Collaborative selves

Posted: October 3, 2005 at 10:11 pm in conversation, people

A couple days ago, I was trying to explain to my friend Wilfred the ideas of Latour; in particular, the notion of an iterative reality constructed via consultation. As a scientist, he was somewhat distressed by this idea, given that he believes in a Platonic reality, where there is a “real” world that we are discovering through science. But then we wandered off into talking about how it applies to what we see of each other, because our “self” has no Platonic counterpart. There is no objective self that we can “discover”. The way I see myself is different than the way Wilfred sees me, and both are different than what some stranger on the street sees. Is there truly a “me” that stays constant through all of these interactions? I argue against the idea in this post.

But it gets even more interesting because my “self” that emerges in a social interaction is intricately bound up with what the other people involved bring to the interaction. I am a different person when I’m by myself, when I’m with different groups of friends, and when I’m with strangers. And that person evolves differently depending on those interactions. In some sense, my “self” is a collaborative process. Which really hurt my brain, so I decided to write a blog post on it.

Wilfred pointed out that the rise of celebrity, where people are famous for being famous (of which he pointed out Paris Hilton is the iconic example), provides another facet of this. Paris Hilton, the celebrity, is undoubtedly different than Paris Hilton, the person. Her celebrity persona has been constructed via an interaction between her, her agents, the media, and her audience. Wilfred also pointed out that this fracturing of identity was one of the bases for postmodernism and deconstructivism.

One of the other aspects that I find interesting about this idea of the collaborative self is that I think it relates to the idea of the conversational interface. We “reveal” (construct?) different aspects of ourselves depending on who’s asking (as a side note, I originally wrote reveal, and then realized that betrayed a Platonic belief that there was a “true” self that could be “revealed”, so I changed it to construct).

Jane Jacobs had an interesting take on this in her book The Death and Life of American Cities (which I still haven’t written up because I’m lame). She pointed out that one of the advantages of cities was that it allowed for a managed transition of identity between public and private, because there are multiple venues for interaction, from acknowledging a familiar stranger on the sidewalk or at the store, to grabbing a cup of coffee with an acquaintance, to saying hi in the lobby of a shared apartment building, to inviting people into your actual home. In smaller towns, without as many possibilities for public interaction, you have to graduate to the invitation into the home much more quickly, leading to a much more rapid breakdown of barriers. There are advantages to both methods; one could argue that small towns have the advantage of building up social capital in the Bowling Alone sense, whereas cities are more about the development of weak ties in the Granovetter sense.

As another side note, this is probably why the cities are where the disaffected congregate. As I wrote once, small towns are great for those that fit in; “However, such a community serves its misfits poorly. If somebody didn’t mesh with the community for whatever reason, they were doomed to a lifetime of ostracism”. There is no place to hide in a small town. So they leave for the city, where they can manage their identity, revealing only bits at a time, until they find a community within the city where they won’t be ostracized for being who they are (interestingly, I’ve fallen back into using “reveal” rather than “construct” for identity – some habits are hard to break).

Okay, this post has suffered a severe coherence breach (substitute a sci-fi-esque “containment breach” to make that phrase make more sense). I’ll have to worry at it a bit more and come back to it when I actually have a theme rather that just some random thoughts. Mostly I just wanted to title a post “Collaborative selves”, cuz it’s a cool phrase.

One Response to “Collaborative selves”

  1. Lilia Says:

    No, it’s not strictly linear, but I like this post. However, I am left wondering about the collaborative identities of these small town misfits….

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