Identity Construction

I finally got around to reading Jofish’s CHI paper on archives a couple days ago, and an observation that really struck me was that one of the goals of archiving is identity construction. In other words, they observed that some people collected books and papers not to read them or use them, but merely to have them as a statement of the kind of person they were.

I found this fascinating because I do it myself. Back in Oakland, I had two bookshelves in my living room, which held my “serious” books that I wanted to show off that I had read. The bookshelves in my room contained my scifi/fantasy collection, books that were part of my private identity, but not the identity that I wanted to project. When I was packing books to come to New York, most of my scifi went into storage. The serious non-fiction books came with me; not because I consult them all that often, but because they are part of my intellectual identity, and are books that I want others to think of when they think of me. Heck, this blog was started as a method by which I could share the interesting books I was reading with my friends.

I think this dichotomy between private and social identity is really interesting. It’s not enough to have an identity for oneself; one must also be seen to have it. This actually ties into my post about ultimate culture, in that one of the ways in which one adds a component to one’s social identity is by learning the “secret codes and call signs” that signify one as being an insider. I can call myself an ultimate frisbee player all I want, but the real test is that I can show up to a pickup game and be accepted as one of the tribe. There are all sorts of signals that different communities use to evaluate potential members; for instance, even if I thought of myself as a hipster, there’s no way anybody else would acknowledge me as such if they saw how I dress.

As an aside, one thing to notice about that last paragraph is that I automatically equated social identity with community membership. We define ourselves by our communities, which is why being ostracized or kicked out of a community is one of the worst punishments for people. It’s also one of the reasons why social rejection is so hard on us; we may see ourselves as being part of a certain community, but if we are then rejected by that community, that sets up a painful cognitive dissonance where our private and social identities are conflicting. Some people deal with it by rejecting the private identity (“Oh, I never wanted to be one of them anyway”). Others deal with it by creating an imitative social identity (the football wanna-be who buys the team jersey and wears it, or the police officer wanna-be who becomes a security guard). Either way, we are sufficiently social creatures that having private and social identities that do not align is not a sustainable situation.

Another interesting thing to me is how the entrance tests to some communities are so ill-defined yet still important. It makes it especially hard to reject somebody as an applicant to that community because there are no objective criteria, yet they just don’t quite fit. Back in my undergrad days, I had to deal with this explicitly during rush, when we would have to tell some freshmen that we would not be giving them a bid. And they’d ask “Why?” And there was nothing I could really say, except that we didn’t think they would be happy living with us. The same holds true with any sort of social clique. The one time in my life I got to be one of the “cool kids” was when I was at Signature, and the four of us in the “Corner of Negativity” were basically the epicenter of gossip for the company. And there were a few people who desperately wanted to be part of that group, and would hang around us and try to tell jokes or rip on management or whatever to prove their credentials. But they didn’t fit in, and it was painful watching them try.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity since moving to New York, thinking about who I am, and who I want to be, and where I want to go with my life. I’ve been finding it interesting to note that when asked what I do, I still reflexively answer “Oh, I’m just a programmer” or “I work at a software company”. I still haven’t quite incorporated this idea of becoming a manager into my social identity yet, and I’m not sure I will until I actually have management responsibilities at work. I’m still debating other aspects of my identity as well; do I want to be an aikido student, an ultimate player, a singer, a concert-goer, a party person?

The dichotomy between personal and social identity is a fruitful one for me. I think one of my issues is that I need to figure out a way to bring my private identity from this blog into coherence with my public identity. I like to think of myself as a generalist, as a person with wide-ranging interests and reading habits. But in public, I too often dismiss myself as “just another programmer”. I need to find a pithy description of the image I want to project, something like “intellectual” or “generalist” or “synthesist” (but probably not “Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius”). I think part of the reason I’ve thought about going back to grad school (first in social informatics, and now in management) is that the academic credentials would create public validation for the direction I am going with my private identity.

Identity construction. Interesting topic. I’d been sneaking in this direction with the retconning life post, but reading Jofish’s paper and seeing the phrase “identity construction” (which also showed up in an article on reputation co-authored by Shay David, one of Jofish’s cohort) really helped solidify some thoughts. Note also how I am re-interpreting that post in a new light to fit in with my current thought direction – yay retconning. I think there’s another post here about how we re-interpret events so as to align our private and public identities, but I’m going to stop for the day.