Records of Identity

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In the age of digital media, identity assertions are no longer purely transient, exploratory exercises. For the most part, digital expressions of identity are here to stay, as at least somewhat permanent markers that remain visible for both creators, and others, to see. Even the deleted blog, or photo posted on the social network, may be saved in cache, or downloaded on some hard drive out there.

Beyond the lasting accessibility of identity experiments, the technology itself presents identity-related information in new ways. Music and film preferences have become common markers of identity (at least explicitly, perhaps this was always the case implicitly). No longer does one's music choice for the day remain only in the memory: the temporary "on-the-go" playlist you make on your iPod gets saved in iTunes. Similarly, with the ease and convenience of a Netflix account comes the particular recording, organization, and comparison to the group of one's cinematic preferences.

Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger (see "Useful Void: The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing (2007) argues that we have moved from a society whose default was "forgetting" to a society whose default, thanks to technological advances, is "remembering" forever; this shift, according to Mayer-Schoenberger, has impacted our ability to participate freely, for everything is recorded for posterity. He suggests a technical solution that would allow users to set expiration dates for their digital content, thus returning the control back to the hands of the original creator. He states, "What I am suggesting is a legislative mandate that technology conform to our real-world practices, rather than shape society in a completely novel way." (p. 23)

The Case of Netflix

Henry Jenkins writes about this in What's Coming Next? Self-Definition and Accomplishment through the Construction of the Netflix Queue. By searching through the Netflix database for movies, and then creating, and continuously updating a queue, "Netflix allows me to continuously create and recreate my identity through my movie choices," writes Jenkins. Interestingly, he has movies that have been on his queue for many months, and while he may never choose to let them find their place to the top of the queue (and to be watched), "the Netflix queue stands as an aspirational benchmark." Of perhaps, if not who he is, who he wants to be (at least as defined by movie choices).

Netflix offers personalized recommendations.
Beyond the self-defining queue, Netflix has a rating system of different movies to present individuals with recommendations, based on all user ratings. However, acknowledging that movie tastes differ widely, Netflix recommends movies not only according to the average rating, but also by giving users the "average rating by viewers like you" - thereby defining "you", and to some extent, segmenting "you". As Jenkins notes, "Based on what Netflix suggests for me, I can somehow gauge what the system (and maybe the general public at large) thinks about me and my movie choices."

Furthering this definition against the group is the "friends" function. Users can become "friends" on Netflix, thereby allowing others to see their entire movie rental history. This is a convenient way to learn about new movies from others' taste on may respect, but also, if one accepts the notion of film taste to be at least in part an indicator of idenity, to learn much about one's "friends". By sharing one's Netflix queue, movie choices may now be made with the consideration of what they "say about you".

Jenkin's post brings to light some interesting ideas about how this movie-rental technology expresses, and perhaps even affects, users' identities:

Data collection and computer algorithms takes translates taste in art & culture - a once vague, self-gauged notion ("I consider myself a Film Noir connoisseur") - into a strict and detailed description of what movies we like, and in mathematical comparison to others' preferences and views. The computer, unlike the mind, will not forget about Friday-night trash movie indulgences. And it reminds users of this every time it recommends something due to a high rating by "viewers like you."

Many digital technologies allow individuals to define their identities in relation to others, while on their own. Instead of identity assertion coming out of a negotiated interaction with another, the Internet (while allowing for plenty of interaction) also allows users to observe, spy, and measure themselves to others, while on their own, to an extent never before possible. In the past, identity negotiation (in relation to film preferences)may have come up in conversation with others, and as such be embedded with the analog dynamics such interactions hold. As technologies are used to define identity in contrast to others data, sans context, how does social identity creation change once these negotiated and reactionary aspects disappear?

With respect to Digital Natives, especially the teens who are still in the process of developing personal identities, two issues arise: First, as Natives grow up with this technology, unable to compare it to past, less documented and less public ways of video-renting, how does their lack of reflexivity about the issues raised here, the normalization of such processes as the Netflix queue, change the way they see and interpret such identity-formation exercises? Second, being teens who are developing identities and in hyper self-conscious phases of life, does one's shared Netflix queue, or Netflix's assertion of "viewers like you" take on added weight for Digital Natives?