Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
The Networked Self: Autofiction on MySpace
Author: Heidi Peeters
Abstract (E): This essay investigates the social networking site MySpace as a network of multi-mediatic autofiction. Instead of considering autofiction as a literary genre in which the life and identity of the author influences the novel, autofiction here is taken to be far more omnipresent in society and itself a factor in the identity creation of the author. As divisions between fact and fiction, media and reality turn out to be less clear-cut than they are often believed to be, MySpace reveals itself to be a digital utopia users turn to for the creation of the perfect Self.
Abstract (F): Cet essai explore le site MySpace en tant que réseau d’autofiction multi-médial. Au lieu de considérer l’autofiction comme un genre purement littéraire dans lequel la vie et l’identité de l’auteur exercent une certaine influence sur l’œuvre littéraire, la notion d’ « autofiction » est comprise comme étant beaucoup plus important, voire omniprésente, dans la société elle-même, et comme un facteur crucial dans la création de l’auteur. Comme les scissions entre les faits et la fiction, medium et vérité, font preuve d’être moins nettes que l’on a tendance a le croire, MySpace se montre une véritable utopie numérique pour la création d’un Soi parfait pour ses utilisateurs.
keywords: Autofiction, referentiality, identity construction, new media, MySpace
To cite this article:
Peeters, H. The Networked Self: Autofiction on MySpace. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 19 (2007).
Recently, the world has witnessed the emergence of the MySpace hype. The website was founded only in 2003, but has now become the number six on the list of most popular websites in the world; on August 9, 2006 the 100.000.000 th account was being created, and every day, approximately 230.000 new users register (see Rupert Murdoch's interview). MySpace is a social networking site in which all members (predominantly teenagers and people in their twenties) are given a virtual prefab room or a "profile" to customize, to decorate and to individualize as a pattern card of their identity. Pictures may be inserted, just like demographic descriptions, blurbs, lists of favourite bands, films or books, wallpapers, background profile music, blogs and of course, links to friends, accompanied by a collection of their comments (often laudations on the owner of the profile). With this personal space as base of operation, users can get into contact with their friends through general bulletins, personal comments and e-mail messages, but they can also network their way through the virtual society and extend their network of acquaintances.
Not only individuals, but also bands, radio stations, television channels, shops and discussion groups (ranging from "Britpop" to "The Coalition of Non-Sexual Cuddling") can be represented in the Net-community. MySpace in this way constitutes a sort of parallel society, connected to the real one, but not merely representing a reduced scale-version of it. The fact is that profiles on MySpace are digital, and therefore, there is no certainty as to whether they represent their non-digital creators in a truthful way or not. A truthful representation in semiotic terms would mean that, in a maximal definition of referentiality, the digital MySpace signs would point iconically, indexically and symbolically to an outer-digital referent. Nevertheless, the possibility that the profile is merely a simulacrum, a profile for an identity that exists nowhere except on the Internet cannot be excluded. Or could one claim that any profile, no matter how "false", would nevertheless be indicative of the creating referent?
In the following pages, we will investigate the impact of MySpace on today's conceptions of identity, on the meaning of true and false identities in respect to the opposition between digital and non-digital reality and on the interaction between personal identity-formations and larger sociological constellations. Strangely enough, MySpace turns out to be not so much a network of lies, as one of the booming and multi-mediatic manifestations of a phenomenon coined "autofiction", observable in many different forms on the Internet ( Youtube and blogsites being other obvious examples). It is thus only appropriate to start the exploration of Net-identities on MySpace with a short investigation of the autofiction phenomenon in its original form, as a literary genre, and its relation to notions of truths and lies.
A Note on Autofiction
At first sight, the term autofiction seems safely defined within and determined by the walls of literature. "Invented" by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 in relation to his novel Fils, the term came to designate a new direction for autobiographic writing in which the line between the fictive and the non-fictive would be erased. When dissected etymologically, autofiction consists of two constituents, each responsible for one aspect of the genre: "auto" would stand for the autobiographical, for the self and the truth, whereas the "fiction"-part would be responsible for the artistic artefact, for the construction, for all that has been invented. These two ingredients, apparently distinct at first, are then mixed together in a novel, and the result is a genre in which both cannot be told apart anymore, at least not by the reader. All this seems easy and clear-cut and turns the genre into a hybrid of spiced up autobiography and fictive novel with autobiographical flavours. Yet, as shown in the article Marie Darrieussecq published in Poétique in 1996, the genre has enjoyed a rather unstable status.
