The ‘personal home page’ is a new genre brought into existence by that branch of the Internet which is known as the World-Wide Web. Personal home pages are online multi-media texts which address the question, ‘Who Am I?’. Since the Web is, amongst other things, a global publishing system, such pages make public the personal. At the same time they can be seen as making personal the public, since home page authors engage in bricolage, adopting and adapting borrowed material from the public domain of the Web in the process of fashioning personal and public identities. In such sites, what are visibly ‘under construction’ are not only the pages but the authors themselves. This may have particular value for some marginalized groups.
It has been contended by media theorists such as Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) that the adoption of new media seems to involve a shifting or blurring of the boundaries of public and private. Without adopting the stance of hard technological determinism (Chandler 1995b; 1996), we may perceive such a shift in the new genre of the personal home page on the World-Wide Web. Whilst the fundamental technical difference between the medium of speech and that of writing is that writing is automatically recorded, web pages introduce another key feature: what is written on a web page (and stored on a web-server) is automatically published on a global scale. Web pages which are ‘personal’ are simultaneously public, and it is such ‘personal home pages’ which are the subject of this paper. Home pages are a medium in which conventional relationships between public and private are visibly in the process of transformation (Kelly 1995). The very name ‘home page’ is revealing in this context. John Seabrook comments that ‘a home in the real world is, among other things, a way of keeping the world out... An on-line home, on the other hand, is a little hole you drill in the wall of your real home to let the world in’ (Seabrook 1995; see also Seabrook 1997, 15).
The genre of the personal home page is almost as slippery to define as ‘the Internet’ or ‘computers’, and attempting definition invites reification almost as much. The home pages of academics, for instance, can be seen as part of a continuum ranging from institutional staff profiles which may or may not be written by their subjects, to home pages serving more personal (academic and non-academic) purposes for their authors - pages which may or may not be stored on university computer systems. For my current purposes personal home pages include the apparently self-generated pages of academics and students (even those on institutional systems) as well as those of private individuals, whether they focus on their professional interests, their personal interests or both. This inclusion of personal home pages which veer towards the ‘professional’ seems important since a ‘blending of the professional and the personal’ is a key feature of the Web (Erickson 1996).
The Web is often misleadingly defined in terms of being a global source of ‘information’; exploring the subject of personal home pages helps to undermine such characterizations. Thomas Erickson notes that ‘personal home pages and the World-Wide Web are not being used to "publish information"; they are being used to construct identity - useful information is just a side effect’. He adds that ‘the World-Wide Web is one of the first venues where individuals can construct portrayals of themselves using information rather than consumer goods as their palette’ (Erickson 1996). Websites are frequently labelled as ‘under construction’. However, the construction involved is more than the construction of the sites themselves: personal home pages can be seen as reflecting the construction of their makers’ identities. Creating such pages offers competent web authors an unrivalled opportunity for self-presentation in relation to any dimension of social and personal identity to which ones chooses to allude. Such a virtual environment offers a unique context in which one may experiment with shaping one’s own identity.
The Web is a medium which represents a radical departure from previous modes for the ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ (Goffman 1969). Whilst there are many ways in which people engage in impression management in everyday life, notably in the clothes they wear and the goods they possess, the most obvious comparison for for personal home pages with prior modes would seem to be the bedroom walls of young people in the West, with their diverse arrays of graphics and text in the form of posters, postcards, snapshots, sports insignia and so on (Brown et al. 1994; Salinger 1995; Seabrook 1997, 235-6). The potential of bedroom walls for wide self-advertisement is of course limited. Before the advent of Web in 1993, ‘one-to-many’ communication as a mode of self-presentation has been a tool of the privileged few. Web pages (if we can regard them as separable from facilities such as e-mail to which they are typically directly linked) offer the potential for mass communication in a medium which, despite far from universal access, 1 is incalculably more widely-accessible for self-presentation than conventional print publishing and the traditional mass media. As Martin Ryder notes, ‘the Web is a mass medium. But unlike other mass media such as television, radio, film, and print publishing, this medium appears to be open to mass producers as well as mass consumers’ (Ryder 1998).
