If someone were to grant me a superpower ten years ago, given my thirst for travel, I would have asked for the superhuman ability to fly. Cut to 2016, being someone attempting to unravel online social interactions, it would most definitely be the ability to read minds, even if it would push me over the edge as a consequence of sifting through the non-stop clutter of people’s thoughts.
But why would I want to know what’s going on inside someone’s head? More importantly, how is that related to online social interactions? The answer lies in, or rather, these questions are rooted in identity and credibility. Before nosediving into exploring these loaded paradigms, I feel the need to hit the rewind button to briefly trace the origins and evolution of the Self and the Other—two constructs essential to the foundation, formation and understanding of identity itself.
When in the early 19th century, G.W. Friedrich Hegel wrote The Phenomenology of Mind, the dynamics of the Self and the Other was framed as a Master-Slave dialectic. Needless to say, the 1800s was a historic time for the anti-slavery movement when a number of countries abolished slave trade.
Both the past reality of slavery and prevailing milieu of freedom, founded on the rhetoric of master and slave, provided an important framework to the Self and the Other. Hegel explored the two distinct identities of the Self and the Other as manifested in the master and slave, and how their existence and importance was interdependent and that the Other is an integral part of the Self or self-consciousness.
Situating the Other in socio-psychological factors, Edmund Husserl expanded the scope and relevance of the Hegelian model in his Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (1931). By applying the concept of the Other as a foundation for inter-subjectivity, Husserl contributed to the evolution of the Other as not just existing outside but within the same space as the Self, lending each entity objectivity.
While Husserl concerned himself with converging the Self and the Other so there is consensus and understanding between the two through inter-subjectivity, Simone De Beauvoir, in The Second Sex (1949), went back to the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic and posited that through the systematic subjugation of women, the woman is the Other in Man-Woman relationship.
The disenfranchised Other appears in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) with clear distinctions between the Self and the Other analogous to the West and the East—where the colonizer is the Self and superior while the colonized is the Other and inferior.
It is through the various permutations and combinations of interactions between the Self and the Other, that an identity or identities is/are constructed and maintained or rejected and dismantled. Owing to the malleability of temporal and spatial attributes in online spaces, the process of identity formation and destruction is less cumbersome and damaging than in the real, physical world, where a lot more could be at stake.
In the online realm, the Self and the Other could either be mutually exclusive or fuse together to take on hybrid forms; the Other could be within oneself (inter-subjectivity) or outside (third-person effect); the Other could be minority while the Self mainstream; and finally, the Self is subjective while the Other is objective. So, what happens to identity in all these different scenarios of interactions between the Self and the Other? How do users select online identities? Do these identities reflect their authentic Self, or are they based on the attributes of the Other? If online identities are based on the Other, then is it credible? Are identities based on the Self always authentic and credible?
Perhaps one of the most challenging limitations of doing Internet research is establishing source credibility and identity. Aside from the sheer transparency that could come from the ability to read minds, are there ways to mitigate limitations related to identity, anonymity and source credibility afflicting the online space?