Authenticity Online: Mission Impossible?

For my last post of the semester, I want to talk a little bit more about an issue that was discussed during lecture in Week 5 – online identity and authenticity.

Many questions were posed during this lecture – what is an online identity? Can an online identity be considered “authentic”? What separates an authentic identity from an inauthentic identity?

I go back and forth on the answers to these questions. On one hand, I feel like the formation of my various online identities has helped me to explore sides of myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. On the other hand, I think that each of my online identities allows me to express/explore one side of my identity, rather than my entire identity. On Facebook, I’m the supportive friend who likes to post, share, and comment on pictures of myself and my friends. On Twitter, I’m the sarcastic, sometimes overly-passionate pop culture lover. And I certainly identify as both of those things, but those are not the things that solely define me.

I’m also a bossy older sister, a literature lover, an anxious perfectionist, and constant worrier. I (hypothetically) have the opportunity to share all of those sides of myself and more online, but I would rather keep some of those sides to myself and the people with whom I’m closest.

During the lecture, I thought a lot about the book The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman.

The Visible Man

In the book, the main character (a therapist) takes on a patient who has managed to create a suit that allows him to appear completely invisible. And instead of using his apparent invisibility to fight crime or otherwise try to make the world a better place, the man uses his technology to, essentially, spy on people. He sees people doing mundane, pathetic, and devastatingly harmful things, and  he comes to the conclusion that people are only their “true” selves when they believe they are completely alone. And even though the book is a work of fiction, I’m inclined to agree.

If this assumption is true, would this not mean that an online identity is the opposite of “true” or “authentic”? After all, online identities are, more often than not, built to be seen and responded to by others. Yes, we can build an “anonymous” online identity, but one’s role as “anonymous” still encourages him or her to act a certain way. As Erving Goffman explains in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, people act and take on specific roles whenever they interact with others. Why should online interaction be an exception?

My online identities have helped me to expand and analyze the ways in which I define myself, but I am certainly not my “authentic” self online.

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It’s Not a Small World – It’s Disney’s World

Major companies are notorious for enforcing strict guidelines regarding copyright laws. Which is why in a Season 4 of Arrested Development, Tobias dresses up as this:

Tobias

(A “Rock Man” costume, for Tobias’ performance of “Fantastic 4: An Action Musical”)

So that he doesn’t look too much like this:

The Thing

The real “Rock Man” (aka The Thing) from the Fantastic Four franchise

And he still gets a cease-and-desist letter from Marvel!

No corporation is more infamous for its ruthlessness when it comes to copyright restrictions, however, than Disney.

A Mental Floss article from 2012 mentions that back in 1989 Disney “threatened to sue the owners of three Florida daycare centers who had decorated their buildings’ walls with unauthorized images of several trademarked Disney characters”. Another article from The Hollywood Reporter describes a similar instance from September 2015, in which Disney and Sanrio filed a copyright lawsuit against a business owner for selling products “which incorporate unauthorized likenesses of animated or live-action characters or other logos.”

According to this website, someone could plausibly (legally) use Disney characters or other content only by either:

  • Getting permission directly from the company (which will likely end up being very expensive);
  • Exercising “fair use” of the characters (by, for example, using Disney characters for academic or parodic purposes)
  • Exercising “transformative use” of the characters (by altering the original character(s) to such an extent that the company is unable to claim copyright infringement)

The two instances of copyright infringement listed above, though they take places years apart from one another, exemplify how unforgiving Disney can be when it comes to the use and portrayal of trademarked or copyrighted content by outsiders. And if Disney is willing to sue an innocent Florida resident for putting up Disney-themed wallpaper, it’s safe to say that anyone who wants to use any character, logo, or story owned by Disney should be extremely, extremely careful.

What would happen if Disney’s content was shared under a Creative Commons license? I honestly think that it would be a win-win scenario for all parties involved. Disney fans could decorate their rooms, record Disney covers, and bake Disney-themed cakes to their heart’s content, and I don’t think a company as big as Disney would really suffer in terms of reputation OR income by allowing others to use their content. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Disney or another big corporation like Sony or 20th Century Fox removed or at least loosened some of their policies regarding copyright.

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To Be Or Not To Be (Online)?

I have more online and social media accounts (and consequently, more passwords) than I can count. When I’m not working or studying, usually I’m either scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram. But when you type my name into a Google search engine, the first websites that pop up usually have something to do with Cristiano Ronaldo, the soccer player (no relation, sadly).

I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, but I rarely ever make posts. I frequently reblog posts on Tumblr that other people have created, but I hardly ever take the time to write my own. I have a few audio interviews posted on my university’s online radio website, but I doubt that very many people listen to them.

