The internet, the self, the furries, and you: we need to all watch this presentation so we can talk about it

November 12 2013 | arielmstallings
By: Kyle NishiokaCC BY 2.0
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?

  1. I've said it before in the comments, and I'll say it again because it happens over and over again. People in real life- I'll call them the "normals"- confuse the hell out of me. I don't understand their motivations behind why they do things. "Because that's what people do" has never been a satisfying answer for me. I found the Offbeat sites when I was trying to plan a wedding that I didn't hate every aspect of. There have been so many articles on each OffBeat Bride, Families, and Home that have pin-pointed EXACTLY WHY the "normals" make me feel weird, confused, and sometimes angry (the definition of family, child rearing, relationships, etc.) I can't always figure out on my own why a certain tradition doesn't "feel right," but articles on this site or comments that people make put it into perspective or spell out what that tradition implies.

    I think it's validating that I'm not the only person in the world who feels a certain way. And even if I don't agree with all of the alternative views that people express on this site, it's just comforting to know that there ARE alternative views.

    • Totally get what you're saying here, but I feel a bit more compassionate toward folks who chose normalcy. Needing to have a sense of belonging is a pretty strong social impulse, and for some people, that sense of belonging is achieved through ascribing to mainstream societal norms. It can be challenging when those social norms are then enforced on people who DON'T want to ascribe to them, but I have a lot of patience and compassion for folks who want to feel like part of a collective… even when it's not the collective I personally identify with.

      (That said, I'm a middle class married white 30something who lives in a condo. That probably makes me one of The Normals.)

      • I had my close group of weirdos in middle school and high school, and it was easy to find weirdos at my college. There aren't a lot of outwardly weird people where I am now, and I know that I don't look weird either as I am a middle class married white almost 30 something who lives in a suburb… So I have had to give The Normals a chance. And, you know what? Everyone has their weird side. Sometimes you have to look for it, and I love bringing that out in people.

      • I think this is a step in the right direction in comparison to the comment that spawned this thread, but I still think looking at it in terms of conformity and social norms is limiting and perhaps patronizing.

        I live in the 'burbs myself, and was fairly uncomfortable here my first couple of years around "the normals." But I've learned to think of my weirdness this way: I get particular, kind of strange, ideas in my head about what I want (kitschy decoration style, upcycled wedding dress) and I want them so much that I'll go to great lengths to make it happen.

        The normals, I think, don't have that drive – that initial weird idea that inspires them. They have "normal" ideas that inspire them; growing their idea of a perfect garden, getting their kids into all their sports, building a community through the PTA or this year's neighborhood party.

        I've learned that, on the whole, we have more in common than we have differences, but the specifics of our focus are different. I've learned that, while I was nervous and shy at the first neighborhood party, a couple of years in I wouldn't miss it for ANYTHING, and that a lot of my "normal" neighbors have weird going on under there that you can get to, if you have your eyes open.

        But, I did have to work hard to relax, and open up a little bit. I'm not saying it was easy, but on the whole, as adults, for the most part people are looking to be friends and form constructive relationships, not to tear you down and make you feel bad about being "weird." I'm really glad I was able to do that, because I've made one or two spectacular friends this way, too.

    • And even if I don't agree with all of the alternative views that people express on this site, it's just comforting to know that there ARE alternative views.

      THIS.

      While I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by a lot of Offbeat types offline, so I'm exposed to alternative views IRL all the time, having that sort of community is essential to being comfortable in my identity, and I could definitely see the internet being crucial in that way for many people.

  2. Has the internet fundamentally changed the ways people find and develop their identities?

    Yes and no. I think it has only changed the people with whom we can interact — but that we have always built, and will always build, our identities through our interactions with others. I think that it's way easier to identify a certain way if you know that others also identify that way.

    For instance, pre-university, I was aware that gay and lesbian people existed (and my communities were fairly accepting of them), but bisexuality wasn't something we really talked about. I identified as straight, because I was attracted to men, so therefore I wasn't lesbian, right? I once said to a friend, "you know, I could see being lesbian, if guys weren't so damned attractive." Pretty bi, right? Anyway, once I got to university, I became aware that sexuality was a spectrum, not just A or B, and after a fair bit of soul-searching, during which I realized I had a massive crush on my (female) best friend from childhood, I began identifying as bi. Maybe I would have gotten there on my own; maybe not. The community I was in, the conversations we had, and yes, the presence of others who identified as bi, certainly sped the process up. Had I not had that physically-present community, I may have found something similar on the internet.