Like mass media texts and printed books, web pages are a form of asynchronous communication, unlike synchronous modes of communication such as the telephone and face-to-face interaction, which involve ‘real-time’ interaction. And yet it is interesting that critics often compare web pages (unfavourably) to face-to-face (and typically one-to-one) interaction. Steven Rubio complains: ‘When you visit my home page, you don’t get to meet me, but only my presentation of myself’ (Rubio 1996). And Mike Sandbothe, a philosophical web page author, writes: ‘My Web page... mediatively interacts with other people in my absence... The particularity in the World Wide Web’s media structure lies not least in this new dimension... that of a so-to-speak "a-present" interactivity independent of my real presence... The images we have of ourselves and which other have of us gain a life of their own independent of our presence’ (Sandbothe 1996). Such references to the semi-autonomous nature of home pages often imply a comparison with face-to-face interaction: there is nothing new about this feeling of textual autonomy in print (Chandler 1995a). ‘Virtual selves’ have existed ever since people have been publishing their writing. Plato noted this feature of the technology of books in the Phaedrus and Seventh Letter: people can encounter your ideas in the form of your ‘textual self’ (your article or book) without meeting you (Hamilton 1971). What is new about such virtual selves is that they have never before been available to so many people. However ‘misinterpreted’ they may be, such virtual selves extend their author’s potential influence in both time (particularly with books) and space (particularly with the World-Wide Web).
Comparisons of home pages with face-to-face interaction are misleading. Other than in association with e-mail or on-line chat facilities, home pages obviously offer readers none of the fleeting and situated particularity of face-to-face interactions, such as facial expressions, vocal cues, body language - posture, gestures and non-verbal mannerisms in general - together with style of dress and hairstyle. The asynchronous nature of home page presentations of self makes them more comparable to textual forms (such as letters - and indeed more private forms such as diaries) than to speech interaction (such as face-to-face or telephone conversations). Also unlike interpersonal communication, the potential mass audience of home pages makes them distinctively different from traditional forms of self-presentation, making them more comparable to mass media (such as the published books, which for the purposes self-presentation are available only to a privileged few). The personal home page is a self-publishing medium in both senses of the term: being able to produce webpages is like owning your own printing press, and what some might call ‘self-advertisement’ seems to be a key function. Paul, a British home page author, commented to me: ‘As a form of self-advertisement they [personal home pages] have extraordinary bandwidth (compared to, for example, a style of dress)’ (e-mail message 9/11/96).
Personal home pages may be more like texts on paper than face-to-face interaction but a comparison with paper-bound forms can be carried too far. Firstly, unlike printed media, web pages are audio-visual media (although, at least at present, web pages tend to feature text more than conventional audio-visual media have done - much as any new medium seems initially to imitate earlier forms). More fundamentally, however, web pages are much more dynamic than print. An oft-mentioned feature of this is that they can be linked to each other in complex ways using hypertext, in contrast to what some have seen as the linear nature of print (Snyder 1996). But perhaps most dramatically personal home pages have none of the fixity of print (I came across one British home page entitled ‘He changes his webpages more often than his underpants’! 2). The Web is a medium ideal adapted to the dynamic purposes of identity maintenance. Home pages constitute a medium which can be continually revised, making such pages closer in this sense to the provisional, informal and personal status of notes and drafts rather than to the formal and public status of published text. Text which is constantly revised seems to some writers to be part of themselves whilst that which is printed feels ‘dead’ and detached from them (Chandler 1992, 67; 1994a, 193; 1995a, 55-9, 151-5, 175-8). Whilst this would be likely to apply only to certain writers, and relates to such factors as their purposes in writing and their favoured composing strategies (Chandler 1992; 1993a; 1994a; 1995a, 60-102, 229-236), this ontological feature may well be one reason for the importance to some of their personal home pages.
It should be noted that the ease with which electronic text may be changed also tends to obscure the evolution of the text: whereas paper records (where available) can be compared (albeit with difficulty), the rewriting of identities in home pages wipes out those formulations which preceded it. The only obvious exception is where the author adopts the diary form (though the possibility of retrospective revision remains). Occasionally home page authors adopt the style of program documentation, noting the dates at which key changes were made (but even these tend only to focus on the addition of new sections or the implementation of new ‘features’).
Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of the bricoleur who appropriates the materials which are ready-to-hand is now fairly well-known and has been adopted by cultural studies theorists such as Dick Hebdige to describe cultural practices in youth subcultures and by media theorists in relation to popular mass media texts (Lévi-Strauss 1974, 21; Hebdige 1979; Collins 1992, 337-8). The authorial practice of bricolage can be seen as operating through several key transformations which are just as visible in the authorship of webpages as in any other genre or medium. These may be framed as follows:
Constructing a personal home page involves bricolage. Graphics, sounds, text and the code used to generate a particular format are often copied from other people’s pages (sometimes with some editing). Indeed, the virtual and digital nature of the Web as a medium supports the re-use in bricolage of existing materials since the model may be abstracted limitlessly whilst remaining untouched in the site where the bricoleur found it. Highlighting this distinctive feature of the medium, the ease, speed and potential invisibility of such replication has given rise to a notable academic paranoia about student plagiarism.
Bricolage involves more than simply the appropriation of materials: it also involves the construction of the bricoleur’s identity (Lévi-Strauss ibid.; Jenkins 1992). The values of the bricoleur are reflected in the assumptions which underlie specific inclusions, allusions, omissions, adaptations and arrangements. The American educator I mentioned earlier noted that whilst his initial reaction to his students’ personal home pages was that they seemed to say very little, he came to realize that the use of ‘confusing layout and added multimedia’ was their way of differentiating themselves from others, ‘a way to make a personal statement’ (Martin, e-mail message 9/1/97).
This brief account may seem to suggest that bricolage is a rational, conscious and deliberate practice. But it is seldom like this. Indeed, bricolage lends itself to what may be experienced by the bricoleur as ‘discovery’ rather than planning – a distinction which I have discussed elsewhere in relation to the writing of printed texts and to which I will return shortly (Chandler 1995a). Especially in a virtual medium one may reselect and rearrange elements until a pattern emerges which seems to satisfy the contraints of the task and the current purposes of the user. Indeed, no version of the resulting text need be regarded as final – completion may be endlessly deferred in the medium in which everything is always ‘under construction’.
Bricolage is not merely a ‘reflection’ of the bricoleur, since long-term engagement in regularised practices may also contribute to shaping the user’s values. Bricolage may transform the bricoleur as well as the materials. Nor should bricolage be regarded as a practice of unconstrained individual creativity. The notion of the author’s re-use of existing materials should indeed go some way to undermine the associated Romantic notion of ‘originality’. The bricoleur’s strategies are constrained not only by pragmatic considerations such as suitability-to-purpose and readiness-to-hand but by the experience and competence of the individual in selecting and using ‘appropriate’ materials. Whilst the social shaping of such practices may not often be visible to the user, subcultures generate conventions about materials and uses which are deemed appropriate for their members. The habitual use of certain signifying practices is indeed a mark of membership of particular subcultural groups. When an academic friend showed me his web pages for the first time some years ago he drew my attention to the pinkish-purple background and asked me what significance I attached to this. I confessed that it signified nothing in particular to me, and he then announced (for the first time) that it signified his gay identity (to which the content of the pages did not allude at all).
The content of personal home pages can be recognized as drawing on a palette of conventional paradigmatic elements, most notably: personal statistics or biographical details; interests, likes and dislikes; ideas, values, beliefs and causes; and friends, acquaintances and personal ‘icons’ (see Appendix). Creating a personal home page can be seen as building a virtual identity insofar as it flags topics, stances and people regarded by the author as significant (as well as what may sometimes either be ‘notable by its absence’ or ‘go without saying’). Sherry Turkle notes that in a home page, ‘One’s identity emerges from whom one knows, one’s associations and connections’ (Turkle 1996a, 258). More boldly, another commentator declares: ‘Show me what your links are, and I’ll tell you what kind of person you are’ (Miller 1995). Where such links are to the pages of friends or to those who share one’s interests this can be seen as involving the construction of a kind of ‘virtual community’ by home page authors (Rheingold 1995).