There appears to be a lack of consensus as to which aspect -autobiography or fiction- should be considered dominant within the genre. Serge Doubrovsky sees autofiction as a way of "selling" his autobiography to a public, of making it attractive, without having to be a "grand-homme-au-soir-de-la-vie", whereas Gerard Genette only grants truly fictional autobiographies a passport to autofiction, the others "ne sont 'fictions' que pour la douane." (quoted in Darrieussecq, 1996) In Doubrovsky's case, autofiction uses fiction to render the self (hence the dominant lies in the realm of the self), in Genette's case, autofiction uses the self to render fiction (hence the dominant lies in the realm of fiction).
The difficulties with autofiction, however, cannot merely be located at the level of which one of the constituents should be the dominant. On a deeper level both the status of the self and the status of fiction in autofiction, autobiography, literature in general or in all media involving identity representation are questioned. The original problem whether fiction or the autobiographical should dominate the genre turns out to be a purely theoretical one, a problem that is tied to manifestoes rather than to the level of the text. The awkwardness of autofiction after all lies in the fact that the fictional and the autobiographical in the end might not be separable at all, or at least not as strictly as one would like them to be.
A basic distinction that should be made in the conceptualization of the genre is the one between the infra-mediatic level of the text and the extra-mediatic level of the author. The average reader only has access to infra-mediatic levels (the novel, and possibly additional media) and hence can only access the extra-mediatic self of the author through way of the media under scrutiny. Readers cannot tell the difference between the autobiographic and the fictional elements in the novel with certainty. Even additional information, provided through other media, like television interviews, newspaper reviews, etc. remains on an infra-mediatic level, though it might seem to give a more direct access to the extra-mediatic identity of the author. Hence, there is no way of telling whether fiction or autobiography is the dominant in a certain novel; there is only the knowledge (or better the promise) that both are present. Autofiction thus appears to be not so much an absolute attribute of the novel, but rather a required readerly strategy. The readers are supposed to believe that some aspects are fictive, and that others are non-fictive, they are invited to take an inquisitive pleasure in the hybrid status of the novel; the fictive being soaked in reality and the real becoming containable like fiction.
One could say that eventually only the author knows which aspects of the novel belong to the side of fiction and which belong to the side of the self, but even that kind of assertion would be incorrect. First of all, the autobiographical in se always already implies fictionalization. The casting of real-life events into a narrative, artistic or mediatic format will always be coloured by selection, personal convictions, opinions and benefits, and such perspective-taking renditions imply a degree of fictionalizing. Also, memories have been proven to be less reliable than it has been assumed for a long time, so not only the rendition of the facts, but even the facts themselves that are considered to be non-fictional by the author may turn out to be fictional after all. In this respect, the existence of so-called "false memories" is a case in point. (see Loftus, 1995) The phenomenon encompasses the "absence of memories" (the failure to remember things that have happened) as well as "incorrect memories". Memories turn out to be anything but detailed recordings of events, but are rather reconstructions, often influenced by expectations, emotions, implied beliefs and inappropriate interpretations as well. Highly vivid autobiographical memories may thus turn out to be fictive.
At the opposite side of the spectrum, but to a lesser degree, one could also assume that the fictional is always already autobiographical. One's imagination after all constitutes an important part of one's identity; it could even be stated that from certain points-of-view (psychology, sense of self), the imaginary and the subjective are more important to identity-formation than objective events may be. The opposition "fiction vs. self" in autofiction thus turns out to be a complex one, with each side of the opposition encompassing its so-called opposite.
