Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Life on the Screen

Life has changed since Sherry Turkle published Life on the Screen:  modern American society has not only increased its awareness of avatars (helped perhaps by James Cameron) but is also seeing the emergence of adults who have interacted with avatars for most of their lives. This shift in technology has allowed for the experimentation in, and decentralization of, culture, identity, and the self by permitting the expression of multiple selves in digital environments.

Turkle depicts various stories of experimentation with gender identity throughout the chapter, focusing on the cognitive experience of users as they don various guises. Individuals imbue these digital representations with particular attributes and meanings, which in turn allows users to assert and practice acts of identity. The relative freedom of online environments permits users to work through various behavioral and emotional scripts while maintaining a sense of security—individuals instinctually that they can simply quit if things become uncomfortable.

In addition, the ability of users to develop multiple avatars presents some interesting opportunities as individuals can compartmentalize identity into discrete units (e.g., one avatar is aggressive, another excels at martial arts, and a third simply lurks). These expressions of identity may represent salient qualities of users but might equally result from aspirational thinking.

As Americans, we are still struggling to reconcile these manifestations of ourselves into a united whole; our Facebook presence clashes with our work lives and Twitter confounds the development of intimacy. Working with high school juniors and seniors, I see some of these identity crises as students transition to college, but I also recognize representations of our fight through popular culture. Shows like Battlestar Galactica[1] and True Blood[2] reflect the complicated and nuanced layers of identity that we negotiate on a daily basis.

[1] The show asks audiences to consider how humans have to forge a new identity for themselves in the aftermath of a terrorist attack (and attempted genocide), how particular characters have to renegotiate their positions in society due to changes in their surroundings, or how the Cylons see individuality emerge out of a collectivist society.

[2] Characters negotiate their ideas of who they are in light of stereotypes (i.e., “This is who you say I am”), religion (i.e., “This is not all that I am”), and stigma (i.e., “Are you now or have you ever been?”)


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