Regular readers will recall that I am a big fan of the work of Sherry Turkle (though, shamefully, I haven’t read, or even purchased, her latest book Alone Together yet; I might download a copy if someone gives me a Kindle for Christmas.) I’ve been particularly influenced by her 1997 paper Multiple subjectivity and virtual community at the end of the Freudian century, in which she advances the idea that online interaction allows one to dis-integrate the various strands of one’s personality, in a way that allows one to gain greater insight into one’s internal mental landscape, and, in theory at least, escape the restrictions of a unitary conception of the self.

This was in my mind the other day, when my Second Life Premium membership came up for renewal. I duly handed over the $80 or so, which is small beer in comparison with what I spend on other types of entertainment, but enough to set me thinking about how many different online identities I have, and how much they cost me each year.

The answers to those questions depend on what one considers as a separate identity; my virtual presence divides into four main groupings which have no overlap at all, but within these there are multiple blogs, web-pages, Twitter, Facebook and forum accounts, and, of course, virtual world avatars. Most of these are free, but I must pay out about $200 annually in hosting and subscription fees, not to mention all the valuable time I spend maintaining the whole show.

Is this worth it? Have I become more self-aware by disaggregating my personality traits? Do each of my four core online identities represent a pure strand of my self, uncontaminated by the other three, and better for it?

Not really. I certainly appreciate the freedom to express myself in certain contexts without having to worry too much about how people who know me through different channels would react, and this has sharpened my understanding of how I function internally, highlighting some strengths, but also a lot of flaws. In each guise I do, in some ways, feel more like my “real” self, but also that there are important parts of “me” missing.

The main thing I have learned, if that’s not too grand a phrase, is that I actually like my messy, complicated, contradictory, every-day, real-life self a lot better than any of my supposedly idealised avatars. Maybe it’s because I started off from a good place; if my self-esteem was lower I might be more inclined to identify with my virtual representations. Perhaps it’s harder to reinvent oneself online than it might appear, and I’m actually just reproducing myself over and over, and delusionally believing that each time I’m somehow different. Or it could be that I am at heart a conformist, and I’m subconsciously inhibiting myself from embracing the full liberating potential of virtual life.

Whatever. It seems unlikely that, at this point in my life, I’m going to be changing much, so I guess that you, my dear readers, the parallel audiences for my other projects, and those fortunate enough to know me in real life, will have to go on putting up with the same old nonsense.

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