An interesting topic in this respect, is the relation between fictionalising and lying. The Free Dictionary describes lying as "the deliberate act of deviating from the truth" ( www.thefreedictionary.com/lying ), whereas fiction is considered to be an "imaginative creation or a pretence that does not represent actuality, but has been invented" ( www.thefreedictionary.com/fiction ). Both definitions somehow fail to stress the difference between the concepts they aim to define, as fiction could just as well have been described as the deliberate act of deviating from the truth. The difference, however, could be expected to depend on the motives of the subject doing the lying vs. the fictionalising and on the contract existing between the sender and receiver of the message, i.e. whether the sender wishes to deceive the receivers without them knowing it, in order to obtain something desirable. The literary work of autofiction hence is fiction, and not a lie, since the reader, through all sorts of contextual indications (e.g. the denominator "autofiction" on the cover), is aware of the fact that what they are reading deviates from the truth, and since the writer acknowledges his or her intention of presenting an imaginative creation. Nevertheless, the opposition lie versus fiction becomes fishy as far as the construction of an identity for the writer is concerned.
So far, the investigations were situated at the infra-mediatic level of the novel, and the extra-mediatic elements (the author and his life) have been considered mainly as contributing to the construction of this novel as "self-inspired fiction" or "fiction-inspired autobiography". Nevertheless it would be possible to turn the relations around and look at whether the infra-mediatic elements can be used in the construction of the extra-mediatic ones. In this case, we would investigate the impact of the novel on the construction of the identity of the author. This seems to be a strange way of thinking in the literary field, where the autonomy of a work and artistic realizations are deemed more important than the persona of the author. The persona of the author is not what intellectuals are interested in in the first place; it has a hint of literary gossip to it and it is something for the mass-media to deal with. Real authors after all are taken to create their works out of artistic urges (the poeta vates topos), to write for the inherent value of the works themselves, not in order to provide themselves with an identity or an image. Only non-authors - stars, politicians, sports heroes - use literature to get their image across and to communicate and improve their public identities. Nevertheless, even if authors do not explicitly plan their novels to create a certain image of themselves (but certainly some will, since vanity resides in all sectors of society, and since especially the genre of autofiction is prone to trigger such expectations), these books certainly will contribute to their identity-construction.
The issue of lies vs. fiction pops up again here, along with the question whether identity resides on the side of reality and the objectively measurable world or whether it is rather a semiotic concept, a cluster of attributes, a construction, maybe even a fiction itself at some points? To a certain extent one could claim identities indeed to be semiotic. Identity, very broadly, could be described as one's relation to the world and one's sense of self. (Bourdieu, 1980) Whereas this relation to the world may be a very real one (one may truly be an employee of such or such a company, one may truly be the mother of three children, one may truly be dark-skinned and homosexual), the significance of these attributes to one's identity is determined (at least partly) semiotically in respect to the paradigms (historical, cultural and subcultural) in which one is situated. (Foucault, 1971) Identity does not exist as such outside these paradigms, as entities need to be connected to a semantic system in order to get their meaning. In this respect, identity-formations show similarities with the linguistic, semantic system as it has been described by Saussure in 1916, as a system of differences in which an item only acquires its meaning through its link to other items:
Society in this way could be conceptualized as a network; identities as certain clusters within this network, hence as semantic constructions. If entities considered to reside within the extra-mediatic level (e.g. identities) turn out to be constituted of semantic networks, just like entities within the infra-mediatic realms, the absolute ontological division between both levels blurs and both levels become permeable: the semantic constructions within the infra-mediatic level can come to contribute to the semantic construction of the extra-mediatic level. The infra-mediatic autofictional text can thus not be contained within the infra-mediatic level of the book, but may come to function semiotically in the "real world".
In respect to autofiction's contribution to the construction of to the identity of the author, the opposition between lie and fiction becomes complex. The author of autofiction at times might be deliberately deviating from the real events with the aim of deceiving the audience into constructing a desired image of his or her identity, so the intentions would point towards lying. Nevertheless, the autofictional contract between the sender and the receiver would not be violated in such cases, since it covers both the aspects of the novel that do and do not deviate from the truth. Besides, if identity turns out to be semiotically constructable, the eventual distinction between the infra-mediatic construction and the extra-mediatic instance might not be valid anymore, as the semantics of the former influence the construction of the latter.
