking: on the whole, they say, these sites are not for making new connections but for mapping those that already exist. Yet this is not the case on many sites where the social networking function is secondary.

When I first began wrestling with this issue, I found it useful to distinguish between social network sites and what I termed sites of social networking—this, I hoped, would allow us to embrace B&E’s definition as an articulation of the apparatus of social networking while leaving room for nuance in its function on the sites themselves. On these sites of social networking, offline connections are generally the exception rather than the rule, and connections may be made for a number of reasons having nothing to do with mapping. Perhaps being “friends” with a commenter allows you to be notified when they post a comment, for instance, or maybe you want to make connections with other avid gamers and their friends to assist you in forming a guild. 

On Jezebel, the act of “hearting” someone (akin to “following” on Twitter) can be done anonymously and at any time. Often, however, hearting is announced as a rhetorical stamp of approval following a comment that resonates particularly well: “hearted!”; “I wish I hadn’t already hearted you, so I could heart you again for that comment!”; I don’t know why I haven’t hearted you before now, but here we go!” In these cases, I would argue, adding a friend is not reflective but actually generative—the connection between two people didn’t exist (or was fundamentally different) until it was articulated.

Upon further reflection, however, I don’t think that the line between “social network sites” and “sites of social networking” is the right one to draw in this particular case. Suppose, for instance, that my best friend joins Jezebel. I will add her to my friends list, but it won’t have the same weight as being added by a stranger. Or imagine meeting a stranger at a party, or at a conference, or on a long airplane flight. While technically adding him or her as a friend on Facebook is simply articulating the connection you have made, I would argue that in this case, too, the act is generative, changing the relationship from what it was before the little “+ friend” button was clicked.  It tells them: 

  • I trust you with my personal information
  • I would like to have you associated with me on my profile
  • I think you are interesting enough to want to have your updates appearing in my newsfeed
  • We are more than “people who met that one time”

If you have run into someone at social gatherings six times and on the seventh you add her as a friend on Facebook? That changes something.

So I would argue that the real distinction to make between scenarios in which B&E’s characterization does and does not apply is not a matter of the kind of site people are on but of the kind of tie between them. With strong ties, being friends may be only a matter of creating traces of an existing connection, but with weak ties, that act is creative and/or transformational.

Boyd’s research in particular focuses on how identity functions (and is a function of) social network sites—a concern that I’d argue is almost entirely missing when social networking is a secondary function. Increasingly, in fact, adding or removing people on your friends list is less about shaping an outward-directed identity and more about curating an inward-directed flow of information, a la Twitter or the Facebook newsfeed.


Also: stalking!

(Definitely a topic for another day, but even the act of “liking” a band or movie on Facebook is now less about personal taste and more about access—to sales, exclusive content, etc. When I see that my friends “like” Amazon.com, I don’t think that it is such an important part of their being that they choose to represent themselves with that association. Rather, I assume there was some sort of giveaway, and they had to like Amazon’s facebook page in order to enter. )

Obviously, it is five years after this definition was written, and a lot has changed in the meantime. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it isn’t a useful of looking at social network sites—obviously, I just wrote 1,000 words grappling with the extent to which it is or isn’t valid. Even boyd herself in her other scholarship talks about people friending people they don’t know and collecting people “like baseball cards.” I just think it’s important to tease out some ways in which the definition can be refined to have more utility in the ever-changing cyber landscape.  

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in which I come back after a long hiatus to talk about Jesus

Howard, Robert Glenn. Digital Jesus: The Making of a New Christian Fundamentalist Community on the Internet. New York: New York UP, 2011. Print. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Howard’s exploration of Christian fundamentalism online is how many of his points apply directly to the feminist communities in my work. I mean, I suppose that seems obvious—there are going to be similarities in the ways that ideological communities function. But howard also teases out some threads that connect Christian fundamentalism and feminism in ways I wouldn’t necessarily have come to before.

Take, for instance, the evangelical emphasis on testimony and witnessing, on personal experience persuasive form that is not just valid but valued. Is this so different from the emphasis on personal narrative that we see so much in feminist discourse? Does a story about a personal encounter with God function the same as a story about a personal encounter with misogyny? Doesn’t each narrator derive authority from her own lived experience? Howard makes the point that these kinds of personal stories are ESPECIALLY important in digital churches because there is a lack of a.) central authority and b.) geographical encounters, so they serve to both generate authority and develop fellowship within the community. I feel like this is a potentially rich intersection that I will be interested to look more into later. Probably AFTER the exam. J

Anyhow, here are a few of Howard’s other concepts that I found to be particularly useful:



Obviously this isn’t a new term, but Howard defines it differently than I am used to thinking about it. Virtual, in his usage, means “manifest by effect,” a definition that dates back to the seventeenth century, when botanists deemed the “virtues” of certain plants to be discoverable only through ingestion. That is, something that is virtual is, essentially, performative—a virtual community is enacted, not created.



