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Archive for July, 2012

Asexuality Comes Out of the Closet.
And in the “great minds think alike” category, this news article appeared on the Rutgers University Media Relations site. One of the professors in Rutgers School of Social Work wrote an article discussing how many asexuals are comfortable with asexuality as a part of their identity. It is also interesting to note that like the LGTB community they have a flag whose stripes represent the different facets of asexuality.
From a Social Work standpoint, how people integrate asexuality into their identities (pathologized vs “normal”; curing the individual vs fighting for societal acceptance, etc) is an important part of working with the individual to help them integrate into society. Approaching it from a Communications point of view however, how does a community reframe societal discourse and shift itself from a pathology (something invalid and something that needs to “healed”) to a sexual orientation (something that is socially valid and meriting protection under civil rights laws)? How do they develop their unique language and symbols?  What are the network ties between prominent members of community and how have they developed over the history of the community?

 

Questions. I’ve got a million of them.

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A couple of weeks ago I published a blog post about an incident of identity deception that took place on Tumblr.  The false persona had self identified as being “pangender asexual demiplatonic….trans-racial (east asian) and otherkin (tabby cat)”.
I was pretty sure that anyone who read this would find at least one of those terms newand/or confusing so I set out to create a glossary explaining what these terms mean. So here I am 2 weeks, 3300 words, 5 entries and 31 references later knowing more about several social sub groups that I didn’t even know existed

Beyond that, I discovered  tiny subsectors of society that the Communications academy has only begun to learn more about.  Identity labels such as otherkin or asexual are good examples of  one of functions CMC has become dominant in: the construction of identity in individuals who are considered far outside the mainstream.

For example, while what could be described as proto-otherkin individuals began gathering as early as the 1970s, it was email groups and Usernet that formed a nucleus of what has become the Otherkin community today; computer mediated communication (CMC) tools were the tipping point that took this from a small local group to an international community . Today, one site,  Otherkin.net has almost 400 registered users and in addition, sites like Tumblr  have active otherkin communities.

These communication hubs provide a forum for community building. So you while you have  people constructing the group identity, the group identity enables a person to create a more concrete and specific individual identity for themselves. The group provides the validation, support and language constructs (bot created and appropriated jargon, “how to come out”scripts, explanations for people outside the community, etc) that constitute the boundaries of the community. When you have boundaries it becomes easier for a person to know if they are a community member, an outsider, or a visitor, for example and ethnographer or sympathetic family member (Fairhurst and Putnam, 2004).

These microcommunities have found rich soil in this generation of social networking sites (SNS)  and that sense of community is reinforced by the ties these like minded people create between each other. CMCs have made this possible on a scope that could never have been imagined 20 years ago. I believe these are fertile fields for scholars in the Social Sciences, especially Communications because it there isn’t much scholarship out there for many of these groups and studying these groups will help us learn more if and how of community, social networks, and social ties have been changed or enhanced by the continuing ubiquity of CMCs and SNS.

The first  people who grew up with personal email addresses as the norm are on the way to college and within about a decade the first people who have grown up steeped in the panopticon of FaceBook (and is successors) will follow them. By beginning to study these microcommunities now, we may be able to develop a better understanding the norms and anomalies of community formation development and dissolution among groups for whom the connection between time, place and communication is more tenuous than in previous generations.

I hope you will find the glossary helpful

References

Fairhurst, G. T., & Putnam, L. (2004). Organizations as discursive constructions. Communication Theory (10503293), 14(1), 5-26.

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(When I use the term trans*, I am specifically, not including transgender individuals under that label. I will be posting a page defining these concepts shortly)

Other hoaxes I’ve blogged about here came to light when the deception was dragged into the light, generally by someone who become suspicious of the deceptive narrative. In this case it seems the goal here was to only perpetrate this hoax long enough to rook enough people so the hoaxers could say, “Gotcha!” I find this hoax interesting because up to now, most of the incidents I’ve reviewed were either rooted in filling a psychological need and in the case of LonelyGirl15 was a marketing scheme. Depending on your POV, these hoaxers were calling attention to a perversion of the social justice movement by slacktivists or kids being mean and dismissive of groups that already feel marginalized.

