In September, I went to a conference down in Portland called XOXO Festival. I wrote about it over on the Offbeat Empire blog, because it was mostly about the more work-part of my brain and didn’t really seem relevant to Offbeat Home.
One speaker named Mike Rugnetta caught the more personal side of my brain though, because his talk was called Disintermediation of Self.
In his talk, Mike poked deep into the bowels of social psychology of both identity development and community development on the internet. This talk was SO up my alley. Like, could not have been more custom-catered to the things I like to think about. And now you can watch the video, and we can talk about it.
So, some back-story here: Mike does a lot of talking about the internet through his work with MemeFactory. Dude has deep thoughts about silly things on the internet. And, dear Offbeat Empire readers, with this talk, he’s basically stared deep into the deepest, weirdest parts of the Offbeat Empire readership’s minds. HE KNOWS, you guys. HE KNOWS.
You need to watch the video so we can talk about it. It’s 25 minutes long and the video basically gets going at 3 minutes in. It’s fast paced and touches on furries, Welcome to Nightvale, Tumblr, queer identity, Kant, and other internet social psych goodness. WATCH IT:
…If you listen closely to the video, you may be able to hear the sound of my poopy britches hitting the floor as I shat myself with excitement.
Ok, you watched it? Here’s an excerpt of Mike’s talk that addresses some of what I most want to discuss:
The internet has changed the way people can construct themselves. It has provided access to knowledge and communities and media and people who can help to un-ball the complex knot that is self-constitution. I mean, the self is a complicated thing because it isn’t accessed DIRECTLY. The REASON you have to spend lots of long nights staring out the window looking at the moon, visiting all the coffee shops and smoking all the cigarettes in an effort to ﬁgure out what you feel, who you are, and what you believe or desire, is because you can’t just shut your eyes and observe how you feel.
The self is a little like a pitch-dark room: it’s back here if you want to ﬁnd the sofa, you’ll have to go feeling around for it. Maybe it’s right in front of you, maybe it’s not. The philosopher Immanuel Kant described the systematic elusiveness of the ‘I’. He wasn’t talking about knowing if you’re a furry or not, but he was talking about apprehension of the self and how it’s always kind of retreating.
The self retreats not just as an effect of its complexity, but sometimes as an effect of its inevitable comparison to other selves. It’s difficult to conﬁdently construct one’s self without placing it alongside others; the true self, if there is even ONE, can retreat behind cultural norms, community practices, social and societal expectations. You want to be TRUE to your SELF. But you might not know what OPTIONS are available for inclusion in that truth unless you … go shopping, I guess, is one way to put it. But are these identities “true” if they came from somewhere outside your own brain? This is actually a big, important question: is there a truly and totally internal self?
Or put another way: would every person who currently self-identiﬁes as goth or pro-life or democrat or who identiﬁes as a furry have come to that conclusion independent of the actions and preferences of others?
The internet is real life and it is changing the way people are living their real lives, the way they are being themselves… And I think we’ve learned that — counter-intuitively — you sorta need a community to be independent. And that is what we’re building: this community of independent people, forging out alone, together.
There are so many things I want to talk about here…
First, do you guys agree that defining yourself is something you do in opposition to those around you, and have you ever gone “shopping” for identities that already exist? How do you feel about not just “being yourself,” but “avoiding being that person” and “sorta emulating that other person”? Does it feel inauthentic, or is there any true authentic self?
Has the internet fundamentally changed the ways people find and develop their identities? Think of, as Mike mentions, kids growing up in small towns who have access to communities and identities that could never have tapped into even 20 years ago.
We’ve talked a lot on Offbeat Empire about “special snowflake” syndrome and othering… when you have a community that’s made up of people who all feel a little different in some way, how do members of that community navigate the friction of suddenly being very similar? When you’ve spent your whole life feeling different, is it comforting or disorienting to be around people who relate to you?
Holy fuck, I could go on for DAYS about this talk. But let’s take it to the comments, shall we?