Friday, April 29, 2005

Online Identity: Spoiler Warning!! Illusion Shattering Content Within!

If you’ve been to the BrainFarm before now, you’ll have some idea of what goes on here. You may even have had an inkling that the BrainFarm is not a real place, and none of the BrainFarm’s events documented thus far have ever really occurred. Well, fifty bonus points to you, you were right.

This website is intended to be read as the homepage of an imaginary farm, where the fields are actually large bio-electric brains growing not crops but ideas. Instead of your usual herd of bovines, the BrainFarm has bred NetCows. They have highly evolved minds, and their central nervous systems can be wirelessly connected to the Internet for all sorts of purposes. We have all sorts going on here, insect invasions, mental breakdowns, scientific breakthroughs, but none of it is real. This rather elaborate scam is all the product of a media student just testing his idea’s potential.

I am only blowing my cover with this post for the purposes of addressing the concept of online identity, however, and as soon as I receive feedback from my tutor I will remove this post. This information being here undermines the BrainFarm’s identity, invented or not. I want to protect this fabrication because in many ways I am proud of what I have made.

So why did I choose to represent my ideas behind this mask? If I wanted to post thoughts and ideas anonymously, why not just invent a character? Why create an entire organisation complete with a marketing team and a laboratory team? I think it is because this way it is more fun for me to write, and more fun for BrainFarm visitors to read. What I have made here is known as a ficton: a fictional world which expands in size and believability as more and more information is added. Each chapter in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings adds to the concept of Middle Earth. Tolkien even created a language for added realism. I have created an identity for the BrainFarm by adding one or two new ideas with each post. The reader constructs the intended identity by themselves. This makes the BrainFarm’s identity cool, in the McLuhan sense. This ficton is by no means complete; I see a lot more scope here and will keep the BrainFarm running long after this module ends.

I have also represented myself on this module’s forum. Here on the forum I have just been myself, not representative of the BrainFarm, bar my username’s avatar (a drawing of a field of brains). Our true identities had to be kept under wraps for the purposes of online discussion. This is good because it gave a certain freedom of speech not always available in class. Also, some of the bigger egos were suddenly on equal footing with those who spoke less in class discussion. Anonymity is the ultimate leveler. Although remaining anonymous does provide me with a sense of power, I do like to know who I am talking to. Perhaps if I was using an unrelated forum I would feel more connected to the conversations, but I spent a lot of time trying to work out who people were so that I might integrate their thoughts with my previous ideas about them. Always the overanalyst.

Another chance to feel discarnate was the Active Worlds exercise. This gave me the chance to represent myself not just through my ideas towards issues within the media, but within a virtual world and inside a 3D avatar of my own design. I engaged with people from the US, Italy and Singapore. Thankfully, they all spoke English. I told everyone I met that I was conducting an experiment on how it feels to become discarnate as part of an assignment, and responses were enthusiastic. I dressed my character in clothing not unlike a lab coat, which I think helped people take my questions seriously (though I did have to pay for the privilege of my make-over). Interesting how the same rules apply when visual space goes virtual. There were two identifiable types of Active World user, as evidenced by answers to my question “Do you feel you can really be yourself here?” 40% said something along the lines of “I am here as an escape, to be someone else, I am here just for fun”, 60% said something like “It feels so natural to talk to people here, I spend lots of time here for that reason”. The latter group were all American, I might add, and all male.

I feel that to become discarnate, to extend oneself across whatever medium, is a freeing and often beneficial process. If you need room to expand your thoughts in a way that doesn’t harm anyone, you can go and find a friendly chat room. If you want to put your thoughts up on the Internet, start your own blog. If you want to role-play being a vampire or were-wolf, ‘discarnation’ lets you do that too. The Internet can offer us so much, and it is becoming a place to expand not only ones knowledge, but also ones thinking and social skills. I have learned so much from running my own website, and I love the thought that the BrainFarm is getting bigger just by me reflecting on it. The boundaries are infinite in a world of your own making.


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