Again, this isn’t an unusual term, but Howard’s explanation of why he chooses the term “vernacular Christianity” over “popular Christianity” can perhaps provide some purchase on exactly what manifestations I want to look at in my own work. The term “popular,” he points out, is in this community often used as a pejorative to demarcate certain Christian practices from “true” Christianity. Vernacular is, like virtual, enacted—it isn’t a failed attempt at perfection but a set of “non-institutional beliefs and practices that exist alongside but apart from institutions.” Although Primiano argues that all religion is vernacular because there is no such thing as authority, Howard argues here for a kind of vernacular authority that is emergent within these communities. Participants in this vernacular Christianity define themselves by their departure from traditional Christian authoritative structures: “The vernacular might support or oppose institutional power, but it is specifically and consciously the power of not being institutional.”  The difference between this and feminism, of course, is that there are very few feminist authorities to resist nowadays. Whether there is a functional difference between “popular” and “vernacular” feminism is yet another thing I will want to revisit at another time.


Ritual deliberation

This one is new to me and, I think, quite useful. Basically, ritual deliberation is discussion for discussion’s sake. Participants may explore the import of new information on a larger belief system, but there is no expectation of a definitive conclusion or action being reached—persuasion is often less important than affirming shared beliefs. People may have the same argument they’ve had a thousand times, but in entering into it they are confirming that they are familiar with the shared narrative. According to Howard, participants in these discussions rarely need to explicitly assert their membership in the community because their membership is manifest in the characteristics of their participation. 

The internet allows people with shared beliefs to find each other, but just finding each other isn’t enough. Even though they all agree with each other enough that discussion isn’t going to be generative of any new ideas, “if the church is to exist at all, individuals must keep imagining it as a community in which they have a stake. To do that, they must keep up periodic engagements with others online. Ritual deliberation fulfils this need by creating opportunities for engagement” (173).

It’s important to note that Howard found that the more authoritative the tone of the originator of the discourse (on blogs in particular), the less likely people were to engage in ritual deliberation, even if the blog’s proprietor explicitly encouraged discussion and discourse. Ritual deliberation, it seems, can only happen in the vernacular.


Echo chambers

Howard points out that the very self-selection and “safe space” isolation that allows these virtual communities to function also isolates them from larger social discourses:

With its enclave aggregation, vernacular Christian fundamentalism demonstrates how the new opportunities created by network media can foster beliefs that the larger society rejects. One danger of this phenomenon is that individuals will construct virtual communities where it is acceptable to maintain intolerant beliefs to which a larger audience would offer resistance.

Let’s be frank: I doubt they would see this as a bad thing. The corrupting influence of worldly ideologies (and the attendant push toward isolating oneself from bad influences) has been a part of Christian discourse since forever. In many cases, these “intolerant” (read: racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.) beliefs are seen as simply telling it like it is; it is the “political correctness” movement that persecutes Christians, not the other way around. And yes, from outside of those communities, the propagation of terrible ideas and the insulation from new ones is an obvious problem.

But: when Howard writes that “[w]hen people filter their understanding of history, theology, public events, and other shared experiences through an ideologically specific enclave, they may become used to holding values that the larger society around them rejects or simply cannot understand” (145), that doesn’t just apply to racism and homophobia. I would argue that feminism often benefits from this very mechanism, allowing the formation of communities with different communicative standards than those found on the rest of the Internet (and in the rest of the world). But those very standards often make such communities seem from the outside to be alien, impenetrable, filled with “intolerant beliefs to which a larger audience would offer resistance.”

As I mentioned several times above, the resonances between the community values of these two groups has the potential to be really interesting, especially given their opposing ideologies. Or, of course, the emphasis on narrative, “safe spaces,” etc. could simply be characteristic functions of all online ideological groups. Only time (and research) will tell!

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Malcolm Coulthard could probably tell that I wrote this

Coulthard, Malcolm. “By Their Words Shall Ye Know Them.” Identity Trouble: Critical Discourse and Contested Identities. Ed. Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Rick Iedema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Well, if academia doesn’t work out, I think I found a backup job: forensic linguistics seems awesome. Fighting crime, one word at a time!

