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Death of the Author and the web identity crisis

Zachary Colbert spins a story of power and deceit brought to you via your computer.

In Death of the Author (1977), the French philosopher Roland Barthes introduces the idea that for a piece of work to be fully appreciated it must be understood in itself, completely separate from when, where and especially by whom it was created . “Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” he says on p.143. The reader should not have any knowledge of the author’s identity, including their history, class, race, religion and political preferences, as these lead to preconceptions about the writing, and the reader may be encouraged to believe there is only one ‘correct’ translation of the text. To know the author is to know the source of the text and therefore expect a single definitive interpretation : “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (p.147). The Western mind-set requires clarification of one ultimate and ‘correct’ meaning, for the sake of believability. But without preconceptions on the writing’s birth, the audience is left to their own devices and imagination to create meaning entirely. For Barthes, the meaning of a work depends on how it is received rather than how it is intended. The view of a text’s unity “lies not in its origin but in its destination” (p.148). This would imply that the reader is in complete control.

This theory has taken on a new significance with contemporary internet developments, most specifically Web 2.0. User-created-content sites such as MySpace, YouTube and Wikipedia allow the consumer to simultaneously become the producer. This ‘Me Media’ provides the reader with the technical tools to create, edit and broadcast themself as any character they wish the world to judge them as. In this way the reader/user takes the position of the author, and the two roles become interchangeable. There is little real originality: the reader is simply remediating the substance and structure of previously existing media to craft a new piece of work. (As Barthes said prophetically, “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (p.146).) On the web, roles of author and reader, consumer and producer, are not fixed or permanent. User-created sites allow the entire online public (the readers) to access work while the producers (the authors) remain completely anonymous.

With the development and spread of digital media, work and leisure begin to overlap. The current accessibility and scale of IT allows any average person to be a graphic designer, music producer or film-maker. The reader, thanks to the advance of technology, can easily become the author. As Manovich says in The Myth of Interactivity (2001), p.119, “As we shift from an industrial society to an information society, from old media to new media, the overlap between producers and users becomes significantly larger.” Now, due to Web 2.0 phenomena such as MySpace, these roles have amalgamated.

It is the idea of removing authorship from yourself and from others which interests many people online – desiring experience from many different peoples’ perspectives, while also not wanting the community to know your true personality. But what implications are there when the online reader also becomes the online author?

Online We Trust?

A postmodern perversion of reality has culminated on the net, where anyone can generate a fictional persona in terms of race, sexuality, music taste, fashion and connections: a MySpace account is simply fabricated pages of images and words. As Sherry Turkle says in Identity Crisis (1996), p.258, “One’s identity emerges from whom one knows, one’s associations and connections. People link their home page to pages about such things as music, paintings, television, shows, cities, books, photographs, comics, and fashion models.” The user/reader believes an on-screen identity to be ‘true’ when it fulfils these conventions.

So the first issue is an issue of trust: users do not know what information to believe and what data to discard. For example, the user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia has been heavily criticized for its attitude favouring ‘consensus over credentials’. The encyclopedia’s articles can be edited by anyone with access to the internet, allowing highly-qualified professionals and bored teenagers alike to make alterations to the material. But this anti-elitist accessibility leaves the site open to information vandalism. When the accuracy of the data is scrutinized by experts, inaccuracies are frequently found. However it’s still one of the most popular user-content sites online, with many poor imitations following its formula.

Yet Wikipedia’s example does not have the broader and more serious implications of other web sites. The subject of truth surrounding identity on MySpace has caused governments to pass legislation in the interests of younger users. ‘The Deleting Online Predators Act’ of 2006 was a bill targeted at MySpace by the US Congress, to protect minors using social networking sites.

The website mouchette.org is a prime example of web artists toying with notions of identity. Appearing to be the homepage of an innocent thirteen-year-old Dutch girl, with some exploration it becomes evidently darker and sexually provocative – for example with an image of her tongue licking the screen.

This suggestive content did not go unnoticed. Proletarians and politicians alike demanded the ban of mouchette, and for the artists responsible to identify themselves. But without knowing the origin of the text, what can we trust in the hyper-real internet world? Everyone online is an author, and no one can agree on what to collectively believe. The autonomous self is all we can trust. Even with online watchdogs and web security, the casual surfer has no certainty as to where information and other content has originated. But, due to the hyper-paranoia of Western society, we need confirmation and legitimacy. Not just online, but in all artistic work, we search for the given ultimate reason and meaning, almost uncomfortable to create it ourselves. “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it,” Barthes says on p.143 of Death of the Author.

Global Identity Crash!

How did this situation of identity uncertainty come about?

With the deterioration of traditional family values and cultural heritage, there is a greater sense of selfishness and personal identity: the ego increasingly dominates the super-ego, resulting in a more dominating sense of ‘I’. “Blame globalization and its accompanying fear of insignificance,” Laura Pappano says in The Connection Gap (2001), p.133. In a world where countries are of less significance than companies, communication has been made so easy that there is much less need for physical interaction, and this decentralization has fragmented society. During the age of Modernism, in the earlier parts of the Twentieth Century, people were brought together by the utopian thought of developing their environment with the help of technology and science. But “it was easier decades ago to forge common ground with neighbours and community members, in part because so many people shared the same backgrounds, experiences, and values” (The Connection Gap, p.197). Now it instead seems that people’s knowledge and awareness of technology and science has improved so much that we are separated by our own bloated sense of self-importance, and have the overwhelming desire to be someone of significance. We need to be unique.