It is not difficult to see that one unifying feature underlying the content of such pages is the unspoken question: ‘Who am I?’. This question no doubt seems important to home page authors in part because they are aware that using the medium involves publishing their pages for a much larger audience than their circle of immediate acquaintances (though I am struck by the way in which many young web page authors seem conscious only of an audience of their friends). Some critics of home pages are quick to dismiss the worth of such pages by responding, ‘Who cares?’; the genre has been unkindly described as ‘a fan club to oneself’ (DiGiovanna 1995). Playing on Sartre, one wit remarked: ‘Hell is... other people’s home pages’ (cited in Buten 1996). Another jibes that many pages are produced by ‘people who have nothing to say, but who succeed in doing so over a very extensive amount of disk space’ (Hurvitz 1996). However, it is easy for published writers to be so dismissive. As academics, slow as the process may sometimes be, we are used to being published and to our ideas being taken seriously (at least by a relatively select audience). Publishing one’s ideas has traditionally been reserved for the élite of which academics (but not their students) were a part. Whilst the World-Wide Web is hardly equally available for all, it does at least allow substantially larger numbers of people to publish their ideas. Reacting to his students’ first personal home pages, an American educator wrote to me: ‘They didn’t have a whole lot to say, they just wanted to be heard’ (Martin, e-mail message 9/1/97). An on-line commentator sadly noted that ‘most people don’t get the chance to write a book or be published anywhere. The Net gives everyone a chance to say something before they die’ (D. Jacobs, cited in Turkle 1995). It is true that many personal home pages are banal, badly executed or bizarre. Many reflect institutional rituals and are clearly generated to satisfy the objectives of employers or educators: such pages are unlikely to reflect the ways in which their authors might have chosen to present themselves. Even if some of these pages may well be practically worthless to anyone other than their authors, their value to their authors may nevertheless be considerable.
Whilst personal home pages are distinctive media forms in terms of content, as web pages they are also distinctive in form (see Appendix). Personal home pages include not only text, but also graphics (still and moving, including photographs, cartoons and artwork) and sound (voices, music and sound effects). Indeed, some personal home pages have less text than graphics. Individual ‘pages’ vary from short screenfuls to long scrolls, and one individual’s personal home pages may range from a single page to many interconnected pages. Whilst personal home pages are more comparable to printed pages than to face-to-face communication, as web pages they have several features which make them unlike pages printed on paper. Some home pages are divided into separate windows or ‘frames’. Some have an ‘access counter’ to log the number of ‘hits’; some have a ‘guestbook’ for people to leave comments about the page which others can review; some have ‘forms’ to fill in. Home pages include links to other pages (both those of the author and those of others), with or without comment, typically thematized, though often just ‘hotlists’ of ‘cool links’. Some links are accessed by pressing graphical ‘buttons’ carrying appropriate logos. Whilst on-line communication is not the concern of this paper it should be noted that an e-mail button enabling asynchronous textual communication is usually part of a home page, and a chat button enabling synchronous communication when the author happens to be on-line is also sometimes available. Admittedly, home pages are not entirely separate from such tools but such territory is already well-travelled by researchers (e.g. Jaffe et al. 1995 and references).
Although home pages authors choose what to reveal about themselves in the formal content of their pages, the form in which they do so may involve both intentional and unintentional disclosures (as well as sometimes leading to misinterpretation). In an on-line interview I conducted (19/9/96), Iain, a British home page author, wrote: ‘The way I code my page is very reflective of the way I work and live - sort of ordered and trying to keep structure to it. Some pages I have seen obviously reflect arty-type personalities. I look at mine and think yep, this says science-type person.’ On the most mundane level, a self-authored page may show that the author used a standard authoring package or wrote the code directly. Spelling, punctuation and grammatical idiosyncrasies tend to glare at the literate reader in beautifully-displayed and illuminated text on the screen. The way in which language is used is one of the most revealing features of a home page. Hugh Miller comments:
