In this chapter of Superconnected, things get personal. We look at how individuals create and express their individuality, their personalities, their selves. Topics include socialization — the “twin,” simultaneous processes of becoming a member of society and an individual — the performance of the self, growing up online and offline, and the extension of socialization and self-development throughout adulthood and even into older age.
Of particular concern to me has always been how people approach developing and expressing themselves in situations in which they are socially or personally marginalized or threatened. People are not equally empowered to express aspects of themselves online, however, without fear of harassment or danger. When a person or a group is marginalized or threatened in some way, identity and self development take on new dimensions. It is all too common to see discrimination occur on the basis of such social characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, age, physical and intellectual ability, and any of a number of other factors. This happens both online and offline, and can strongly impact an individual’s self-expression.
If the internet offers “a unique opportunity for self-expression,” as psychologist John Bargh and his coauthors claim, “then we would expect a person to use it first and foremost to express those aspects of self that he or she has the strongest need to express” (2002:34). An individual may form social connections online on the basis of characteristics that are not in the societal mainstream. People with non-dominant backgrounds and lifestyles can discover unique avenues and spaces for self-expression and connection online that help them deal with offline challenges. They may find friends and communities that give them a feeling of safety or even use the technology to share information they might otherwise be reticent to share.
At the same time, we must keep in mind that low-income and non-dominant individuals, particularly youth, are at increased risk for harm and harassment in public and private spaces, online and off. They are frequently surveilled by adults, peers, and institutions. They seek spaces that afford freedom of expression, interest-based communities, and privacy. When online, they may actively resist the ways mobile and social media are intended to be used and configured and may create their own norms and carve out spaces in which they can feel comfortable; spaces that can be considered their own. Of course, spatially separated members of dangerous or destructive groups can also use digital technology to find one another, gather digitally and physically, and cause harm; certainly we see this with ISIS and other terrorist groups.
But those who have been targeted or harmed due to socially marginalized aspects of their identities can also use the same digital technologies to find one another, rally, and support one another. In the process, their group identities can be bolstered and their individual identities strengthened and extended into new directions. For those who have experienced such struggles, this can be so supportive as to be life-saving. When sociologist Douglas Schrock and his fellow researchers studied an online support group for transgendered and cross-dressing individuals, they found friendship, joy, and elation. Members had discovered a place where they could connect with one another, feel comfortable and safe, and share their stories with one another. Doing so “was very cleansing,” one participant said. “I was amazed, it was like I broke through a shell… It’s almost like I had come home” (2004:66).
For people who are part of marginalized groups, prejudice and discrimination are an ongoing concern. Diminished societal power offline translates to life online. But in the possibility to reach one another and create communities that may become safe spaces, opportunities to forge solidarity can be found and created. In some cases, barriers to interaction can be lifted, self-expression can be enhanced, and collective organization to improve status and circumstances can be enabled.