Lifetracing 1. Platforms for Presenting the Self Online
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Isn’t everything published online automatically networked through the fetishized indexes of engines that shape the web? A networked book is not a self-referential object as it alludes to and embeds objects from the network it is part of, in this case the web. This chapter includes quotes from and references to webpages, blog posts, and pictures originally uploaded to the photo sharing site Flickr. While this text is written in the OpenOffice word processing software, the natural habitat of the networked book seems to be the blog. Blogs show the tension between the individual and the network which is duplicated in the notion of authorship. In contrast to wiki collaborators, blog contributors cannot edit the text itself but can add content to the entry by leaving comments. Once the entire book has been published online the open character of the networked book may thrive on the network. The blog software automatically notifies the network of updates and links and the Trackback and Pingback mechanisms notify other blogs of incoming links. The blog as an environment for the networked book appears to be more embedded in the network than the wiki because of the notification of links, updates and the possible use of (third-party) widgets which continue the online flow of the network.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This chapter has emerged from my fascination with web phenomena from a software studies perspective. It consists of research done over the past year and it was greatly inspired by Walled Garden – Communities & Networks post Web 2.0, organized by Virtueel Platform; the Govcom.org project Spaces for People: Suggested Fields workshop with the Digital Methods Initiative held at the Netherlands Media Art Institute, Montevideo/Time-based Arts and Archive 2020, an international event on the archiving of born digital cultural content organized by Virtueel Platform.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In the canonical new media work “The Language of New Media,” Lev Manovich calls for a new field of study that moves away from media theory to software theory (2001: 48). It acknowledges how media have become programmable and how they are increasingly formed and shaped by software. The emerging field of Software Studies has been officially established with the publication of the Software Studies lexicon, edited by Matthew Fuller (2008), the first in a series of MIT publications on software studies. The field itself is very diverse, with contributions from authors in the field of Writing and Humanistic Studies, Communication, Visual Arts, Computer Science and Humanities. The issues these authors address are diverse but they all have in common their focus on the major role of software in our society. Software is shaping our society. Software has become ubiquitous and opaque at the same time which is why it should be properly critiqued.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Search engines, recommendation systems, mapping applications, blog tools, auction tools, instant messaging clients, and, of course, platforms which allow others to write new software — Facebook, Windows, Unix, Android — are in the center of the global economy, culture, social life, and, increasingly, politics. And this “cultural software” — cultural in a sense that it is directly used by hundreds of millions of people and that it carries “atoms” of culture (media and information, as well as human interactions around these media and information) — is only the visible part of a much larger software universe. (Manovich 2008: 3)
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 This chapter centers on cultural software that is visibly and invisibly shaping our social lives online: social software and search engines. They carry the atoms of our culture and create new molecules by binding certain atoms together: “Software, of course, is what organizes the Internet […] Software is the invisible glue that ties it all together” (Manovich 2008: 3-4). Software itself is also tied together through the seemingly invisible glue of software-engine relations which place the users in the middle of software-engine politics. This has implications on a cultural level as it impacts our online behavior, on a political level in terms of privacy issues, and on a phenomenological level in relation to how our social environments are formed.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Software-engine politics are visibly played out in the social web. This chapter wishes to address these issues by reconsidering identity online in a time in which identity is performed through and shaped by social software and constructed by search engines. What does it mean when Google determines who you are? What role does social software play in shaping and distributing your identity?
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 These questions will be addressed by looking into three factors that play a role in shaping online identity: first, by examining the different platforms for presenting the self online; next, by looking into the advent of the search engines and finally, by looking into the internal drive of the social media user to record the self online. It can be argued that identity online is formed by an assembly of platform, engine and user, which constructs a new type of identity: Identity 2.0.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The study of online identity has been approached from different angles for over a decade. However, there seems to be a shift from focusing on online identity constructions in anonymous environments such as MUDs, IRC and chat rooms to non-anonymous environments such as dating sites and social networking sites as noted by Zhao et. al. (2008: 1816-1817). If we adhere to the Merriam-Webster definition of identity as “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual” it is in the distinction we constitute our identity. According to Butler “identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results” (1990: 31). We distinguish ourselves through identity performance in a
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 public process that involves both the “identity announcement” made by the individual claiming an identity and the “identity placement” made by others who endorse the claimed identity, and an identity is established when there is a “coincidence of placements and announcements”. (Stone 1981: 188 cited in: Zhao et. al. 2008: 1817)
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 If we see identity as a performative act then how can we perform our identity online? To what extent is performance enabled or constrained by the social software through which identity is performed? How has the idea of “identity placement” changed with software technologies like search engines? How do search engines such as Google endorse the claimed identity?
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The following sections will describe various ways and platforms for presenting the self online which have developed over time: from the personal homepage to the blog, to the social networking profile and the lifestream. It is not a teleological account in which one replaces the other. On the contrary, all four are still used for identity performance but they each represent in a different manner how identity is formed and shaped in current web culture.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 [...] home page authors engage in bricolage, adopting and adapting borrowed material from the public domain of the Web in the process of fashioning personal and public identities. In such sites, what are visibly ‘under construction’ are not only the pages but the authors themselves. (Chandler 1998)
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 The format of self-publishing changed with the introduction of the one-button-publishing blog software Blogger in 1999. HTML knowledge was no longer required. After hitting the ‘publish’ button, the software automatically put the latest entry on top. This reverse-chronological order immediately shows the latest update, the blog post as the basic unit of the blog. The blog is often seen as the successor of the homepage and as such it duplicates the classic approach to identity which is always under construction. However, the blog is not a closed environment and it thrives on the exchange of links. Content is often stored using external services and photos stored on Flickr, and videos stored on YouTube can be embedded within the blog. Embedding and sharing content through embed codes and widgets  makes content disperse. Everything that was once stored and expressed in the personal homepage on a single server is now distributed on the web. The sidebar of the blog is a place for self-definition through the use of widgets. In the case of the popular WordPress blog software a drag-and-drop identity is constantly modified and tweaked through widgets. Widgets are used to embed the scattered web self into one place, the blog, creating ‘the widgetized self,’ a term coined by Nancy Baym (2007).