Few would dispute that, subject to individual strengths and limitations in experience, skill and resources, the style and structure of web pages may sometimes say as much about their authors as does the content. But such a mundane observation underplays a key function of authorship. Elsewhere I have discussed at length the importance for some people of the medium and process of writing not only in recording their ideas - and, for the lucky few, presenting these through formal publication - but in the very construction of their thoughts, feelings and identities (Chandler 1995a). At least as much as in writing on paper, constructing a personal home page can be seen as shaping not only the materials but also (in part through manipulating the various materials) one’s identity. In an on-line interview with me, Tristan, a British home page author, commented regarding his pages (which had grown into an on-line "’zine"): ‘It helps to define who I am. Before I start to look at/write about something then I’m often not sure what my feelings are, but after having done so, I can at least have more of an idea’. Another home page author called Kurt wrote candidly on his page that ‘this has/will be an outlet for me to... sort out my own feelings’. Strangely, regarding his own home page, Bryan, a British home page author, reported that ‘I hardly ever mention it to my friends - it's almost "my secret"’ (e-mail 8/8/98). David, another Briton, told me that ‘despite being a private person, I decided to publish what I wrote on my Home Page. I was the intended audience, as strange as it sounds. Somehow, publishing my feelings helped validate them for myself’ (e-mail 27/2/98). Whilst this may be a familiar function for writing with conventional media, the Web makes this process very public indeed. Where home pages perform such functions for their authors, the Web seems to be leading to what might formerly have been private writing (such as in a personal diary) being laid before the eyes of the world. Some home page authors are extraordinarily frank and revealing about themselves compared to what might ordinarily expect in face-to-face interaction with strangers, reflecting Foucault’s observation that ‘we’ve become a singularly confessing society’ (cited in Hoberman nd). David told me that it was perhaps because the medium is not directly ‘hard copy’ that ‘people such as myself are willing to divulge more information’ (e-mail 27/2/98).
The medium of web pages offers possibilities both for the ‘presentation’ and shaping of self which are shared neither by text on paper or face-to-face interaction. I have already alluded to the instant publication which the medium involves. But rather than the proverbial ‘15-minutes of fame’ which is the best chance of public recognition that most people may hope for in their lifetimes, a web page is potentially a conquest of space rather than time: subject to the appeal of its content its audience can be global. On the Web, the personal function of ‘discovering’ (or at least clarifying) one’s thoughts, feelings and identity is fused with the public function of publishing these to a larger audience than traditional media have ever offered. There is a notable precedent in this respect - the publication in 1580 by Michel de Montaigne of his Essays (Chandler 1993b).
Some critics have expressed an anxiety that Web pages may lead people to manipulate their public identities more than has been possible with traditional media. Howard Rheingold has argued that ‘the authenticity of relationships [and identities] is always in question in cyberspace, because of the masking and distancing of the medium, in a way that it is not in question in real life’ (Rheingold nd). Hugh Miller notes that in personal home pages ‘information about the self is explicitly stated and can be managed by the person making the communication’ (Miller 1995). This is, of course, not so easy in the direct face-to-face interaction. John Buten, with a certain degree of technological determinism, comments that ‘the Web might encourage conscious and deliberate social practices of self presentation’ (e-mail message, 9/11/96). Clearly, different media and modes of communication facilitate and inhibit different patterns of behaviour. We do not present ourselves in any kind of writing in the same way as we do in face-to-face interaction. Michael Jaffe et al. note that ‘a person "manages identity" by deliberately exhibiting and withholding pieces of social information, for the purpose of influencing the perceptions of others towards that person... This is an easier task when cues are limited to verbal text... than when they include graphics and vocal information, as in FTF [face-to-face] communication’ (Jaffe et al. 1995).
In synchronous textual communication environments within the Internet such as MUDs (Multi-User Domains - typically represented as interconnected ‘rooms’) and chat systems, adopted identities (including gender-switching) are well-known (Stone 1995, Turkle 1996a). Despite the deliberate manipulation of identity by some people in such synchronous communication systems and, to a much lesser extent, in e-mail (which is a potential rapid response system but not synchronous), the consensus amongst researchers in the field is that in the asynchronous presentational medium of personal home pages on the Web people generally seem to be comparatively honest about themselves (Kelly 1995; Buten, e-mail message 9/11/96) - though this is certainly not to say that home pages do not involve impression management. What makes such self-presentation less dramatic than in the other Internet environments referred to is probably that home pages embody many ties to what is sometimes, in this context, called RL (Real Life as opposed to VR, or Virtual Reality). Personal home pages often include such ties to RL as: photographs of the authors which are at least identifiable by those who know them in RL; e-mail addresses which often reveal institutional affiliations; links to other people who know the authors in RL; RL home and/or institutional addresses, and so on. The social ties typically embedded in personal home pages (without which they would hardly be recognizable as personal home pages) would tend to make assumed identities hard to sustain. Personal home pages are thus not the favoured medium of those who wish to adopt identities which would be completely unrecognizable to those who know them in RL. 3 However, some homepage authors do now use e-mail facilities which do not reveal RL names and locations and where they do not include photographs of themselves or postal addresses the potential is there for subterfuge.