As far as the construction of an extra-mediatic entity (in our case, the author) is concerned, somewhat surprisingly, Jean Baudrillard's theory on simulacra and iconoclasm can clarify things. Baudrillard explains the logic behind idols and iconoclasm as a succession of structural and temporal phases in which doubt arises and the semiotic status of the idol moves from "iconic" to "simulacrous". In a first phase, the idol is believed to be a true representation of God, hence an "iconic" sign of his appearance and existence. In a second phase, doubt emerges as to whether the idol is indeed a true representation, so in a first iconoclastic movement, it would have to be destroyed. Nevertheless, in a third phase, doubt arises not only as to whether the idol represents the appearance of God accurately, but also as to whether it actually represents anything at all. It could be that God does not exist, and that the idol merely masks his non-existence. An iconoclastic spirit would thus destroy the image in order to exorcise its possible simulation. In a final, post-iconoclastic phase, the idol is not taken to represent anything but itself anymore and the idol becomes God. (Baudrillard, 2001: 173)
It might be somewhat too far-fetched to compare authors to Gods, but certainly, the reader of autofiction will hover between the poles outlined above in constructing the persona of the author. In this case, there is no idol referring to a god, but an infra-mediatic verbal construction of the author (that is the implied author, that is character, focalizer and narrator at the same time) referring to a supposed extra-mediatic entity. The reader knows that the elements in the novel are a mix of fiction and autobiography. In a first phase, on the one hand of the spectrum, there may the readers that take the autofictional representation of the author to be entirely true and interpret all events and descriptions, all wordings, characters as accurate signs referring to the extra-mediatic entity, which however goes against the grain of the genre itself, and denies the fictional elements that are supposed to be part of it. In a second phase, more readers, paying attention to the second constituent in the word autofiction, will take the represented image of the author to be fictional at unspecified points, and hence will be aware of the fact that the representation is an inaccurate one, embellished or made worse, invented at some points. In a third referential phase, the reader would doubt the existence of a real author behind the autofictitious representation; he would suspect the novel to be an autobiographical fraud (something that would only be possible in the somewhat unlikely case in which it were written by a computer programme, a group of authors, etc.). In a fourth phase, the reader would not care about the extra-mediatic author anymore and take the infra-mediatic one to be the real and true author. Strangely enough, in the end, phase one and four, even though they are positioned at the opposite sides of the stratum, are highly similar, as both stances take all characteristics to be true, only at a different level. Nevertheless, as we have seen, both levels are not separable in an absolute manner.
The question now is which level and which aspects determine the identity of the author. While it might seem at first that in the end, one has to reside to the extra-mediatic persona of the author to be able to say which aspects belong to his or her identity, if identity turns out to be semiotic in nature, that would not be the correct impulse. Since identity is taken to be something of the side of representation and not of the side of essence, all representations of a certain entity will contribute to the identity of the latter, which in this way becomes not a stable essence, but a fluctuating cluster of meanings, never absolute, always precarious and under construction. Misrepresentations of an identity hence may change this identity itself, retroactively becoming correct. Rather than opposing the infra-mediatic identity to the extra-mediatic identity, we should thus realize that both constitute each other.
When we conceptualize autofiction as encompassing all identity-representations involving a combination of non-fiction and fiction, then the phenomenon, besides being a literary genre, becomes something far more prominent in society. Autofiction in this conceptualization is omnipresent in all present-day media, but most democratically so on the Internet, where it is still growing exponentially. The most prominent autofiction phenomenon on the Internet today appears to be the networking-community of MySpace, which will thus be the object of investigation in the pages to come.
The differences between the original literary autofiction genre and the Net-variant, evidently, are vast. First of all, the motivations have been reversed. Whereas in the literary genre, the creation of a novel predominated, and the creation of an image for the author was only a minor side-effect, MySpace is all about the creation of an image for the owner of the profile and the construction of the mediatic artefact itself (the space) is only secondary to achieving this goal. Also, the fiction element on MySpace is far less obvious; the format does not automatically presuppose the user's profiles to be fictitious, in fact the default case for profile creation seems to half-heartedly require them to be a truthful representation of the identity of their creator. Nevertheless, it is clear that many different sorts of fictionalizations infiltrate, to which we will return later on.