In this chapter, Coulthard, a forensic linguist working largely with written texts, looks at a number of ways in which people’s language use acts as an identifier.

First, he discusses the use of linguistic stereotypes as a rough tool for making judgments about a speaker or writer—for instance, Rebecca Lakoff’s infamous 1975 study where she claimed that women’s communication has some features that clearly distinguish it from men’s—except that later studies found that these features tend to be common to “powerless” speakers of both genders. And for stereotypes to be useful at all, the meaning of cultural markers must be shared (Coulthard points to the decision to allow Australian Aborigines court interpreters, since, for instance, in Aboriginal culture silence following a question is a mark of respect whereas in white Australian culture it is a mark of shiftiness.)

Coulthard also mentions idiolects, or the patterns or word choice a person develops from their vocabulary—choosing to say “lovely” instead of “beautiful,” for instance—and discusses how although an individual sentence may seem as though anyone could have said it at any time, in reality most sentences have never (or at least rarely) been uttered except by this particular individual. Someone should tell all those monkeys busily writing Shakespeare. 

As with the last selection, this chapter is totally fascinating but not particularly useful to my project. It does make me wonder, though, whether there might be a linguistic way to tell the difference between a troll and a person who just genuinely disagrees with the direction of the conversation. Given a big enough sample of a person’s writing, is there a way to tell when they are trying to be disingenuous? Or given big enough sample of a community’s writing, is there a way to tell which people don’t belong based on the ways that they compose their comments? Anyway, Coulthard himself seems a little tentative about how to tie his practice into the theoretical conversation, and I that’s okay, I was just hoping for a little less “how to identify language” and a little more “how to language identity,” you know?

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Machin and Van Leeuwen trick me with “Branding the Self”

Machin, David, and Van Leeuwen, Theo. “Branding the Self.” Identity Trouble: Critical Discourse and Contested Identities. Ed. Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Rick Iedema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

To tell the truth, I made some assumptions about what this chapter was going to be about, and when they were wrong I was kind of disappointed. It’s called “Branding the Self,” though—surely I was not wrong to expect it would either a.) talk about how people develop their personal web presence into a consistent brand across platforms, or b.) talk about how people incorporate labels and brands into their own conception of identity.

But no: Machin and Van Leeuwen are following up here on a study they did earlier on the kind of female identity espoused by Cosmopolitan magazine, which sounds so relevant I can’t believe it’s not on my list already. But anyway, their main point is to examine two dominant “models of identity” and the tensions between them: the government-sponsored citizen, and the corporate- and media-driven consumer. Branding is a part of it, but it’s honestly pretty tangential. Way to bait and switch, guys.

They start by pointing out that we use language to answer the question “who are you” in several ways.

  • Functionalization: Turning verbs into nouns (immigrant, runner) or nouns into other nouns (pianist, mountaineer) Identification: defining what people ARE rather than what they DO
  • Classification: separation in terms of the categories society uses to group people. Some of these used to be functional (e.g. being gay).
  • Relational identification: pretty obvious but can change between cultures
  • Physical identification: skin color, body type, etc.

Machin and Van Leeuwen look specifically at a check-the-box racial identification question on a British payroll form. There are some truly bizarre binaries set up here, where race is set up in juxtaposition to nationality and anyone not from a former colony is considerably othered. Notably absent (here and in every other racial survey, of course) is the functional type of categorization, in which people are grouped by what they do rather than what they “are.”

They also look at a functionalized categorization system published by a marketing expert, in which what you do becomes who you are—certain people who do certain things shop certain places. This ties into the idea of the “lifestyle” identity, which is somewhat less codified and more flexible than “traditional” identities and can, according to some sociologists, be more “freely chosen.”

Machin and Ven Leeuwen point out, however, that as much as people use lifestyles, lifestyles use people, and these “lifestyles” are often the product of corporate and institutional interests. When people buy into a lifestyle as a package, they sidestep many other complicating questions. Interestingly, the authors point out that the trends in identity theory have very much aligned with the trends in the ways that corporate interests present individual identity.

I find that, for me at least, the chapter’s discussion of the citizen and of the consumer never quite come together in the end, remaining two discrete areas when I had thought, going in, that the point of the chapter was to show their intersection and intertextuality. It does provide a good starting point for some of the questions I am interested in, though. Since I argue that membership in an online public is much like citizenship, but those publics take place in corporate space, the idea of consumer citizenship will certainly form the backbone of my inquiry moving forward.