We can be more in control of the image we present on a personal home page than in day-to-day life. But, like a printed book, a home page cannot adapt itself to changing audiences and contexts. Hugh Miller complains:
Such frustrations are probably inevitable in a new genre within a new medium. Richard, a British home page author wrote to me that deciding what to include is ‘a bit like deciding what clothes to wear; except that I have no idea who is looking at my page, so there is no obvious etiquette about external appearances’ (e-mail message, 27/9/96). A new genre poses new rhetorical problems for the author. Paul, another British home page author, asked: ‘What can I say about me that I would be equally happy to have read by all the categories of people I might want to relate to?’ (e-mail message 9/11/96). Rhetorical conventions for the genre from which we can learn will no doubt develop over time. But some of the writer’s frustrations with the form may be advantageous to the reader. Those who wish to find out more about someone now have the option to check to see if they have a webpage. Thomas Erickson notes that
Miller accepts that there may be some advantages in the ‘limitations’ of personal home pages, noting that ‘on the Web you can put yourself up for interaction without being aware of a rebuff, and others can try you out without risking being involved further than they would wish’ (Miller 1995). There can also be problems in interacting with people who have read one’s home pages and feel that they ‘know’ you (a problem familiar to published authors). David, a British home page author, observed that ‘it is little odd meeting or corresponding with people who have trawled through approximately fifty pages of dense text about me. Often they assume an intimacy with me – because they know so much about me – and forget they are total strangers to me. This imbalance of knowledge is problematic’ (e-mail 27/2/98).
David Hoberman comments that ‘the safety of being able to decide what exactly is to be revealed is attractive to many people’ (Hoberman nd). In his on-line interview with me Iain wrote: ‘You can get things right and project a different "you" to the world - sort of, "Hey, this is who I am!"... I think the important thing is you can only show the bits of you want and hide the bad bits you would get rid of if you could’ (19/9/96). Thomas, an American undergraduate, noted that ‘it’s... interesting to see what people choose to tell about themselves, especially people you know’ (cited in Burton 1995) - a thought that might give many of us cause to review our own home pages. However, a British home page author commented that such observations seemed to suggest that ‘people create unreal, or desired, identities on the Web’ whereas he insisted that ‘Mine is confessional. Try to show warts and all’ (David, e-mail 27/2/98). Similarly, another declared that ‘my web personality is very similar to my real personality’ (Rob, e-mail 4/6/97), and that his friends agreed that his webpages were ‘a very good and accurate reflection of me and my personality’ (e-mail 1/6/97). Once again, whatever critical objections one may have to the notion of a ‘real personality’, it may be accorded experiential reality for the author.
One home page author noted that the webpage was ‘one side of my identity that would not exist in any other medium’, adding: ‘Maybe I’ll make a separate web page for me and another to put on my resumé’ (Christa, e-mail 10/5/97). I have encountered a number of examples of the use of unconnected web pages (often on different websites) to present oneself in different ways, notably amongst home page authors who are gay but not ‘out’. Not having to reveal some facets of oneself has particular advantages for those from marginalized groups. James, a gay British Internet user, told me in an on-line interview that having a home page meant that he was out in cyberspace long before being out in daily life, and found it useful to say to people, ‘Oh, didn’t you know?’, feeling able to treat the issue as old news. Similarly, for Rob in London, his web page provided ‘a very easy way for me to come out. I could say, "check out my web site" and knew they’d come across the gay part. More importantly, they could find out in my own positive terms and think about it before reacting’ (e-mail 1/6/97). For David, another gay Briton, his ‘confessional pages’ helped in the dating game: they ‘reduced the chance of rejection as one would already have a strong feel for compatibility before meeting’ (David, e-mail 27/2/98).