    As to the internet's effect on self-identification, not only the communities of like-minded people, but also the broadening ideas, have definitely affected how I see myself, and how I view myself fitting into the fabric of society.

    By reading Offbeat Home & Life and Offbeat Empire, I am constantly exposed to different lifestyles, ones which aren't really reflected in mainstream society. Some of these I want to emulate; others are not for me. But by reading about this variety, by joining in conversation with this community, I can refine my ideas of myself and my place in society. So I'd agree with what he's saying.

    I think we definitely refine our understanding of who we are as we find ourselves in community with like-minded (or otherwise-minded) people.

  3. Is an identity any less true and self-defined if it is discovered while browsing the Internet? Don't we all try identities on while we're growing, only to sometimes discard that part of us because it ends up not "fitting"? The Internet just allows us another place to help us construct the person we want to be. This site gives me ideas I never would have considered, but so does my husband, my grandmother, the television, the newspaper, and the neighbor down the street. They're all a way for us to create the most authentic self we can create. The Internet just allows us to find, try, and keep something that doesn't fit more quickly so we can live our lives the most true to ourselves way we can.

  4. Something I've sort of wrangled with for a long time is how the internet creates normalcy from abnormalcy. This can manifest in different ways. Maybe the further you sort of immerse yourself in a community, the more a behavior, interest or identity can feel like it's the true normal, further "othering" yourself from the world while simultaneously deepening your allegiance to your new identity. On the other hand, I've heard people describe the secret normal effect, where they start to believe that everyone else either secretly already is or is just a step away from being a community member–and that they really want to be a community member, there's just an external force standing in the way (eg. "If he just saw one episode of 'Firefly', he'd be a Browncoat forever." or "I bet everyone on my block is a furry, they're just afraid to come out about it.")

    I think it's great that people are exploring their identities and being encouraged to be themselves. But I think people are feeling emboldened to go a little further into their interests and behaviors than they would without such a community, which can lead to mixed results, right? For every person who discovers they're a brilliant fan-artist, you've got another who just feels sort of desperately lonely in their Podunk town, where nobody's even heard of Doctor Who. For everyone who finally found a word and a support group for the thing they've always felt, there are those who end up frantically trying new things because they're a part of the broader communal identity.

    I feel like we all supply the lumber and nails for our inner self framework, with interests, experiences, beliefs and emotions. But I think it's constructed around what established, external identities look like–whether to look like them or to look opposite them. I think the internet makes it easier to encounter lots of identities, allowing us to further pinpoint "I am this, I am not that."

    And from my experience, how I identified myself before the internet, when I first really explored the internet at 12 or so and now–it's very different. Before the internet in my very tiny town, I really just had other people around me–who were all very much the same–to weigh myself against. Even if I'd been in a larger city, I think I would've surrounded myself with people I identified with, so the issue would've been the same. When I first really got into the internet, people were sort of loosely organized and trying to find pretty vague common threads to connect. There was a very real sense that everyone on the internet was searching for an identity or searching to share one. Now? If you're plugged in anywhere, you're going to be exposed to new identities and you have the opportunity to anonymously try it on or lurk and research it until you can make a fairly confident "I am this" or "I am not this" statement.

    • yesss: I think the internet makes it easier to encounter lots of identities, allowing us to further pinpoint "I am this, I am not that."

  5. I think to kids/young adults growing up in smaller towns/cities the internet is definitely a boon in terms of trying out different identities to find where they feel comfortable. So many more alternative views are available to view and discuss that I think it makes some things easier.
    I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, Canada, and there were very definite, physical risks to certain outsider views. Speaking out loud that you were a gay male in high school (at that time)? Be prepared to face daily beatings by the school jocks.
    There was one girl who was full on goth in my high school, and she faced daily harrassment.
    I was a nerd/geek, and while we were a bigger group, we still got teased for the books we read, the games we played, etc. Being a girl on top of that? Well, awesome times, lemme tell ya. Not only did you get it from the 'normals', but some of the male nerds/geeks didn't want to share with girls.
    Having dial-up internet access helped, since I could connect with more than the handful of people in my town who had similar interests and views on the world, and it made things less lonely.
    Had I grown up in a big centre like some of my university friends, I think things would have been different, since I would have had more physical access to different groups and viewpoints.