Language is a social construct. We string together a group of sounds and point at an object called an automobile or a pair of glasses. Identity is also something of  a social construct. We identify with certain groups based upon thinks such our race or ethnic background, what we do for a living or what we do in our free time. Those labels we embrace became shorthand as societal (and often personal) stereotypes project meaning onto a person’s identity. Regardless of whether a part of our identity is innate or self selected, disabled versus jock, for example, elements of each of those labels we wear have a societally assigned meaning as well as a personal one.

For example, let’s say you injure yourself slipping on an icy sidewalk and a person runs up to you to offer assistance, if she says she is a doctor that will carry with it one meaning as opposed to if the person is wearing a Dunkin’ Donuts uniform. The doctor might be a dermatologist and the Dunkin’ Donuts employee a highly experienced volunteer EMT but their words and dress can affect the trust you have in them if they begin administering first aid to you.

The concept of Otherkin (and in fact the whole trans* movement) is possibly an example of the exponential effect CMCs have on the constitutive nature of language in the construction of identity. If someone posts to an Otherkin support site about coming to the realization that he or she is a cat in a human body, that statement will be supported and his or her identity as such will be reinforced.  If one is engaged in a role playing game or belongs to the furry subculture, it is understood that these are identities that serve as temporary wrappers for the person others know and interact with in the concrete world. Trans* people, though, are the mirror images of that social construct. The human being who passes through the concrete world is the wrapper and the trans* image (species, disability, race, etc.) is the true being, not a persona.

This raises some questions for me. Usually, both verbal and visual (clothing, the objects we carry with us, the vehicle we drive) cues construct our identity. In the context of Internet dating that identity is self created with text and photographs but if and when the people meet, that adds to the other person’s perception of an individual’s identity.

But, what does it mean if your self constructed identity is solely textual and at complete odds with all of the other visual and verbal cues and personal artifacts associated with a person. I might tell you I’m a wolf trapped in a human body but I am visibly human in appearance, action and public behavior. If the only place my true identity exists is within the bounded reality of the Internet and the only way I construct it is with words and occasional graphics that bear no resemblance to my concrete flesh, what does that say about the constitutive nature of language on identity, how broadly and deeply can the scope of this constituation go? If you are just one of a community of thousands who are all constructing or supporting the construction of identity in this manner what does this mean.

Is there a sociological or philosophical justification for trans* people for  appropriate the language of the Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements?

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It happened again.  A few people got to together and decided to play Loki on the Internet in the name of exposing a perversion of the social justice movement.

In  early June, a person going by the screen name of prince-koyang created a new account on the microblog site Tumblr and made this post (punctuation and spelling is taken verbatim from the post):

“hello there. i’m new to tumblr and just thought i’d introduce myself. my name is jun, or june, depending on how i’m feeling. i’m a 16 year old pangender asexual demiplatonic. i’m also trans-racial (east asian) and otherkin (tabby cat). i have high-functioning autism as well. i’m glad to finally have found a community where i’m accepted & where i can post about my issues

without being discriminated against.

: )

my pronouns are xie, xir, xis and xiself. please feel free to follow me — i’ll follow back!”

Of the comments to this intro, 20 were either “reblogs” where someone connected this post to their own blog, and “likes” which functions in the same manner as the Like button in FaceBook.  The remaining few comments were critical of the use of the term trans-racial and prince-koyang’sself-identifying as a feline Otherkin.  A few others warned xir (pronounced zir) to be cautious on Tumblr because there would be people who would be very vocal in their intolerance for xir differences.

On July 5, 2012 prince-koyang posted the following:

“This is starting to get kind of boring so I suppose it’s time to give it up. As some of our more astute readers have noticed, this is a troll blog — a collaborative trolling effort between three teenagers with too much time on their hands. None of us are autistic, pangender, asexual, demiromantic, transethnic, or a cat, although one of us is 16 and Canadian. It was fun while it lasted.

