The Information Society


Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
13(4) 1997

This Special Issue: Construction of Personal Identity on the Internet of The Information Society, 13(4) focuses upon "The Construction of Personal Identity on the Internet." 

In the opening article, "Hyperbole over Cyberspace," Eleanor Wynn and James Katz critique the recent stream of postmodern studies that portray Internet technologies as novel liberating media which liberate people from their everyday social worlds and physical bodies a position that was most famously represented in the mainstream U.S. media by the New Yorker magazine cartoon in which a dog at a computer terminal says, "On the Internet, nobody knows that you're a dog." Some of the postmodern studies also emphasize the way that the Internet is organized so that people can develop and explore multiple selves. Wynn and Katz focus on recent books by Sherry Turkle and A.R. ("Sandy") Stone about the ways that people construct numerous playful on-line identities. They develop several lines of analysis to argue that the "Internet does not (primarily) radically alter the social bases of identity or conventional constraints on social interaction" although it provides some important opportunities for new interactional styles or variations of older interactional styles. One line of analysis is philosophical and is anchored in Heidigger's phenomenology of self. Wynn and Katz argue that people's on-line identities don't have sufficient autonomy to be conceptualized as "selves" they are artifacts that are akin to puppets rather than to significant personas. A second line of argument examines how interacting on computer networks can entail boundary shifts that do alter the practices and perceptions of interaction: boundaries between the social and the technical, the real and the virtual, and what is public and private. In the last section, Wynn and Katz examine a number of studies of social interaction and work on-line as well as particular episodes in LISTSERV discussions and from personal home pages. They argue that it is common for people to link their on-line identities to their identities in the workplaces, family life, and so on. This is a complex theoretical and empirical paper with which to open this issue but one which provides some compelling critiques of the increasingly popular postmodern interpretations of life on-line. 

The second article, "Social Dynamics of an On-line Scholarly Debate," by Philippe Hert illustrates some of Wynn and Katz's arguments. Hert examines a vociferous debate that was held on a science studies LISTSERV (sci tech society) in the Fall of 1994. The debate was stimulated, in part, by an article that was published in the September 9, 1994 issue of Science -- an extremely influential scientific magazine. The participants included Paul Gross, who has been nationally visible for his talks and writings that critique social studies of science, as well as prominent scholars who conduct such research, including Steve Fuller and Sharon Traweek. Steve Fuller organized a conference at Durham University in December 1994 to resolve the debates. Both the conference and the on-line debates were reported in The (London) Times Higher Education Supplement and some science studies newsletters. These debates have real stakes in the academic world and beyond; and the participants were not interested in constructing novel on-line identities. 

Hert's main analytical interests differ from those of Wynn and Katz. He carefully examines the social dynamics of the debates, and participants' interactional strategies and tactics to gain relative advantage. In particular, some participants managed their interactions to create a sense of authority and take on leadership roles while others positioned themselves as notable critics. Hert's analysis of the staging of the on-line debates and the participants multiply layered rhetorics defies a simple summary, and is an important article for TIS readers who are interested in the social dynamics of on-line social interactions. 

Debora Halbert's article, "Discourses of Danger and the Computer Hacker" examines how narratives of hackers are developed by various groups to support specific notions of private property and government secrecy. Halbert traces the shifting narratives of hackers' identities from those where hackers seen as harmless young adventurous computer nerds through those in which hackers are seen as terrorists and thieves. She links the timing of narrative transitions to larger social events the popularization of the World Wide Web and the commercialization of the Internet. In short, hackers don't simply construct their identities through interaction on-line; their identities are also constructed for them and for us by the staff of policing agencies and commercial firms as a way of advancing their own institutional interests. 

In "Cyberself: The Emergence of Self in On-line Chat," Dennis Waskul and Mark Douglass examine the construction of personal identity in those on-line spaces that are voluntaristic and playful. Wynn and Katz are keenly aware that many kinds of professionals work together on-line, and are concerned that the playful identity behavior of on-line chat is being wildly overgeneralized by many post-modern analysts. Waskul and Douglass carefully focus upon these spaces, which are often used for recreational and pseudononymous chats. They ask how people who rely upon handles like SKYHOOK and OSusanna develop identities when the social cues are minimal. Like Wynn and Katz, they anchor their analysis in processes that have been identified by sociologists of face interaction Erving Goffman and Georg Simmel. They do argue that on-line chat is unique in the way that it challenges the significance of time, space, and physical location in shaping social relationships. And, they carefully report the ways that on-line chat spaces can support people's abilities to create multiple and fluid identities. But they see much in common between these processes of identity formationn and those that Georg Simmel identified as taking place among "strangers" in cities at the turn of the century. 

The final article shifts from the processes and politics of identity formation and focuses on public policies about telecommunications and industrial development in India. In 'The Socioeconomic Implications of Telecommunications Liberalization," Ben Petrazzini and Girija Krishnaswamy examine the way that India's telecommunications policy approaches are an unusual mix of central regulation and privitization. They place India's telecommunications policies in the context of the privitization approaches that are common in Latin America and the strong regulatory approaches that are common elsewhere in Asia. They examine several important repercussions of this more complex strategy, such as the costs of services, network growth, the risk of private investments, universal service, and employment. Petrazzini and Krishnaswamy illustrate how different countries can organize the development, access to, and pricing of telecommunications in very different, but viable, ways. 

This issue concludes with David Garson's review of the scholarly anthology, Information Systems in the Political World edited by Kim Viborg Anderson. 
welcome a new member to TIS's editorial board: Professor Nancy Baym of Wayne State University. This journal's vitality owes much to the high quality reviewing of the editorial board. In particular, Associate Editors Phil Agre, Gary Marx, and Rick Weingarten played pivotal roles in working with the authors of the articles about identity formation to make this possible. 

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