    • Just wanted to add that things have improved in my hometown, based on what I've heard from friends who are still there. One of my good male friends got married to his now husband a few years ago, and are living in town with minimal-to-no commentary from fellow townsfolk, as just one example.

  6. Ariel, I am so glad you posted this today, because, well, I think about this pretty much every day of my life! Probably because in some ways I'm "normal" (whatever that is) and in some ways I'm not. Since there are aspects of myself that fall all across the spectrum, I'm friends with a number of people who fall across the spectrum too. That means the extent to which I'm "normal" also largely depends on the company surrounding me. To some of my friends I'm the crazy hippie because I run in bare feet and refuse to own a car, and to others I may as well be a straightlaced schoolmarm because I have a mortgage. 😉

    Firstly, I think it's important to point out that just because someone happens to fit a given social norm doesn't automatically imply that they're fleeing to the safety of conformity. For example, over the past few years I have lost a significant amount of weight. While I am completely opposed to fat discrimination and fat-shaming in any form, I wanted to accomplish more physically and so the weight would have to come off. What came as a shock to me was that I encountered a lot of hostility from friends who told me that I was "selling out", "rolling in self-hatred," "just doing this because of social pressure," etc. etc. I wasn't doing it for any of those reasons; I wanted to challenge myself and make myself a stronger person, not a supermodel.

  7. The concept of the 'self' being like a dark room you're bumping around in totally made me think of the (Opposite? Inverse? Complementary?) C.S. Lewis quote, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Setting aside the Christianity part, I totally relate to the sentiment. By trying to really understand the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of others around me, I end up understanding myself clearest of all.

    For example, I have a friend who came out to me as poly a few years back- the first poly person I had met. I have learned so much from her friendship, and while being poly isn't something I want to try or can claim to fully understand, the most impactful lesson I've learned from her is that I am capable of loving someone who is so different than myself. Realizing that shook up my self-identity, for sure, and I don't believe I would have learned that without seeing the contrast between my friend and myself.

    And I think the internet plays a role in developing an identity. Like, I just realized I'm an introvert (duh!) by reading online others' descriptions of their introvertedness. Introverts tend to be more talkative online, so it makes sense that I had to discover this on the internet rather than chatting with another self-identified introvert in real life. But, for me, this was a description of something that I've always known about myself but had no name for. I don't relate so much to the idea of 'trying on' identities, I think there are elements of our selves that are inborn.

    Very cool discussion! I'm going to go watch 'I Heart Huckabees' now 🙂

    • the most impactful lesson I've learned from her is that I am capable of loving someone who is so different than myself.

      This was a huge lesson for me, after I became a parent. I went looking for other "weird moms," but ended up in a parenting group that initially felt painfully mainstream. But as I wrote here:

      That the very fact that my fellow moms weren't what I thought of as "my people" was part of what made the group so valuable. It was wonderful to see how I was dealing with the exact same mother-of-a-newborn challenges as the 40-something Boeing lawyer, who was dealing with the same issues as the 20-something stay-at-home-mom, who was dealing with the same frustrations as the former Army captain, who was crying over the same challenges as the University of Washington PhD student. We were all coming from different backgrounds and parenting philosophies, but we were all dealing with the same challenges.

      I spent a lot of my 20s looking for people who were just like me, and I feel like I've spent much of my 30s realizing that spanning the gaps between myself and people NOT like me can be even more amazing.

  8. I'm fascinated by the idea of community as an important part of the "constructive internet." What kind of community has been constituted (and is constantly being reconstituted) around the Empire, for example? I think he says something like "the most successful fandoms don't have the best media, but rather, the best interpersonal relationships, the most engaging ongoing relationships" . And then, that certain communities have "given people permission to be who they want to be. " What he's talking about on kind of a meta level (the thing that is relevant to all of these communities), is actually the defining element of the Offbeat Empire. It's a piece of the way that the internet has exponentially multiplied the ways to challenge norms and normalizations, and to challenge them over and over again.

    Also: LUCK, and ENTROPY. As essential forces that lead us to the properties of self with which we identify. I'm just going to write that down and let my brain recover for a bit.

    And I really like the idea of "desire paths."

