Overheard Online  
Line art illustration of world map

We rounded up the Internet's foremost opinion-makers and pulse-takers to ask them: what's the latest Web-think about America?

Part I | Part II: Internet and Politics

POV's Borders: Is there such a thing as American identity online?

Laura Breeden: Is there such a thing as "American identity" offline? To the extent that a single American identity has been created or manipulated by the mass media, the Internet, with its immense capacity for micro-segmentation (MySpace, my RSS feeds, my blog), is exploding their ability to dominate perceptions of America. Internet users can construct their own versions, stories, myths, and collages, mixing and sampling to generate entirely new (if not entirely original) images. They can link and cross-link their online products, syndicate them, and permeate the blogosphere. The authority of traditional media sources is challenged, many voices are raised, but the "truth" no longer seems discernable - a profoundly unsettling phenomenon for many people. Can the resurgence of fundamentalism be linked to this new uncertainty about who we are and what is real?

"Whatever our online identity, it is probably not what America looks like on TV."

—Bruce Kushnick

The other primary effect of the Internet on perceptions of America may be the fear of technological imperialism that has grown out of the dominance of American technology companies (E-Bay, Cisco, Yahoo, Google, etc.) that have fueled the development of the Internet. But even if the economic and political realities of globalization were to leave these winners untouched (unlikely), consumer-driven Internet services will have to respond ultimately to local culture, interests, and values.

Bruce Kushnick: The use of the Internet — the places people go to get informed, hang out, the listserves we're on, or blogs we create, may occur in a geographical territory known as the United States, but there's no identity that could define it. Online, we've become a land of niches, and the sum can be greater or less than the whole. Our "onlineness" is what happens on the listserves, blogs and web pages, and much of the opinions there preaches to its own choirs. On the great side, it builds a community for even the most trivial of pursuits, but on the policital side, theses communities are talkative walled gardens of interest. Is this "diversity" purely American, and does it drape our online souls with a new, diverse American identity?

Whatever our online identity, it is probably not what America looks like on TV. Ironically, while we thrive on diversity online, our major media, cable and phone networks are consolidating the programmming so the news we get has more control of the message, investigative news stories become more entertainment pieces made to titillate. Stories don't get told nationally. More to the point, voices of dissent get marginalized, stories of national importance don't get told, and large corporations who contribute billions in advertising dollars have created an artifical wall to not tell stories that might investigate one of the media's major funders. Do we only see a sanitized US on television? And can the Internet provide an alternative version of America?

The web has it's own voices, but they only raise above the din every so often. The idea that the web 'rules' is simply not true today. It has not supplanted the TV screen. So, as I watch TV and see an American flag or other icons, I imagine what I would think of America from the outside - Is the rest of the world seeing us as our online identity (a diverse group), or do they view us as a TV show?

"You are your World of Warcraft clan, your MySpace friendlist, your Del.icio.us cloud; race, gender, nationality recede into the backgroundó unless you choose to define yourself by them, and even then, nothing stops you from representing yourself as any race, gender, or nationality you want."

— Jeff Yang

Howard Rheingold: As in many issues, where you stand on "American identity" depends on where you sit. I regularly participate in a small (600 people) virtual community that is populated by a majority of Americans and a minority of Europeans, Asians, and Australians, and the non-Americans often complain about the American-centric discussions of world affairs. However, "American" is a pretty gross generalization when you examine it. When a European makes a remark to me about Americans, I ask whether this refers to a Brooklynite, a rural Arkansan, a San Franciscan, a rancher in Wyoming, a shrimp fishing family on the Gulf Coast, a teenager in West L.A.... and when I say "European," am I talking about a Swede, a Pole, or an Italian?

Tom W. Smith: The Internet is one of the top manifestations of globalization. In the recent National Identity Study carried out by the International Social Survey Program, nationally representative samples in 34 countries were asked if they agreed that "A benefit of the Internet is that it makes information available to more and more people worldwide." Across all countries 41% Strongly Agreed, 46% agreed, 9% neither agreed nor disagreed, 3% disagreed, and 1% strongly disagreed. Agree with this idea was greatest in Denmark (76% Strongly Agree) and the U.S. was 7th (48% Strongly Agree).

Jeff Yang: Before one asks that question, one has to step back and ask whether there's even such a thing as "identity" online--at least, identity as we think of it in RL (real life). The answer is no. And yes.

On the one hand, identity online is less an anchor than an affiliation. Online identity is negotiated— "I am who I'm willing to reveal I am"; it's self-determined— "I am who I claim to be"; and it's fluid— "I am who I am...for now." Even in the flesh, we adopt and present different identities depending on where we are, who we're with, and what we're doing; but on the Internet, there aren't the visual or auditory cues that we associate with things like race, gender, and geographical origin— the things that fix identity in place. (The cues that do exist reflect radically different aspects of character: On the Internet, a clumsy typist is functionally equivalent to an RL person with a thick accent.)

On the other hand, just because online identity is protean and polymorphous doesn't make it any less valid. In fact, arguably, online identity is more valid, because it's "subscription based"— it's identity by choice, rather than kismet. You are your World of Warcraft clan, your MySpace friendlist, your Del.icio.us cloud; race, gender, nationality recede into the background— unless you choose to define yourself by them, and even then, nothing stops you from representing yourself as any race, gender, or nationality you want. To the extent that people are motivated to define themselves as "American," they do. It's intriguing to see how today's polarized political environment has driven some people to be online jingoists and others to strip themselves of any outward signifier of American nationality.

Note that this trend toward the embrace of self-selected identities over given ones isn't restricted to big criteria — as time goes on, it's shaping the nature of identity all the way down to the individual level. Millennials — the group some people refer to as "Gen Y" prefer IM handles to names, because handles provide embedded self-expression (iLuvCH0cL8) and utility (they aren't just a label, they're a means of contact). And unlike real-world names, internyms tend to be unique identifiers, at least within their respective namespaces. There are thousands of Jeff Yangs out there, but there's only one AZNstud888 on AOL.

That's not actually my IM handle, by the way.

Can the Internet be used for Social and Political Change? Hear more from our experts in Part II of Overheard Online.

«  Previous: How They See Us Top of Page
You Are What You Click
The Contributors:

Laura BreedenLaura Breeden is an educator and change agent who got her first Internet address in 1983. She is interested in the potential of the Internet to empower individuals and transform systems. She works at Education Development Center, in Newton, Massachusetts.

Bruce KushnickBruce Kushnick is the Chairman of Teletruth, a nationwide, independent customer alliance, and is the author of the ebook, $200 Billion Broadband Scandal.

Howard RheingoldHoward Rheingold is one of the world's foremost authorities on the social implications of technology. He is also the author of several books, including Smart Mobs, The Virtual Community, and Tools for Thought.

Tom W. SmithTom W. Smith is a professor at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

Jeff YangJeff Yang interprets social and consumer trends for the strategic advisory firm Iconoculture, focusing on the emerging global Asian market. He writes a column about Asian popular culture and identity for SFGate.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, and has written three books.

Find Out What They're Saying
A display of the top 100 words and pictures in the news updated every hour.
Google Zeitgeist
Searching patterns, trends and surprises in search terms. Bonus: Current Google hourly video reports.
Pew Internet and American Life Project
Reports from the Pew Research center that explore the changes in American life brought on by the Internet.