Another difference between literary autofiction and the Internet variant is of course the fact that the literary genre as a means of expression was only accessible to a selected group, to writers who could get themselves published. Expression on MySpace, however, is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, turning autofiction into a mass phenomenon. Further on, the web-environment allows for interactivity. Whereas in the autofiction genre, one party was the author and another one the reader, in the MySpace environment, everybody takes on the role of author and reader at the same time. The site hence is not only about self-expression or construction, but to an equal measure it is about communication, hence its status of a community. It should be clear that both aspects are again not to be separated, as communication contributes to construction as well, and self-expression is also communication in the Myspace environment.
A final major difference between the literary genre and MySpace is of course the format. The literary identity is rendered in a mono-mediatic way, sometimes complemented by an occasional portrait or blurb in the paratext. Temporally, expression unfolds diachronically: one has to read through the chapters in order to come to a final construction, a construction that is only spatial in a metaphorical sense. (On the difference between the temporal and the spatial aspects of reading literature, see Calisescu 1993). On MySpace, on the other hand, the owner's identity is represented in a multimediatic way, as an assembly, a collage of images, videos, verbal texts, drawings and music. This environment facilitates the multidimensional representation (or creation) of the owner's identity, and hence facilitates individualization. On the other hand, however, the MySpace -template is predetermined (picture, blurb, comment each in their specific frame, a limited number of words, etc.), where the writer does not work within the confines of a template to the same degree. The representations on the Internet, contrary to the literary ones, are predominantly synchronic, or spatial: in one glance, one can more or less take in the entire profile (NB: the blogs, the comments, the videos, picture albums and slide-shows need to be read, played and scrolled diachronically, but they can also be used in their synchronic representations, the video, comments and slide-shows becoming pictures and the blogs being reduced to their titles).
As for the different possible mixes of fiction and autobiography in the MySpace -profile, the infra-mediatic representation referring to an extra-mediatic entity, there are three main categories, which do not run parallel entirely with Baudrillard's distinctions in the continuum from representation to simulacrum. On one side of the spectrum, we find the users whose profiles are as accurate as possible; these are profiles under the real name of the user, with truthful pictures, a truthful motto, stated without irony, truthful demographic descriptions, and blogs that recount true events and true opinions. This seems to be similar to an instance of Baudrillard' s first phase within the representation-simulacrum continuum. As an example of this, we may take the profile of Melissa auf der Maur, a Canadian rockstar ( www.myspace.com/punkglitter ), whose "about me" text starts with:
Besides the fact that Auf der Maur is actually 34 years old, there appear to be no other obvious fictionalizations on the page; she has been Hole's basist, she indeed lives in California and appears to be slim/slender as stated by the profile. The pictures featured appear to represent Melissa auf der Maur truthfully, and there is no immediate reason to believe that the person stating she is Melissa auf der Maur actually is someone else, or that auf der Maur is giving a completely flawed representation of herself in the profile. Nevertheless, no matter how true all this may seem, still, some hints of fictionalization will enter these profiles, since they can only represent the aspects of the users allowed by the format. Moreover, the featured representations usually transform the user in an ameliorative way (only the most photogenic pictures will be selected and the smartest motto's, while painful comments by friends can be deleted). Besides that, there is always the suspicion that the profile turns out to be a good counterfeit after all. The "about me" text in the Melissa auf der Maur profile might introduce such suspicions, as it goes on to read:
When the truthfulness of a profile is questioned, it might be catapulted to the other end of the spectrum and reveal itself to be a complete counterfeit (an extreme instance of Baudrillard's second phase). Untruthful profiles may feature a name that is not the creator's, inaccurate pictures, fictional blogs, wrong demographic descriptions, and ironic motto's. The incentive to create such profiles might be playful mockery and parody, but nevertheless, even these anti-profiles can never be complete acts of defiance, as in the end, they do partake in the MySpace template and in that way their truth-status within the network will be equal to that of the other profiles. Parody and irony seem to be prefigured within the MySpace contract, in that all seemingly true profiles may be ironic, and all seemingly ironic ones may be true. Other instances within the false profile-department are the ones that are being hijacked by spam-agents, who use them to get access to a network of friends and send junk-mail and junk-bulletins, selling herbal Viagra or other spam-popular products. This case runs parallel with Baudrillard's third phase, where the representation mask the absence of its referent. Spam can be an indication of the untruthfulness of the profile, since it does not fit the self-expressive networking intentions presumed to direct the MySpace network, but nevertheless, in a bathmological spirit, one can never be sure as to what the profile-owner's true intentions are. A real profile may present itself in a hijacked fashion, so that a truly hijacked profile may still function as and eventually be a real profile.