    • Yeah, I LOVED Mike's observations about how the best fandoms aren't about access to the media… but to the fellow fans. I feel like in some ways, this is why the Tribe is so successful (and why we get emails weekly from people asking about forums on the other site): sometimes readers don't want our stupid posts. They just want to talk to each other. It's too bad in some ways that I'm not able to better serve that need, but Mike's talk definitely touches on that how that desire to connect ABOUT something can be more important than the desire to connect TO something.

      • I had an idea/suggestion/brainfart about that….. what if…. would it be possible… to change the facebook liking-page (I liked them better when they were fan-pages) to a closed group? It will most likely be a bit more admining/moderation than the current liking-page, but perhaps not as much as a forum?

        It might also solve your issues with people not seeing the posts? I'm on a couple of closed groups and I see *allll* the posts from those, even the one's I'm not that interested in.

      • Hmm… hadn't even thought of forum vs. blog in that sense. I think that people are using the comments here to connect beyond just the topic of the post. But yeah, the opportunity to rethink a sense of self is much more powerful on the Tribe, where it is easier for each individual to create content, and where people are doing something that tends to challenge them to rethink who they are ANYWAY. So the intersection of creativity, self, and community is quite powerful.

  9. I sorta see discovery of our Self a little like the Indian philosophy of shruti…it's said that the Vedas existed in the Universe before they were written down. I believe Walt Whitman had a similar belief about poetry, that poems exist in the Universe, and the poet hears the words and translates them onto paper…but it's not a perfect translation, for how could someone really write in human language the poetic essence of the Universe?

    Self discovery feels like that to me. Before Offbeat Empire or the internet forums, or blogging, I connected as a kid with stories like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women, that gave me peeks into different lives and inner worlds that resonated with me on a deep level and helped give words to some of what I felt inside but couldn't explain. Now I might find bits of my internal self reflected in a political magazine's article write-up, or a blog online, or in an Oprah pick I read on my Kindle.

    I think that my true internal Self exists, and I'm exploring it much like the poets write poems that already exist in the Universe. My true internal Self isn't even bound by my body or mind, and maybe looks more like a part of the collective Unconscious.

    All of this feels true, to me, but the more I write the more confused I start to feel…

  10. No, I don't think I've gone shopping for identities that already exist, but I do think that folks who do that are doing something authentic. It's absolutely true that trying out that identity or aspects of it brings people closer to who they are, and changing identities, rather than showing someone is "fake", just shows that that's where they are on the path, and they have a ways to go, and there's nothing wrong with that because we all have a ways to go – the only thing that sets them apart is their conspicuousness (I'm thinking like this: http://www.theonion.com/articles/college-freshman-cycles-rapidly-through-identities,991/)

    For me, I never put much stock in meditating on my identity and who I am, and I admit (sorry, truly) that I used to kind of snark at people who did. I thought "I need to FIND MYSELF and figure out WHO I AM INSIDE" was some cray Oprah #firstworldproblems bullshit. Then I did realize that that was wrong and judgmental – there's nothing wrong with thinking about who you are, and it's probably a good idea to have a strong sense of who that is before you jump into trying to change the world anyway (you can arguably do more good if you have a strong sense of motivation and purpose that comes from a deeper place, with associated knowledge/expertise/training, than if you're at the 'coffeeshop/moon staring/cigarette' phase, and there's nothing wrong with that). That just because a lot of people don't have the time/resources to try to figure out who they are – they're just trying to survive – it doesn't mean that nobody is allowed to do it. But for me, I never really did. I've always had a fairly strong sense of who I am, even back when I was young and immature and didn't know what to do with myself, and desperately needed to 'grow into' my personality by growing up.

    So while I'm attracted to some elements of many subcultures – from hippie to academic to geek to gamer to goth to foodie to expat to bookworm to political junkie to straight up hipster, plus a few others like 'kid from the countryside' and 'jet-setter without the money to jetset' to 'third generation American with ties to the Old Country' (Armenian from southern Turkey if you're curious) – I don't belong in any one of them. I never have and I've never tried. Knowing about each has helped me to better figure out who I am, but I've never felt tempted to fully try on any one of them.