On one hand, this might be a good thing. Horror stories about employers investigating the Facebook profiles of their staff members and firing people based on inappropriate pictures and text posts? Not likely to happen to me. And apart from the occasional Tweet about how much I like Teddy Grahams, I don’t think that advertisers, government employees, or whoever else analyses online activity to find out more about and manipulate users have a ton of information they can use against me.

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But my lack of online presence has nothing to do with the need to maintain a sense of privacy or “get off the grid”. It has much more to do with fear of not being good enough. Ever since I started to consider pursuing a career in the media industry, the idea of building an online presence or “brand” was drilled into me by professors. So now I have this nagging feeling that every post I make – even a personal Facebook post that’s only going to be seen by my close friends – should be aligned with that “brand”. Everything I post or share has to be clever, interesting, and relatable – but I rarely ever come up with something that lives up to my twisted, insanely high expectations.

Honestly, I’m not particularly bothered by the possibility that private and public companies can read and utilize the stuff that I post online. A lot of people are bothered, though, and because of that many of those people think that maintaining a relatively low online presence is a good thing. In my opinion, the rules completely change for people who want to get into media-based industries like PR, marketing, fashion, or television production. An online presence should not be something to run away from but, instead, something to be cultivated. Many potential employers value web-savviness, and maintaining an online presence can help you demonstrate that savviness.

So if potential market manipulation is an inevitable side effect of me finally getting a job? So be it.

From Neopets to Tumblr

I’ve been part of online communities for almost as long as I’ve been on the Internet. My first encounter with an online community was when I around ten years old and created my very first Neopets account. Myself and other players were able to communicate with one another by virtually talking to each other, exchanging items, and playing against one another in various games.

Neopets

A few years later, I started to develop my own personal taste in films, television shows, and books. I felt the need to find a place where I could share my enthusiasm for and ideas about these films, TV shows and books – and I found that place online. I frequently visited the discussion boards in a website called tv.com, where television viewers like myself were free to praise or complain about certain episodes or characters as they pleased.

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Today, I encounter dozens of online communities every day on the popular blogging website Tumblr. One online community with which I am somewhat actively involved consists of viewers who watch literary based webseries. These webseries are typically updated, video-based versions of older texts such as “Pride and Prejudice”, “Anne of Green Gables”, or “Romeo and Juliet.” And because the majority of these webseries exist on YouTube and are made up of very short, easily digestible episodes, viewers who are fans of one literary-based webseries tend to be fans of many literary webseries and are, as a result, eager to offer recommendations to community newcomers.

Mutual fans of a webseries such as “Lovely Little Losers”, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, wholeheartedly express their feelings to one another online and consequently feel as if they are talking to and becoming close friends with each other, even though they may live miles apart. Distance can, of course, limit members of an online community from developing relationships with each other that are as intimate and personal as those that exist between people who interact in person. But sometimes distance can actually bring people closer together; “Lovely Little Losers” was created in New Zealand, and as a result episodes released at 8 PM New Zealand time could be released in the middle of the night for many viewers in America, Canada, and Europe. European and American viewers were able to bond over the fact that they were trying to stay awake for obscenely long times just so they could watch the new episodes as soon as they were released.

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And even if a member of an online community doesn’t necessarily form friendships with other members, sometimes it can be enough just to know that there are people who are feeling what you’re feeling and experiencing what you’re experiencing. Scrolling through Tumblr and, earlier, through those tv.com discussion boards, made me feel like my opinions about media were legitimate and valued. It gave me a sense of comfort. Though some critics may dismiss online communities as being meaningless, fake, and insignificant, I can say firsthand that being a member of various online communities has helped me to understand that my ideas are valuable and that I should never be afraid to express excitement, sadness, grief, or unbridled anticipation. And that’s something I’m truly grateful for.

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Making, Commenting, Voting

In a society that is saturated with pictures, sounds, and moving images, it’s becoming more and more difficult for media companies and producers to find ways to stand out among the crowd. One way some producers have tried to do this is by inviting existing members of their audience to effect and influence how future content is created.

The video game Super Mario Maker, for example, allows players to create their own levels that other players can then attempt to get through or “beat.”

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YouTube is also notable for being a space in which viewers can easily and immediately offer feedback to content creators. Rosanna Pansino, creator of baking-based YouTube channel Nerdy Nummies, also gets ideas for new pop culture-based baked good recipes by reading YouTube comments.

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Neither of the above examples, however, is (in my opinion) as significant nor influential as what the producers of the CBS television show Survivor decided to do this past year.