In between the two hypothetical poles of utter truthfulness and utter falseness (which turn out to only exist in a theoretical way) we find the majority of profiles, where a nickname is being used and twenty-year-old singles state they are a hundred years in age and married, where people wear masks and disguise themselves in their pictures, some of which may have gotten a digital face-lift or may represent someone else, while the blogs recount invented events. The fictional elements often consist of a combination of ameliorative and ironic ones, as if the ironic elements indicate a reading contract that makes up for the "lies" provided by the self-improvements and as if these self-improvements were meant to be taken ironically as well. Some users construct many different profiles for themselves, each with a different nickname and each with a different alter ego-function: in one profile they can present themselves as film-diva, pin-up girl or romantic crooner from the fifties, with mellow mottos and sepia-coloured pictures, in another one, they can wear serial killer, werewolf or vampire masks and act out a mock-imitation of their favourite villain. Often profiles are created in order to foreground the users as true professionals in their hobby-fields (weekend football players and belly-dancers, members from an acting club and occasional karaoke-singers in this way becoming sports heroes and stars on their pages). Profiles may thus encompass Baudrillard's phases of representation, they do not run parallel with them, ranging from complete resemblance and truth over fraud representations, to representations of non-existing referents, to the pure simulacrum, where the identity on MySpace will stand on its own and "become" the person represented.
It should be noted that the meaning of the infra-mediatic identity in the profile is not merely constituted in respect to the extra-mediatic entity. The MySpace network not only refers to a potential extra-mediatic reality, but it also constitutes a semantic system in its own right, in which meaning is attributed negatively, through the connections between profiles. Both the extra-mediatic and the infra-mediatic entities will come to constitute one another to a certain extent and in this way they will become part of an overarching identity, encompassing both semantic levels.
As an example of an average profile in which the truth-fiction boundaries are blurred, we could turn to the profile of Paule ( www.myspace.com/magicpaule ), one out of 10.000.000 other profiles. Paule's blurb, on the day of access was "no matter how hard you knit, you'll never be a woman", her demographic profile indicating she is 99 years in age and lives in Paris and Berlin. Her pictures, however, suggest her to be a beautiful young woman in her late twenties. Paule's interests are stated to be "photography, my camera(s), whisky and bars, lateral thinking, mood disorders, over-dramatization, small talk, fake laugh, autodestruction and non-existence, ex-husband, I don't know, crushes, obsessions", each one represented in a different font, as if to express their symbolical weight by it. Besides the ex-husbands interest, she claims her favourite movies to be the ones "dealing with dead-end relationships" and her occupation to be "trouble". While all the above still appears fairly straightforward with some ironic touches, the "about me" part of Paule's profile remains enigmatic, telling the following story:
Paula von J apparently is not Paule, who had not been born in 1923, but nevertheless, we expect the "about-me" story about this Paula von J to tell something about Paule as well. The hypothetical figure of von J functions as an alter ego, ironically disfiguring what Paule wishes to tell about herself. Was she herself born in Versailles? Has she been married to a gifted musician? Did she spend time in a mental asylum? This little texts functions as a perfect piece of autofiction, leaving the visitor in the dark as to which parts are Paule, and which parts are inventions of Paule, disguising and revealing, blending and separating the author and the character.
The success of the MySpace format indicates that the phenomenon provides answers to a need or a tendency in society, to which it has probably been contributing as well, a need relating to identity formation. The refuge to the Internet for the representation and creation of identities first of all indicates, obviously, that identity-expression and creation is an issue of concern today, worthy of investing time and energy. Secondly, it indicates that the daily reality does not seem to provide sufficient means for accomplishing this creation in a satisfactory manner, so that people have to resort to digital means.
