8 Feb 2010

Arf You

February 8, 2010 506, assignments Comments Off

On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.

Unless, of course, you bark.

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

I’d argue that the development of voice is analogous to the formation of identity. To some extent, it is indeed an unconscious reflection of one’s experiences and story. But it’s also a process of choice, of what one chooses to acquire or discard, to seek out or put away.

It’s a question of self-portrayal, of self-selection. Do I want to be the kind of person that engages in this given activity? What does it say about me that I like that? What will others think of me?

What will I think of myself?

Voice is a necessary part of the process of identity formation. It is ruthless self-selection in terms of content: what is revealed, what is added, minute adjustments to the mix.

It is conscious selection of style, of tone, of diction. It is words, yes, but more than that it is expression calculated to reveal a certain amount about the too, as well as a certain about about the listener. Lady Gaga shocked Barbara Walters a few weeks ago because she was articulate, grounded, honest. In other words, unexpected.

Voice is a product not only of a person, but of a time. Adolescents no longer speak like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, and in 50 years won’t speak like Cohn and Leviathan’s Nick and Nora, either. The Internet didn’t invent snark but boy, did it help.

This self-selection in the digital world is nothing new, but perhaps becoming more conscious. Writers have always had to worry about the identity components of voice, because writing largely exists in public. Writers had to express who they were (or weren’t) — that is, create an identity — because they had no other means of doing so but words.

The celebrity, of course, has faced these problems for years. Many of them stare down the Internet by taking control, putting their own voices out there, aggressively, rather that allowing handlers or managers or tabloids to define them. The Internet allowed them agency far from the old studio system — where double lives were the norm — and finding a voice made them more human.

Event the digital commoners, as it were now have pictures, photos and videos posted to profiles and bulletin boards and available on servers and Web sites and chat streams and feeds, all of which they use endlessly in an ongoing process of self-circumscription. And, of course, as part and parcel of the whole: words.

(There is consumption, too. What does it mean to construct an identity by that which I consume? Am I a Mac or a PC? A Gawker reader or a Twitter junkie?)

There is never anything new under the sun. People already do this, to some degree, by where they live, what religious institutions they attend, the choice of their friends — many, many ways in which people connect, associate and draw ideas from those around them. Of the many ways in which they cobble together their identities as, say, Good Church-Going Folk or a Clinton Democrat or a Pillar of the Community or a BoBo (to borrow a phrase from David Brooks) or a Ford F-150 Man, now we can waffle between Facebook and MySpace, with a splash of DeviantArt.

In a digital landscape, voice expands to mean expression. We live out loud now, and many of us used all the tools available to us to explore, try on, discard, display, create and re-create what it means to be ourselves. Voice is enacted representation, an encompassing and yet fluid pronouncement of This I Am.

But voice also has to acknowledge, if not overtly, This I Was. For digital natives — yes, like me — development of identity is a process of trial and error, of suiting up and looking in the mirror.

Unfortunately, that’s all been recorded.

As difficult as it is to come to terms with Who Was Once, there is no un-share. The idea of a “Whole New You!” is as simple as a click of a “Register!” button, but is, technologically and socially, obsolete.

Choices I made about what to keep or not keep private when I was old enough to know what that meant but not really understand are still indexed in Google. So the only way I have to implicitly acknowledge that recorded evolution is through the development of a voice that does not necessarily explicitly state “I used this handle to write about what I was feeling in 1997” yet could, plausibly, be coming from who that person is now.

In a larger sense, this is in part due to changing norms of privacy, but the very idea of voice is also behind the wheel. One could once do no more than wish to be heard.

Now, it’s HEAR ME BARK.

In 50-point rainbow type.

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