Paul, another Briton, told me: ‘There is a special role the Internet has for marginalized groups, in that it facilitates association by quite specific personal characteristics (being gay, a second generation British Asian, a disabled woman, etc.) rather than geography or incidental interests (liking a certain kind of music for example)’ (e-mail, 9/11/96). However, he was not naive about the potential of the medium for all marginalized groups. He recognized that ‘the Internet is more likely to serve the needs of... out gay men than it is ethnic minorities or the homeless (the latter being considerably more disenfranchised socially and having little chance of getting Internet access)... The Internet... is itself a marginalizing force at the moment... I would argue that the Internet will always serve best a group of people with particular intellectual and financial standing’ (ibid.).
Adopting a notion from Sherry Turkle (1996a, 260; 1996c, 173), I would suggest that home pages are objects which enable their authors to think about their identity. They can be seen as one of Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’ which allow us to transform the very way we think of ourselves and to change ourselves to who we really want to be (Garner, nd). A philosopher writes: ‘My Web page is... in some cases even the creative invention of a new self, of a new identity, which I had previously hidden from myself and others’ (Sandbothe 1996). Some people feel ‘more themselves’ on the Internet than they do in RL. We may surely grant such a feeling the status of experiential truth however much postmodernist theory may lead us to question the unitary notion of the self to which this seems to allude. The feeling is analogous to the way in which some people feel better able to express their thoughts, feelings and personalities in writing than in face-to-face interaction (Chandler 1995a, 46). David, a gay Briton, told me that his home page ‘allows me to give a complete definition of how I see the gay scene and my place in it, as well as a lot of stuff about my life which people are not going to guess by just looking at me across a crowded room. I can articulate on paper, whilst in a bar I am often shy or nervous. Home Pages mean that people can find personal and intellectual connections, not just physical attraction’ (e-mail 27/2/98).
Paul Kelly (1995) suggests that some Internet users may come to experience the face-to-face world as constraining their identity after more liberating experiences of self-presentation on the Internet. In this context critics who suggest that someone’s on-line persona may not represent what the author is ‘really’ like could be seen as phonocentric, privileging, in the romantic tradition, spoken, face-to-face interaction as somehow more ‘real’. To make such an observation is not to suggest a lower priority for the social dimension but to widen our definition of what sociality involves, much as we do we when we regard even thinking as dialogical and writing as a social act. Many of the criticisms of presence on the Internet seem to me to have advanced little beyond Plato’s fears about the technology of writing.
For some commentators, one assumption is that the Internet reflects a trend towards less and less face-to-face interaction (e.g. Nelson-Kilger 1993). This seems to be part of a recurrent mythology which accompanies every new communication medium from writing onwards. Some fear that young people will use cyberspace as a retreat from the everyday world. Sherry Turkle argues that the experience may be more positive than this, suggesting ‘they may be working through important personal issues in the safety of life on the screen’ and ‘building realities less limited than their own’. Such behaviour may constitute ‘a form of resistance, a challenge to the stultifying experiences of everyday life’ (Turkle 1996b). However, whatever the usefulness of personal home pages for the development and maintenance of their makers’ identities, there are still material differences between text and world, and the social utility of this new textual genre remains crucially dependent on the extent to which it may empower its authors in lived experience. The construction of social identities cannot occur solely within textual genres in splendid isolation from less controllable social agents. Furthermore, web page identity practices may at their best demonstrate admirable technical skill, aesthetic style and ideological stances and perform useful functions for the white, middle-class young males who continue to form the largest percentage of webpage authors, 1 but as the label ‘home page’ itself ought to remind us, one supremely disadvantaged social group amongst those without home pages is that of the literally, physically homeless in the cold reality of everyday life, who could be forgiven for regarding this textual genre as an irrelevance. Virtual homes provide no shelter for anyone.
Key features of the genre of the personal home page are listed here for reference (see Chandler 1997b).
Many of the online documents listed above had disappeared by the time of writing (I have printouts made at the time of access). This paper was prepared for a conference of the Aberystwyth Post-International Group on the theme of Linking Theory and Practice: Issues in the Politics of Identity (9-11 September 1998 University of Wales, Aberystwyth). There is an earlier version of this paper under the title of ‘Writing Oneself in Cyberspace’. The author explicitly reserves the right to publish on-line versions of this paper.
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