In respect to identity-creation apparently being an issue of great importance today, the question arises whether this importance is a recent phenomenon, tied to the Modern or Postmodern paradigm, or whether it is simply an aspect of the human character. Universality might be too strong a term, but image, identity and status have evidently been important throughout the course of human history. Nevertheless, the sociological identity-constitutions seem to have been changing thoroughly over the last century, explaining for the potential rise in importance attributed to image. First of all, traditional sociological constellations -the divisions between upper-class, middle class and working class- seem to have lost importance, making the grip of the classes on identity-formation less tight. Whereas, at one point, class-structures dictated a fairly large part of one's social identity (one's hobbies, tastes of art and music, one's friends), today identity formation seems to have become a choice of the social subject itself, who can now seemingly choose freely between different role-models. An important issue in this evolution has been the emergence of youth culture at the end of the fifties, which introduced the possibility of alternative models to youngsters at that time, having influenced the formation of identities ever since. Identity over the last few decades thus has gradually been conceived less as a given, but more as a semiotically constructible entity.
A second instigator in the rise of the identity-mania has been the star-phenomenon, blooming in the twentieth century. Stars are no longer presented as eternal entities from another dimension (as the ancient Gods or Saints from the middle ages, stars of their own times, might have been represented), but according to the American dream, they are claimed to be mainly self-fashioned, and in this way they are triumphant examples of successful identity creations. The identity-representations in which stars appear (music videos, feature films, fashion campaigns) may potentially lie within everyone's reach, but in reality they are not obtainable for the majority of people, who in this way cannot but acknowledge their failure in self-fashioning. (Dyer, 1979; Peeters, 2004)
An indication of the popularity of identity formation has been the booming academic and cultural phenomenon of gender studies and queer theory, stressing the performativity-aspect of identity and conceiving it as a variable, creatable entity, rather than a natural given or an essence. (Butler, 1993) The fierce Butlerian part of the movement even goes as far as to claim that bodily-aspects of identity such as one's sexuality are purely semiotic and performative. When identity becomes a completely performative entity, nothing is impossible anymore and one's identity-success lies entirely in one's own hands.
Nevertheless, the apparent freedom and the endless possibilities of identity-creation might lead to unobtainable ideals. Even if the queer studies claim that bodies are only semiotic and can be performatively constructed, people will be tied to their bodies none the less, and the ideal of supposedly being able to do and be anything one pleases may contrast bitterly with the actual reality, leaving the subject frustrated with its disappointing identity.
All this may explain why millions of especially young people who are likely to still be building their identities, are taking refuge to the Internet in matters of identity formation and representation. In contrast to the extra-mediatic reality, where identity might be claimed to be infinitely performative and fashionable, but materiality and lack of agency often disappoint one's ambitions, in digital environments, identities become truly fashionable and performative, and people, within the borders of the format, can truly become anything they want. This is a phenomenon that can be observed within role-playing games on the Internet, but a phenomenon like MySpace is different, since the digital identities and the community constituted by it, are not detached from reality in the same way. MySpace provides a parallel society that in some ways mirrors the extra-mediatic one and in other ways amplifies it and changes it. It would be wrong to see the interaction between the "real", extra-mediatic world and the digital, infra-mediatic society of MySpace as a one-way interaction between the extra- and the infra-level, because, and this is where the utopian dreams of MySpace seem to materialize, the infra-mediatic world of MySpace appears to have a very real impact on the extra-mediatic society.
In respect to the users' identity, the truth of the virtual representations cannot merely be decided by comparing them with their extra-virtual counterparts, but the virtual identities constitute their own truths, that might become entities in their own right, or that in combination with the extra-mediatic ones lead up to overarching images. In respect to society in general, MySpace has become an important player. Especially in the entertainment and advertising industry, the community has become a market in its own right, or in other terms, big business. Bands, television programs and brands all need their own profiles in order to remain important players within the field and the importance of the network seems to be growing still with each new user. "What cannot be found on the Internet does not exist" might have seemed a funny exaggeration at one point; it seems more and more likely to be becoming a truth. Reality today is a concept that cannot be attributed to the extra-mediatic world anymore, but hovers in between spaces; spaces in which autofiction is becoming more real every day.
Jean Baudrillard. "Simulacra and Simulations." Selected Writings. Ed. Marc Poster. Stanford : Stanford University Press, 2001: 169-187.
Pierre Bourdieu. "L'identité et la représentation." Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 35 (1980): 63-70.
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Heidi Peeters is currently associated to the subfaculty of Literary Theory at the
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