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The widgetized self is not a solitary and antisocial self that withdraws from (social) sites in order to confine itself to the blog. While widgets are often used for display purposes only, they can also serve more engaging purposes. Widgets, less concerned with displaying external content and more with enabling social interactions, could change the relation between the blog, its audience and (external) content. (Helmond 2008: 78)
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [...] blogs as sites for identity construction and self-invention and have underlined the unruly multiplicity of the social identity online. (Consalvo & Paasonen 2002: 22)
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The blog as a centralizing force of the distributed identity is a “start page on steroids” (Baym 2007). A centralized identity in the sidebar does not necessarily lead to more clarity or a good overview as blogs often suffer from the cluttered sidebar syndrome.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Social networking sites have been on the rise since the introduction of Friendster in 2003. According to boyd & Heer “Profiles have become a common mechanism for presenting one’s identity online” (2006: 1). In the Spaces for People: Suggested Fields workshop (2008) the Digital Methods Initiative (DMI) deconstructed social networking profiles online on MySpace, Facebook and Hyves, a popular social networking site in the Netherlands similar to Facebook with 8.7 million members . DMI found that database fields no longer impoverish the self (Poster 1990: 96) but offer more and more flexible fields and a space for identity performance:
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Do you fill in the defaults only? What does your form-filling say about you, or what it could be made to tell, if measured in great detail? Database philosophers were once deeply concerned about how field character limits — the number of letters that would fit on each line in the electronic form — would impoverish the self, just like bureaucracy turned people into numbers. People could not describe themselves in such short, mandatory lines. Now there are suggested fields, longer character limits, and free text spaces, with prospects for a more expansive self! The database has more memory. ‘Other,’ that last heading available on the form, standing for anomaly, has become ‘add category,’ helpfully offering a moment of self-definition. The database is warmer, reaching out, asking for more of you. (DMI 2008)
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 The social networking profile changed with the introduction of the Facebook wall which is a space on the personal profile page where you can update your status and add content, where friends can leave notes and where network activity is displayed with a timestamp. The Facebook profile not only shows the information you have filled in yourself, but it also contains the notes and pictures others have left for you on your Wall. It also shows recent activities such as X (the profile owner) and Y are now friends, X is now single, X has been tagged in this note, X wrote on Y’s wall. These notes and activities are visible to whoever has access to your profile and as such they have become part of your identity performance.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 When you log into Facebook, you normally end up at your own profile page but at your homepage with a News feed consisting of a real-time flow of the activities of all the persons in your network. This feed “has every single activity of all your friends — updating their status lines, posting photos and links, joining groups — and they appear as soon as they happen” (Kricfalusi 2009). This new News feed is an activity stream that contains the real-time social actions and data of your friends. The traces of what you do on Facebook, whether they are conscious actions (“poking” a friend) or less conscious (accepting a friendship request), are registered and gathered onto the Wall on your profile page and inserted into your friends’ News feed activity stream. Aggregating the real-time flow of your own activity stream lies at the root of the fairly new phenomenon of lifestreaming.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Lifestreaming is a new, popular type of identity performance taking place on various platforms and social networking sites. A lifestream is “the collection of one’s activity on various services (i.e. online life), often arranged by time, into one central location” (Blain 2009). The term “lifestream” dates back to 1994 as a concept for organizing personal electronic information; it was described by David Gelernter in his Washington Post article ‘The cyber-road not taken.’
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 A lifestream is a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream. (Fertig, Freeman and Gelernter 1996)
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The concept led to the development of the Lifestreams system by Eric Freeman and David Gelernter as a network-centric replacement for the desktop metaphor (Freeman 1996). The main difference between the conceptual lifestream in 1994 and the actual lifestream in 2009 lies in the networked nature of the stream. The concept was developed at a turning point in the increasing popularity of the Internet (1994/’95) which led to a shift in personal activity and software usage from the desktop to the web. The lifestream at present is not so much about a time-ordered stream of documents as it is about a stream of online activity that represents a diary of the online life. The blog, or personal website, is a popular central location for the documentation and aggregation of the online life. There are a growing number of lifestreaming plugins and blog themes available that enable users to create a lifestream on their already existing personal platforms. In addition, new services and software platforms dedicated to the aggregation of social media activity are being launched. An example of such a platform is the service of Storytlr which enables you to “import your web 2.0 life” and “mashup your data into stories” in order to “reinvent your homepage.” (Storytlr 2009). Jill Walker Rettberg (2009) is currently working on sorting out the various ways in which social media organize our data into stories or patterns, for example, by time, relationships, context or geography. This research may contribute to our understanding of lifestreams as our lives become one big data stream scattered across the web.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0  Widgets are data files that can be embedded into a site’s HTML code and are typically displayed in a small viewing pane on the site. They are most often used to display customized or personalized content on a Web site, such as to share photos or music recommendations, and are commonly found on blogs, social networking sites and other personalized pages. (comScore, 2007)