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Jay Lemke and what we DON’T talk about when we talk about identity

Lemke, Jay. “Identity, Development, and Desire: Critical Questions.” Identity Trouble: Critical Discourse and Contested Identities. Ed. Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Rick Iedema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

This entry has taken me forever to write. Lemke is useful and all, but dude’s writing is dense, and reading this chapter on gorgeous summer days felt like trying to get through a brick wall using a toothpick. Which, I suppose, is only to be expected from a chapter subtitled “critical questions.”

Anyhow, Lemke does some really interesting interrogation of what we mean when we say identity and who this concept of identity really serves. Identity, he says, is a “mediating term” between (abstract) categories and labels and (narrative) lived experiences.

“In this role the notion of identity inherits many features of earlier discourses framed in terms of soul, psyche, persona, personality, selfhood, subject, agency, and so forth. We also need to understand in what sense postmodern notions of identity embrace multiplicity and hybridity of social identities across both diverse human relationships and social categories such as gender, sexuality, class, culture, race, ethnicity, and so on.” (17)

That is, we have often understood identity in terms of being the essence of self, but Lemke wants to turn our attention to how we fit these notions with relational identities—group membership, juxtaposition (say, fatherhood), even temporal relations.

Parts of our identity are relational—being a good father requires someone to parent. Other parts aren’t determined by a single performance but rather accrue over time. How do we distinguish moments of identity performance from habits of identity? That is, how do people create long-term identity? According to Lemke, they have to have both multiple opportunities to enact the same kind of identity and the will to do so. That is, it doesn’t matter how much a man might wish to be a good father if he never has contact with his children, nor does it matter how much contact he has if he isn’t ever willing to try.

“What links the long term to the short is precisely recurrence: of persons with whom we can continue to enact some relationship in which our role is significant to our identity; of objects, including diaries, favourite books and films, familiar furnishings and clothes, through which we can continue to express aspects of our identities; of situation types in which we can recognize familiar scenarios and roles we can perform. Take all these things away and there is still the recurrence of our bodies across moments.” (25)

Although this seems to provide for a lot of agency, in many ways the choices we make about these elements are shaped by institutions within society—corporations training us as consumers, governments as citizens, and schools as students. Long-term social institutions provide resources for establishing and expressing identity, but they also control and limit the terms in which we are encouraged to conceive of ourselves. The fact that these forces shape us in similar ways is not a coincidence but rather “the product of interests and the domination of some interests over others” (32).

From here I’m going to break it into some rough topics where I found Lemke to be particularly useful, so if this seems scattershot, that’s because it is.

Multiple and hybrid identities

Identity is multiplicitous and changes depending on who we are talking to—“at least multi-faceted if not plural.” Yet Lemke seems somewhat ambivalent about how much the celebrated “multiple identity” really changes the status quo. On the one hand, he writes that the “stereotypes” are not package deals but are independently moving parts that individuals may exhibit to a greater or lesser degree. On the other hand, though, he also argues that it may be that even our “multiple identities” are “stereotypical identities which we mix and match like ready-to-wear ‘separates’ to our strategic advantage” (37).

Hybridity, however, is a problematic term because it assumes two pures that are blended and requires buying into two established identities in order to combine them.

Identity, politics, and power

This isn’t really a new thought, but I think it’s really nicely articulated here:

“Everyone of lower or weaker status must learn as a part of survival how the minds of the powerful work. Asymmetrically, the powerful are often much less able to put themselves in the shoes of those whose ways of thinking they are privileged to ignore.”

Politically, identity discourses legitimate the anger of people who have been oppressed as a group and call attention to diversity, but they also reinscribe many cultural assumptions and support the status quo.

The rebels and the weirdoes

According to Lemke, there are two kinds of outlier identity possible outside of the norm. One of these is the rebel, who actively resists the normative forces of the world, and the other is the weirdo, who does his or her own thing and is almost always misunderstood or dismissed as eccentric and/or crazy by those within the norm. However, the anti-establishment rebels still affirm the norm by virtue of pushing against it. “True novelty and variety” require genuine weirdoes who act independently of the system people whose transgression is accidental rather than deliberate.

Closing thoughts

Near the end of the piece, Lemke points to Paolo Freire’s exhortation for us to try to speak an authentic word, one that defines our identity without borrowing from institutions of power. I have long viewed Jezebel’s refusal to identify as feminist as a bad thing, a ploy for pageviews and trumped-up controversy. How interesting to potentially think of it as a deliberate choice to avoid taking their authentic community and naming it false with a word.

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