The internet and identity

How does the internet shape us?
27 August 2019

Interview with 

Harry Dyer, University of East Anglia


The globe with computer text superimposed over it


We may spend an increasing amount of time online, but we still live here, in the physical world. And while the internet may impact our identity, maybe it’s more complex than we think. Adam Murphy spoke with Harry Dyer from the University of East Anglia about how even the platform drastically changes how we present ourselves...

Harry - You look at: even one feature of a platform can be used differently from one platform to the next. There was research done in 2015 by Ian Rowe who looked at the comments section in the Washington Post versus the comment section on the Facebook of the Washington Post, and there were real differences between how that feature was used, based on the anonymity offered on the Washington Post versus the traceable identity on Facebook. And they found really different dynamics of interacting, negative in that case but in other cases anonymity can be a real positive thing. In my own research I found young people sharing intimate details about their lives on forums and in comment sections based on the fact that they’re anonymous. They can share issues about sexuality, about their health, about their family, because they hide behind the anonymity and are able to find a supportive community.

So the features in and of themselves are bound up in the places where we find them, that will affect different people differently. So there's a lot of, for example, issues of users experiencing racism and sexism and homophobia online that carries on from offline settings. So for example you see Wikipedia, this global source for knowledge, is 90% written by white males in the global north despite it being our go-to base for knowledge. It's not neutral, it's presented in a specific way. I think it was… what’s his name? Melvin Kranzberg, who wrote the rules of technology. And his first rule of technology is: technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. And we see that online all the time. It's not good, it's not bad, it's this complex mix of things - it's definitely not neutral - that's loaded with socio-cultural baggage and resources that affect different people differently. So this identity online becomes this real complex mix of design and user and technology.

Adam - Where do we focus when we talk about online identity, especially with young people?

Harry - The focus is often on, how much time are they spending online? What's a good amount of time? Rather than sitting down and talking to young people about their experiences, about their mental health, about complex topics. We focus on these issues of screen time, or we create fictional monsters. We created Momo at the beginning of the year, the Momo challenge that was shared around by concerned parents, understandably, and promoted in the press as this monster that we manifested into reality to talk about our concerns around young people and mental health, rather than actually talking to young people about their mental health issues. So these broad, sweeping understandings of identity online are really hard to pin down.

Adam - This keeps happening as well. Momo was a monster we thought talked to our kids, telling them to hurt themselves. But there's very little evidence that it was ever a widespread thing. Same with the tide pod challenge, where young people filmed themselves eating toxic washing up liquid cubes. Yes, it did happen, but it wasn't a panic sweeping through young people.

Harry - So Marshall McLuhan, very famous theorist of technology, said, “the medium is the message.” And what he meant by that is the mediums that we use will affect in some way our experiences of the reality around us, they will shape and change how we use and interact with the world around us in general, and we can track this via generational changes. So your experience will be different to my experience, will be different to the generation below us. Certainly there are ways of tracking over time the sorts of concerns that we have, the ways we express ourselves, the general trends that young people might think is important. But at the same time there's been a sort of pushback to easily generalising young people's experiences because they, you know, suggesting they have the same or comparable experiences of technology just because they're exposed to it. It ignores some of these issues of racism and sexism that we see, of poorer people not having access to technology, of areas where I am in Norfolk not having decent internet access, of the sort of ways that what we call ‘digital divides’ persist, the divide between different people experiencing and using technology differently.

Adam - But people growing up today have never known an offline world. And even I remember that! Barely. That must affect them, right? So what does the future hold for the internet?

Harry - I have great hope for the upcoming generation, for young people. I think they're using the internet in a really smart and intelligent way. I don't think they're gullible. I think they're able to spot things like fake news, to spot deep fakes. I think they're able to see through some of the traditional media tricks. So I'm quite hopeful for their ability, but they need to be guided in that. Part of the problem with assuming young people are digital natives is that it sort of relinquishes the responsibility of older generations to guide and to shape and to help young people navigate these complex landscapes. So I think there's still a need to guide and to help young people in their criticality, and to have bigger discussions with young people around what the internet is doing to them, how they're experiencing it, issues of mental health. It’s some really big issues that are worth sitting down and talking with young people about.


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