Media, Technology, and Education

Identity Management

We joined millions of other Americans yesterday and went to see The Dark Knight. An interesting side note regarding my previous comments about immediacy–the movie opened Friday and the current Wikipedia web page on the movie today says: “Based on 195 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, The Dark Knight has an average overall approval rating of 94 percent, with a weighted average score of 8.5/10.” And: “The film also surpassed the $151.1 million opening weekend record of Spider-Man 3 with an opening of $155.34 million, including a record breaking IMAX opening of $6.2 million, surpassing the $4.7 million of Spider-Man 3.” The opening weekend isn’t over yet. That’s what I call immediate!

I loved this movie. It’s even better than Batman Begins. A big part of the plot of The Dark Knight has to do with the Joker trying to get Batman to turn himself in to the police so he can receive punishment for his vigilante actions. Doing so would require him to remove his mask, revealing his “true” identity. Bruce Wayne presents himself as a clueless playboy. But then he puts on Batman’s mask and becomes the courageous hero. Or perhaps he’s a cowardly vigilante who craves power and should be punished for taking the law into his own hands. An interesting question raised by the movie has to do with rules of conduct. if Batman breaks the few rules that he has laid out for himself for how he fights crime, will he still be a hero? If he doesn’t break those rules, can he be effective in his fight?

This theme of identity management, controlling how you present yourself to the world (and to yourself), comes up over and over in the movie. The Joker tells two stories about how he got the scars on his face, each story appropriate to the situation and the points he’s trying to make at that moment. We want to know how the Joker became the monster that he is but we are thwarted in our attempts to make sense of him because he won’t tell us the “truth” about how he got his scars. Identity management also comes up in the part of the plot dealing with Harvey Two-Face. Harvey starts out as an idealistic prosecutor, earnestly fighting corruption wherever he finds it. The Joker manufactures such horror in Harvey’s life, however, that he is pushed over the edge and becomes a killer. Batman and Commissioner Gordon are so worried about how Gotham will react to Harvey’s crimes that they cover them up, making sure that Gotham still sees Harvey as a hero. There’s a great scene near the end of the movie in which we’re looking at the destroyed half of Harvey’s face and when Batman and Gordon decide they will cover up his crimes, Batman turns Harvey’s head to hide the destroyed half. We now see only the pristine half, the face of the hero.

By coincidence, one of the movies we had at home from NetFlix was Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s classic from 1967. The movie apparently has several interpretations but I saw it as a movie about identity management. The movie starts with a long sequence of images (film in a projector, an erect penis, a nail being hammered into a hand, and so on) shown one after the other. As I watched this sequence, I thought of psychoanalysis and its emphasis on the unconscious. Then we see a young boy reading on a bed in a white room with what appears to be a movie of a woman’s face being displayed on the wall next to him. He slowly reaches up and tries to caress the woman’s face.

And then the main narrative of the film begins. Liv Ullman plays a famous actress who has some sort of a breakdown during a performance. She now refuses to speak to anyone. Bibi Andersson plays a nurse who is hired to take care of the actress as she recovers. On a doctor’s recommendation, the two women go to an isolated beach house together. The film then shows several evenings in which the nurse talks almost incessantly while the actress watches and listens, never speaking. The stories that the nurse tells become increasingly personal, until she reveals a story about a sexual encounter that she has never told anyone else before. As the film goes on, she tries to get the actress to speak. She says that she understands how the actress feels: that because one has to present a mask to the world, play a variety of roles every day, every utterance is a lie and it’s easier not to speak than to have to pretend all the time, especially with the horrors that are going on in the world today. These horrors are shown as the actress watches television one night and sees footage of a self-immolation. One day, as the nurse brings the mail to town, she reads a letter that the actress has written to the doctor. In this letter, the actress tells the doctor about the nurse’s sexual encounter and says that it’s been interesting to study the nurse, that she thinks the nurse has fallen in love with her. The nurse feels betrayed and eventually has a sort of breakdown herself, hitting the actress and making her nose bleed. Near the end of the movie, the actress’s husband shows up at the beach house and speaks to the nurse as though she’s his wife. The nurse protests at first but eventually responds to the husband as though she was the actress. Then we see the nurse and the husband lying in bed together with the actress watching. In the last scene of the main narrative of the movie, the nurse has a monologue about the actress pretending to be a happy mother but in fact really hating motherhood and even hating her child. We see the scene twice, once from the perspective of the nurse and once from the perspective of the actress. This ends with an image of the two women’s faces merged together into one. The final scene of the movie shows the actress on a movie set at the beach.

So my interpretation of the movie is that the actress and the nurse are the same person. The nurse is an actress in her own life. Bergman seems to be saying that our lives are one long performance (like a movie) in which we are constantly playing roles and observing ourselves playing those roles. In the face of the horrors of the world, it is impossible to act authentically to do anything about those horrors. This is why the actress refuses to speak. She refuses to participate in the performance. And yet, in the end, she gives in and resumes her role in the movie. What else could she do?

What do these movies have to do with technology and society? I’ve been thinking a lot about identity management since I joined FaceBook, about the identities that we present to the world in various contexts. I’ve written about this issue before based on a conversation with Ann. But it seems like it’s becoming a more pressing issue for me as I explore the use of Web 2.0.