You have created a community in which someone can ….find it plausible that someone would believe they are a Korean cat with autism and appropriate social justice terminology to defend that belief. What does that say about the state of your community?….

But it’s completely stupid (tw: ableism) and it trivializes the struggles of people who actually suffer from oppression (people laughing at you on the internet is not oppression). It also enables unhealthy escapist attitudes and, in some cases, severe mental illness. One of our more fervent supporters is a diagnosed schizophrenic, who’s chalked up their schizophrenic delusions to their identity as a “multiple system”. Don’t tell them to get treatment, or you’re being oppressive! In short: the Tumblr SJ [social justice] community has turned into a giant joke. And what better way to lampoon it than with, well… a giant joke?”

This post generated over 2000 comments. Most of them supporting (sometimes grudgingly) the points made by the hoaxers. The chorus of voices who were supportive of Jun/June was smaller in terms of their speaking out on the blog but one of them did create a Tumble account called boycott-prince-koyangi which some attempted to use as a rallying site for those who were angered, hurt and/or offended by the blog hoax.

Unsurprisingly, the blog is now just showing a placeholder, the hoaxers job s done and the snake oil salesman has left town. More thoughts on this will follow shortly.  I will also post a page explaining the some of the concepts addressed in the Tumblr hoax such as otherkin, trans-x identities and such.

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In Part I of The Stranger Among Us, I described a pattern I’ve notices in incidents of online identity deception that included the cultivation of a shadow network of strong ties within the online community.

Julie Graham cultivated strong enough ties with select female members of her community they disclosed intimate details of problems they were having to her. When it came out that the persona of Julie was a lie, one of the often quoted community responses is succinct and potent, “I felt raped” (Stone, 1991, p. 3; see also McGeer, 2004). Kaycee Nicole Swenson formed a such a strong connection with one group member that he helped her set up a website for her poetry (http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819) and said that she was like a daughter to him. J.S. Dirr engaged in at least two cyber romances during that decade long hoax.

Seeking a deeper connection with select group member in and of itself is typical behavior. People will tend to gravitate towards others based on commonalities such as proximity, shared interests, etc. However, the act of cultivating these sub rosa relationships should create a high level of tension for the deceptive individual.

On one hand the goal of the deceptive individual is to prevent detection.  Academics writing about deception have noted that the language constructs used by the deceptive individual are designed to create distance between the false persona and the community. Ambiguous language is a tool of the trade when perpetrating an online deception (Newman, Pennebaker, Berry & Richards, 2003; Hancock, Curry, Goorha, & Woodworth ,2008 ).  This seems to be in direct conflict with the trading of increasingly intimate confidences that deepen a tie

Even though the disclosures are comprised of (at least partially) manufactured information, you’re still talking about an additional piece of deceptive narration that a person has to keep track of. They not only have to keep it straight with the individual they are bonding with but they also have to keep it consistent with the deceptive narrative they are creating within the group. If they are bonding the false person to multiple group members than means there are additional threads for each deepening tie.

This leaves me with a few questions. First, is this something anecdotal, maybe it’s just the case studies I’ve been drawn to read up on? If it’s not, my next question is why does this occur? Is the deceptive person seeding the community with “defenders” who they can depend on to confirm the veracity of the false persona? In cases where the impetus for the deception seems based in emotion, could this just be another way the deceptive individual is trying to get their needs met? (It is interesting to note that in the case of the LonleyGirl15 hoax on YouTube, the false persona initiated selected contact with media sources, but not individuals).

References

Hancock, J. T., Curry, L. E., Goorha, S., & Woodworth, M. (2008). On lying and being lied to: A linguistic analysis of deception in computer-mediated communication. Discourse Processes, 45(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/01638530701739181

http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819 (retreived June 30, 2012)

McGeer, V. (2004). Developing trust on the internet. Analyse & Kritik, 26(1), 91-107.

Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 665-675.

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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