Survivor

Typically, the Survivor casting directors scour through audition videos and sit through hundreds of in-person interviews in order to find the combination of cast members who they believe will be the best fit for the show. In the spring of 2015, however, producers invited viewers to go online and vote for the previous contestants who they would most want to see get a chance to play Survivor a second time. The season that followed the nation wide vote consisted completely of cast members that audience members voted in and, effectively, these audience members were able to exert a considerable amount of influence over how the season turned out.

Other reality shows such as Big Brother often invite viewers to vote on things such as which cast members should receive special powers or be saved from elimination, but the Survivor vote allowed viewers to contribute to a television show that they loved in a way that they had previously been unable to do. As a result, these viewers were more invested in the success or failure of the cast members than ever before, as evidenced by the season’s high ratings and the enormous amount of activity generated about the show on Twitter and other social media platforms.

Television has been traditionally thought of as a passive medium, but innovative strategies such as those implemented by CBS prove that television producers – like YouTubers and video game producers – can give audience members a chance to have their voices heard.

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Jane Austen and the Digital Renaissance

In class, we learned that media convergence is “the combination of new media and old media within a single piece of media work”, and I think that the YouTube web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries perfectly exemplifies this combination.

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The series, based on the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, is narrated by college student Lizzie (Elizabeth) Bennet who originally creates her own YouTube channel for a school project. However, Lizzie eventually starts using the channel to rant about her relationships with her friends, siblings, parents, and – of course – a mysterious newcomer named William Darcy.

The series began in 2012 and started to gain popularity extremely quickly – the first episode of the series currently has over two million views.  While the series was created by two experienced media professionals (producer-director Bernie Su and popular YouTuber Hank Green), The Lizzie Bennet Diaries inspired amateur media creators from around the world to put their own updated spin on other classic works of literature. I’ll be talking about a few of these series in a later post, but some of them include The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (a modern version of Jane Eyre), Green Gables Fables (a modern version of the Anne of Green Gables series) and The March Family Letters (a modern version of Little Women).

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In my opinion, these web series are excellent examples of cultural convergence. Classic works of literature like Pride and Prejudice are often thought of to be somewhat “untouchable”, and while there are some films and novels that attempt to update or modify these works (e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), it is significant that one of the most popular updated versions of Pride and Prejudice can be found on YouTube – a website that prides itself on showcasing user-generated content.

The possibilities for exploring cultural media convergence on YouTube are endless. You want to create a version of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet ditches Romeo and travels the world to find herself? Go ahead. Wish that The Picture of Dorian Gray could be told from the perspective of Dorian himself? You can make it happen. As long as people have access to a camera and the Internet, who knows what could be next?

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Reply All: “A Show About the Internet”

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I’ve been listening to podcasts for almost ten years, and over the course of those ten years I’ve discovered that people can and will record podcasts about absolutely anything. So when I read the question for this week’s blog post, I thought that there had to be a podcast that focused on the internet and stories that arise from various web-based activities – and fortunately I was right.

Reply All is a podcast produced by Gimlet Media that claims to be, simply, “A Show About the Internet”. Each week, hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman tackle one or two different stories that are connected to the internet in one way or another and attempt to find out more about the people involved in these stories.

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The element of this podcast that I find most appealing is that it allows listeners to learn about the history of the internet and the different, weird ways in which the internet works without making those listeners feel as if they’re listening to a lecture. The hosts instead choose to present relevant information in the form of audio-based narratives.

For example, in an episode entitled “JenniCam”, the hosts speak to Jennifer Ringley, a woman who in the late 1990s created her own website called JenniCam onto which she posted still images from a webcam that was permanently positioned in her bedroom. She was one of the first people to willingly broadcast their lives to the internet, and at the site’s peak popularity JenniCam was receiving over 7 million hits a day. Jennifer even made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman as a result of her overwhelming popularity.

Jennicam

The episode “One Strike” shines a light on the internet’s power to bring people together in both productive and counterproductive ways. Comedian Barry Crimmins, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, visited an AOL forum to find a place where he could communicate with other survivors. However, while on the AOL website he discovered a message board on which child pornographers were talking with one another and exchanging information. He consequently began a years-long battle with the moderators of AOL to try to convince them to take down the message board, posing the question of whether or not web-based free speech should be valued over physical and emotional well-being.

A more light-hearted episode introduces listeners to Ethan Zuckerman, the man who invented the pop-up ad and consequently feels responsible for making internet users feel as seemingly comfortable with the idea of being constantly surveilled as they are.

Issues such as these are touched upon in countless academic essays, but learning about these issues by listening to people who were and are directly affected by them is, in my opinion, much more enjoyable and in some ways more effective than reading an essay.

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