Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Thinking about Identities

Woman, daughter, wife, worker... the ways we negotiate the complex web of identities that comes from any participation in society and the structures of the family are a perennial favourite in feature columns for women's magazines and Saturday supplements, to which I'm not all that interested in adding. What has struck me recently however is how closely our more specific and self-defined identities are related to the contexts in which we developed that personality; played that role; assumed that identity.

To some friends, I am a linguist, an academic, a reader; and they expect me to understand the finer points of eighteenth-century narrative fiction, or the progression of theatrical representation during the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. To others, I am a crafter of some experience; and I'll weigh in quite happily to discussions of tension and cable charts, swatches and steeks; dress-making cheats, hand vs. machine quilting; good sources for paper-craft supplies; recipes for tray-bakes; measuring drop for curtains. In yet another circle I am the competent administrator; fond of an excel formula, useful fact checker and proof-reader for anything to do with my current area of expertise, and the person most likely to write an email that is a tad too long and complex for the readership.

These roles are masks we don, and in general terms, we swap between them quite easily - who isn't a slightly more confident person in their friendship group to the workplace, or more likely to swear with one group of friends than with another? Accents, registers, posture, all vary based on the context for that identity, and as human chameleons, we maintain them all. Of course, there's the occasional moment of doubt; when you see people out of context, or bring different friendship groups together, but as a rule, we wear our disguises lightly.

Lightly, that is, until a something happens to make you see the difference between who you may be in one place and at one time, and who you are now... For me, the first such experience for a long time came when I was looking after my parents' house when they were away. I was home alone, and had carefully ensured that there was enough sewing (the dog being rather to participatory when it comes to knitting) to keep me occupied. In the interests of keeping myself moving, however, I had also brought along my running gear, with the intention of heading out for a jog a couple of times over the long weekend. I had not counted on the sudden doubt, discomfort and extreme self-consiousness that struck me when I came to set out.

Let me say it again - I was alone. The dog had no strong opinion on my ability to jog around the block, and my sister (who had popped in briefly), had assured me that it was quite possible. It is a rural area, and the one set of neighbours who would recognise me would not think it remarkable. Yet I had that gut-renching sense of exposure that you get when you're about to step into a studio class for the first time; or present to a new group of people. I got over it, and it was fine, but it took me some time to work out where that feeling had come from. I was wearing the wrong mask. When I lived there, I was the bookish child; the one whose school shirt on her last day had SWOT written across the back as a badge of honour; the one whose only sporting prowess was the left-handers' knack for winning half-rounders by being difficult to bowl at; I walked, and I read as I walked, but I did not do exercise. Now, four years after starting an office job and deciding that some habits needed to change, I am, in my home life, a person who has a gym membership; I go to classes two or three (or four or five) times a week, depending on work and other commitments. But that person is not the person who goes back to look after that dog. There's a shift that happens (possibly on Preston station), that ensures that once I'm there, the mask I'm wearing is the most appropriate for the context. But sometimes contexts need to change, and when what was a good habit to get into has become a part of your identity, then I think it's time to incorporate that change into the identity you're wearing.

Tied into these clashes of context and role are the ways in which our social media presence, and the algorithms behind these outlets, reinforce the single identity on each platform. I use Instagram largely to capture my crafting progress, or the natural world around me and so Instagram shows me other people who share photos of yarn, of patchwork, of makers making and the creative process; of those reflecting the beauty of nature in their work and lives. It doesn't show me (at least at the moment), those who may disagree with me politically, or whose lives are full of animals, or football, or Big Brother. Twitter is a little broader - more likely to include commentary on the worlds of arts, culture, language study, politics, geekery, writing - but still it shows me the world according to my preferences: reflecting the things I post, the world I have said I am interested in, encouraging me, if I want to fit in with the world I have asked it to show me, to present myself in those ways.

How would it respond to a post out of character, off-message? Seamlessly, no doubt, but as I've noticed some around me starting additional profiles to allow them to post certain things to some followers, and keep other elements separate, it has made me wonder why it is that in encouraging us to connect, these technologies drive us towards a more two-dimensional and pigeon-holed existence. Certainly there have been those who have questioned openly how our interactions through such media have affected responses to political debate: in both the general election last year and the EU Referendum, the reinforcement circle of seeing only the viewpoints you will agree with presented to you seems to me to explain at least in part the shock and surprise of some at the outcome. Like privilege, which ensures that those who have are sheltered from the travails of those who have not, and have to consciously seek exposure to other ways of living and of thinking, social media places us in increasingly siloed environments, while at the same time giving us the illusion of connecting more widely.

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