    • I really like the "fake" aspect you bring up. A girl I used to be friends with (dropped most people after she popped out a kid) has a rant on a certain social media site about people suddenly loving pin up culture and also zombies and calling them all posers and to stop trying so hard with it. She was in essence upset that she lost her cool unique snowflakeness and everyone else was clearly just faking it because it's a trend(my interpretation of her rant).

      I found it a little sad she was going off like that. Instead of being "yay more cool people" she was more like "stay out of my fort I want to be left alone and pretend to be queen of pin up coolness" and well trying to almost dismantle the community feeling. Maybe it was because she felt like her identity was no longer considered unique and that her interests were a fad.

      Life is a journey of discovery why else is a saying like "I still know 40 and 50 year olds who don't know what they want to be when they grow up" such a common one it seems. Don't hate on someone who just discovered an interest because they did not know who they 100% were in middle school. Let them enjoy the internet as they see fit and find whatever hobbies they enjoy.

  11. So, first of all, I'd like to say: I don't *do* watching videos on-line. I don't know why, but apart from porn, I don't watch videos on-line. It makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong. Now that I've said that, I think I've probably got it backwards, but that's beside the point. My point is ONLY FOR YOU ARIEL!

    So, as a kid, even growing up in a white middle-class family in the suburbs of a relatively large capital city, I never flet "normal". I wasn't ugly, I didn't have braces, or freckles or red-hair or any of the typical stuff kids get picked on for. I tried making friends, wearing the right clothes, all that stuff, it didn't feel right to me, and clearly the other kids knew that didn't make me "normal" either, cuz they still didn't like me.

    So then I found the internet. And I found chat-rooms. And People Liked Me! I was cool in chat-rooms, people wanted to talk to me! Awesome.

    So then high-school. And I totally thought – ' "I need to FIND MYSELF and figure out WHO I AM INSIDE" was some cray Oprah #firstworldproblems bullshit' as well. (Also, I don't know how to do quotes on this thing, I only worked out embedded links last week) But I totally did the shopping thing! I had this friend who would just wear any weird multi-coloured sparkly thing she could find in an op-shop, and listened to indi music and went to concerts all the time… so I tried that on for a while… it was ok, but not quite there… then I was a goth for a while, then I was an emo (before emo's weren't cool?) then a punk, then I got a grown-up job, so i had to wear office-appropriate stuff for a whil, and my wardrobe got boring, cuz punk didn't quite fit anymore, but I was back to being just not-normal. Then I got engaged and found offbeatbride!! "normal" was feeling less and less right, rockabilly was looking like the way to go… but i decided to stay normal looking until after my wedding just in case it was another ill-fit. So I got married, and I dyed my hair bright red, AND NOW I KNOW! I'm a rockabilly-hippie-geek who likes pop-punk music and homesteading! (and I hate my wedding, but that's a whole other post) But I wouldn't know that without the internet, because I have never met another rockabilly person in my whole life. But they're out there, on the internet, and if I meet one, we will totes have stuff in common. And it's nice to know that.

    • I was also a fire-twirling hippie in there somewhere, and my amazing, creative, geeky, very-slightly-metal husband probably had a lot to do with "normal" fitting less.

    • I think our "authentic selves" are always changing and evolving, and that changing and evolving is always happening in dialogue with the world around us. The internet allows for a rapid proliferation of worlds with which we can can have contact, but also allows us to find those few people that are much like us !

      • Same here. I think the internet allows us to explore more cultures and in turn find out people that are like us.

        I've always stood out in high school and college. I liked to drive fast cars and I loved drawing anthropomorphic characters. Kinda hard to find people like that in the South, when the norms for most girls are shopping, clubbing, etc. Nothing against normals (y'all are awesome too), just hard to fit in at times.

        So, I joined a Ford Mustang forum to try to meet other people interested in cars. Met a group of girls that were also interested in modding cars (still talk to them on a daily basis) and ended up meeting a guy that would later become my hubby. =)

        A few years ago, I was browsing through various identities/groups online and finally found a subculture that I fit in with. Ended up meeting two girls there, that are now my best and closest friends.

  12. I find this fascinating. I live in a small town that is full of art and coolness but it's also in the south and it's still a small town. The internet helps remind me that I'm not alone in the world and that I can live here and enjoy my mountains (I don't think I would be happy in a city) without having to change who I am. I'm blessed to have found the weird ones and count them as my friends but there still isn't a lot in the way of diversity around these parts and it helps to be able to reach out to online communities.

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