I think there are (at least) two major issues involved in identity management online. The first has to do with the content of the identities that we present. We want to be able to present different aspects of ourselves to different audiences. The second issue involves the management of that content. That is, we want control over the identities that we present.

The content issue has gotten a lot of publicity. Some FaceBook users have not managed their content well. They post pictures and comments that reveal a side of themselves that might be unflattering. The most common issue seems to involve party activities. When employers or potential employers discover that content, negative job consequences have sometimes been a result. Another potential consequence of the content issue hasn’t received quite as much attention. At the Eastern Communication Association convention in May in Pittsburgh, one group presented a study they had done concerning what students think is appropriate for professors to reveal online. (The findings were that students tend to Internet stalk their professors but don’t necessarily want to know significant details about their lives–similar to my freak out in eighth grade on discovering that my softball coach did laundry at a laundromat.) Ann and I have talked about this a fair amount and I think the main point is that we need to be conscious of the choices that we’re making concerning content. Of course, we don’t have complete control over what’s out there since others can post content about us.

The second issue involves the management aspect of all this content. We want to be able to control who sees what. That is, we want to be able to create separate identities and present those to different audiences. FaceBook has some significant controls for identifying who we want to be able to see which content. The problem, however, is that FaceBook doesn’t allow us to assign different roles to the people with whom we’re in contact. Everyone is a “friend”. And so I cannot easily present one identity to my student “friends” and a different identity to my faculty “friends. The other problem I have with FaceBook is that you cannot see what you’re friends are going to see. I would like to be able to put in someone’s name and then view my page the way they view it. A second part of the management issue arises from the growth of the social networking aspect of the web. I now have a FaceBook page, a LinkedIn page, an (unused) MySpace page, a Flickr page, this blog, and my regular web page. And those are just the pages I can think of off the top of my head. If some aspect of my life changes, I probably want to update each of these pages. It would be nice to have one tool that would aggregate my online identity spaces to allow coordination of the profiles in those spaces. While we’re at it, I’d probably also like to have a tool that updates me whenever something happens in one of my identity spaces so that I don’t have to log into each one separately to check.

The technical view of identity management has been focused on distribution and management of credentials (such as a user name and password) for the purpose of authentication (that is, verifying that someone is who she says she is). In other words, the focus has been on the security of the content (and the systems on which the content resides), to be sure that it is changed only by someone who is allowed to change it. The challenge for the next generation of identity management tools will be to allow more fine-grained control of the presentation and viewing of online identities.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


  1. Sit10

    fascinating stuff. I want to talk about this for hours. I am interested in how you do want it both ways: control of your personae, but the convenience of having only one input device. And that is the trade off I think. To fence your personae, I think you have to keep up the effort, just as you do in the world. I think of Facebook as a dinner party where some of the doors in my house are closed. You might look into my medicine cabinet while you are alone in your bathroom, and it’s my responsibility to take out what I’d rather you didn’t know that about me. I gave too many people my blog address, and have only all/nothing control about who reads it. And I know that shapes what I talk about there. have I used up my character limit?

  2. cleblanc

    I completely agree that you have to keep up the effort to “fence your persona” online. I just wish it was easier to do that. And part of the problem with today’s environments is that it’s difficult to see what you’re presenting to people. In FaceBook, for example, I can’t look at my page as it will be viewed by my networks. I would like to be able to see that.

    I also think you could have control plus one input device if the input device allowed you to assign a variety of “roles” to your “friends”. You could then put items out there and only let people in a particular role see those items. So in a dinner party with your work friends, you might remove certain items from the medicine cabinet but if it’s a dinner party with your “real” friends (here’s the difficulty with everyone being a “friend”), you’ll probably make different choices. I think the blog is a little different because no one has to be logged into an “environment” (other than a web browser) in order to see it. It’s much more public than environments like FaceBook or Flickr. But I think even with a blog, you could have an option about what is public and what is visible to which type of reader.

    I think that as people use these social environments more, we are going to want to be able to control what’s presented in ways that more closely match the “real world”. I can envision a tool that has different channels–one for FaceBook, one for Flickr, one for Twitter, and so on–and that allows you to have a kind “meta-control” over how your persona is presented in these environments.

  3. Liz

    When I first signed up for Facebook, I was able to gloss over the “Friend” semantic hurdle because NO ONE I was “friending” was my “friend.” (Which do I love more, quotation marks, or parentheses?) Anyhow, this was back when you still needed an .edu email address to even get ON facebook, and all my so-called friends were my students. But the uniformity of their non-friendness (!!!!) somehow made it easier, right? Since the .edu requirement was dropped, and since other colleagues and ACTUAL FRIENDS of mine have joined up, there’s suddenly this semantic muddiness. Robin S. is my friend. My students are my students. I thought the “Circle of Friends” thing might be a way to draw some of these lines, but, um, I’m kind of starting to get annoyed with it. And of course, I will tend to reveal more, let the hair down more, etc., with real friends. But not on facebook. Because not all my Friends are friends. Huh.

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