Consumer culture persuades us to purchase by promising uniqueness through mass-produced high street labels. “We are Goth music fans, food co-op members, Volvo owners, or the Macintosh faithful. Even haters like skinheads and white supremacists or those drawn to violence through gang membership yearn for a collective identity – though it may not be desirable.” (The Connection Gap, p.199). We have a desperate thirst to be original and different, while simultaneously and contradictorily wanting to feel like we belong. The internet helps to quench this thirst for significance. It gives us limitless alternative worlds in which to experiment with multiple online personalities: “Our emancipation has become a no-holds-barred quest for self-expression, self-definition and self-gratification.” (The Connection Gap, p.135). Many young female authors exhibit photographs of themselves in seductive poses to on MySpace.

The ideas of Death of the Author almost promote the web’s experimentation with identity, since “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space, where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body of writing.” (Death of the Author, p.142) And the present attitudes of consumer society on what constitute an identity make it easy for anyone with an online computer to blur the boundaries. In comparison to our past, when we were defined by our social class, our gender, age, ethnicity etc, the formulation of our identities is now more fluid and indefinite. Our identities are now dictated by our lifestyle and consumer choices. This is summed up by Barbara Kruger’s famous poster-style pastiche on consumerism which declares “I shop therefore I am.” We are judged predominantly on our appearance. Furthermore, in a recent interview an American teen said “if you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist” – implying, “I surf therefore I am.” Over the internet our ‘unique identifiers’ are easy to exhibit, through a myriad of audio and video clips.

The internet opens up worlds where the user can be a celebrated character, popular and well-known, in contrast to a real world that constantly reminds us that we are no one. To a limited extent it may be healthy to experiment with alternative personalities online, if they do not take precedence over real life: “It is potentially most liberating to become acquainted with our dark side” (Identity Crisis, p.259). An increasing amount of people are spending more and more time in MUDs (multiple user dimensions) such as Second Life. Members are able to earn real money in this virtual world. But in these online games, the authors/readers risk becoming far too integrated with the text, and thus losing their real selves altogether. They can become more comfortable being a fiction online than being a real person.

The immeasurable variety available on the internet opens up vast possibilities. However the linking together of websites, the intertextuality of online existence, also entails that online there is little genuine individual expression. One’s identity is constructed out of links to consumer choices shared by millions of other surfers, such as music, food and fashion. Then again, identity has always been a social construct, therefore true or absolute individualism has always been impossible.

Power To The People?

Online, ‘truth’, ‘identity’ and ‘power’ are all transient verbs, forever changing in their definition, rather than fixed nouns whose form and function are permanent, representing objects capable of possession.

The information superhighway involves power relations in a number of different ways. In our (post)modern society, as Michel Foucault has informed us, power comes through a system of knowledge – power determines truth, and determining truth equals power. Foucault even uses a net analogy to describe power as a system of relations spread throughout society. He says in Power/Knowledge that “power comes as a strategy.” Regarding power as a verb rather than a noun, something that is executed, may clarify how power comes through the ability to communicate information and define ‘truth’. In just this way, the internet uses the manipulation of signs to dictate truth and control the public’s knowledge. This mastery of signs employs the post-structuralist idea of producing meaning by organizing data into systems: “Power operates in that processing of information which results in something being labeled as a ‘fact’” says Foucault. This is where the power lies – in the procedure in which meaning is made. It happens constantly on the net.

The internet manipulates signs to define truth, and it has power through the ability to communicate immense amounts of information. As Saussure suggests, language is a code. Through video, animation, words and images, the web employs signs to communicate information and deliver meaning. Thus, through the various organized systems of codes which web-users employ, meaning is conveyed; but meaning depends on several factors. Two participants conversing over the internet have to do it in a language understood by both. The context in which the signs are used is also important. In an online chatroom, the abbreviation ‘LOL’ means ‘laughing out loud’: but there would be no sense in saying “L.O.L.” in the real world instead of actually laughing out loud. Also, non-verbal codes such as body language, eye movement, tone, pitch and voice intonation are missing on the net. Sarcasm, for example, is a notoriously tricky sentiment to indicate in instant messaging or email. But the internet also has audio and video messaging, via which this last, non-verbal, system of codes can be conveyed. However, it is not as simple as the idea that all meaning is created by the reader, since in our current surveillance society of pseudo-individualism and online schizophrenia, no-one trusts a stranger. Sources of information must be thought honest and reliable to be persuasive. And Web 2.0 is the quintessence of post-Structuralist ideology. We live with simulacra and simulation: reality has been replaced by imagery and symbols, signs, codes and metaphors have been substituted for direct meaning. It becomes hard to know what you can trust.

User-generated-content sites allow the public to edit the site’s content, and therefore the user becomes the producer, giving the reader an immediate sense of power. A person is also more likely to believe something they have created themselves and maintain control over. Thus the internet alludes to control: “The screen is alluring because it offers the illusion of power. You choose; you decide” (The Connection Gap, p.60). Once online, the user has a multitude of choices, which again provokes a sense of power and control. But by following hyperlinks, the reader is following someone else’s path. So the interactive nature of the internet is the very thing that limits our control and power over what we ‘choose’ to do online.

Websites convey to the user the sense of their having more power than is realistic, by blurring the distinction between reader and author. User-created-content sites especially put the consumer in the producer’s position: reader becomes author. In the current New Media age, the audience hypothetically holds all the power. The vast level of choice alludes to control. But this power is little more than an illusion.

Birth Of The Reader/Author

On the web, especially Web 2.0, author and reader become one and the same, yet can still operate separately. In conclusion, online, the author is not dead, the reader is not necessarily born, but rather both states are synonymous and temporary.

© Zachary Colbert 2008

Zachary Colbert is a student of Digital Media at Brighton University: zachary_colbert@hotmail.com or zacharycolbert.blogspot.com.

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