Can Our (Digital) Identity Really Be Captured By Checking Boxes and Filling In Blanks?

We humans really like to categorize things. We like to put labels on things. We pretend that the world can be classified according to neat little boxes. We want the world to be quantifiable. Quantitative research is so nice and neat because everything fits in an easy box. All too often, we want to treat identity like that. Please check all that apply.

flickr photo shared by Mr. Ducke under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

We have talked before about the ways that Facebook influences how others understand our identity. But what about how we ourselves understand it? Susan Cox wrote about Facebook’s impact on identity and it is something worth considering. While the prod for the article was Facebook’s decision to only use legal names (and the need to provide government ID if Facebook decided your name was not a real one), and the subsequent acceptance that “real” identity may not be a legal identity, that there are people who would be harmed by that, the author goes further. Cox brings up the fact that Facebook has reduced our identity to something to be checked off, filled in. The information options that Facebook provides (read: expects you to fill out) are actually pretty invasive.

Facebook has redefined the standard of what information should be immediately known about you as a person. It was a slow process, where it gradually increased the “About” fields, but now when I meet someone, it is somehow appropriate for me to see their exact age, residential history and entire résumé of work experience and education. (No, Facebook, I don’t want to display where I went to high school. Stop trying to guess at it!) Facebook can even reduce your personal journey on this earth to a chronological list of “Life Events.” It knows the true measure of what’s important in this crazy world and can tell you everything noteworthy that’s happened to you in this one helpful list. Facebook has turned our lives inside out to the point where all of this very specific information now seems to be what constitutes a social identity.

Our identity is mediated through the fields that a company has decided are relevant, with the options that they have chosen as valid. Even before our chosen posts are filtered by algorithms to determine what others see, we must categorize and classify ourselves so others can easily scan through all the apparently important information about us.

This isn’t totally new. Quantitative gathering of information is easier. You can sort, search, and compare. The Canadian census (and pretty much every census) does the same thing. Most surveys ask for some basic personal information, even if it is anonymous. How many times have we seen ourselves or someone else represented by check boxes and short blanks? We just worked on an instructor survey at work and we used Qualtrics (a survey software that U of R currently holds a license for) to build it, trying to rely mostly on checkboxes to make it faster. We even originally had a question about gender, at least until I started questioning why there were only 2 options, and then we asked whether we really needed to know that. But if we’d had it, we could have sorted based on that, tried to see if there were patterns based on that one facet of identity. Not only one facet, but a really limited view of that facet. Gender could (and should, I would argue) be understood as a continuum. That doesn’t work all that well with check boxes, though (although Facebook has tried).

But here is the other side that this article got me thinking of: How often have we wanted to say more (or less)? How often have we found that the available options don’t fit? How often have we really thought about whether we want to provide that information or set restrictions on who can view what aspects of our profile?

As Cox said, the digital age was supposed to be one that was freeing, that opened up more options for identity rather than reifying those few options currently accepted. The familiarity with sites like Facebook, Myspace, or online dating sites, have seemingly made us more willing to check off boxes and just accept the boxes that are there.

I am all of this
I am all of this but more

Our identities are not as neat and tidy as a venn diagram. It can change over time or even day by day. It may be difficult to put a label on (for example, we are seeing new labels like “heteroromantic bisexual” because the existing identity boxes don’t work).

Maybe the prevalence of check boxes in social media have helped force us to go back to questioning, to pushing, to fighting. Now that we are being asked to quantify ourselves over and over, maybe it will help us to push back and start using rich language descriptors. I am more than the sum of my parts because I am contradiction and blending and confusion. I want to explain my answers, give the exceptions. I am a grad student. I am also employed full time. Anyone else ever struggled with the assumption that “student” and “full-time employment” seem to be viewed as mutually exclusive? And those are things I am willing to openly identify as. What about the pieces of my identity that I may not tell everyone? Is there space for me to be those things too in a world of checkboxes that ssume you now know everything important about me?

Anyone else feel like their identity is as complicated as this song?

So how do we challenge this? Should we really fill in all the blanks? How do you create a more nuanced identity for yourself?

One thought on “Can Our (Digital) Identity Really Be Captured By Checking Boxes and Filling In Blanks?”

  1. I think this is an interesting discussion on online identities. I sometimes wonder what it matters if we are more than our boxes allow. When I reflect on my ‘IRL’ relationships I can identify people who I would consider good acquaintances, who really know very little about me. Undoubtedly they collect information and tick their own boxes defining me in the context of their experiences. Not so different from the ones online, I guess the difference is those boxes change and adjust each time we meet. My identity evolves with more interaction, as it does online, but unlike IRL perhaps not in the way we would like it to.

    In conversation we often probe for the same information about age, profession, interests etc. perhaps Facebook and other online services are simply manifesting the boxes that we all regularly place each other in, offering an opportunity for us to reflect on the ways we define ourselves as well as others. Undoubtedly, as you have identified, we are much more than the parameters of our online algorithms.

    I would like to see enhanced categories for the online services and the omission of others. However, there is a business in all this and the creation of identities is nothing new to the business world. The fact that we are talking about this and aware of what is happening will lead, hopefully, to the development of a new web that is reflective of the individuals that use and develop it. Increasing dialogue and discussing concerns will lead to a more unique and individual representation of who we are IRL and online.

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