Prosumption refers to the merging of production and consumption, where the consumer produces that which s/he consumes. The term was first introduced by Alvin Toffler in 1980 in reference the marketplace, and reinvigorated by Ritzer and Jurgenson when they applied it to Web 2.0. In a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist (edited by Ritzer, with an introduction by Jurgenson, and an article by fellow Cyborgologist PJ Rey)I argue for the extension of prosumption into the realm of identity.This was elaborated upon in a Cyborgology post by Nathan Jurgenson and myself.
Specifically, Nathan and I looked at the ways in which new identity categories are prosumed via digital technologies. Digital technologies enable geographically dispersed individuals to meet, interact, and collaboratively write new kinds of selves into being. We then wondered about the destructive effect of identity prosumption on the postmodern project of categorical queering, as well as the liberating result of providing categories into which previously marginalized individuals can fit, finding community and a legitimate label with which to define themselves. It is this last point–the liberating and constraining potential of digitally enabled identity prosumption–that I will further disentangle in this post.
Early researchers celebrated the liberating potential of the internet as a space in which actors could separate from their physical bodies, geographic locations, and personal histories to engage in identity play. This celebratory mood has been tempered in recent years, as we’ve come to understand that bodies and histories come with us into digitally mediated interactions. Moreover, with the increasing prevalence of nonomous online environments (like Facebook and Twitter) physical realities are increasingly enmeshed with digital interactions, making accurate self representation (rather than creative self exploration) the standard for online engagement. Moreover, to prosume a new identity, the social actor must contend with a social network that can negate newly acquired identity meanings in a very public way.
Still, the internet does offer opportunities for identity growth and change at the level of individual social actors, and cultural realities more largely. At the individual level, for example, Samuel Tettner blogs about his digitally enabled journey into vegetarianism. He essentially prosumes a vegetarian identity by interacting with a geographically separate vegetarian friend through e-mail, learning about food systems through various websites, and changing his physical food practices. At the cultural level, Transableists, asexuals, and bug chasers, through digital connection and collaborative public sharing, now have names, communities, language, and negotiable meanings with which to make sense of themselves, and these categories are made available in the identity marketplace.
In short, digitally enabled identity prosumption must overcome the challenge of lateral surveillance and pervasive documentation, but also provides a path to a more abundant identity menu at the individual level, and a template for categorical construction at the cultural level.
This picture, however, focuses only on the front end. It focuses on how identities are prosumed, and speculates about the outcome. Identity negotiation, however, is a continuous process. I therefore want to explore the back end of identity prosumption–what happens once an identity is prosumed? I argue that the same technologies which grant us access to an abundance of identity categories also trap us (though not inescapably) within the categories that we construct.
Increasing public documentation means that what may have been a phase, vaguely remembered and scarcely commemorated, becomes enshrined through status updates, check-ins, photographs, and the concomitant interactions by others with these documented aspects of the self. As epitomized by Facebook’s new Timeline feature, our digital reflections are historically layered. If the layers fail to congeal, the actor risks accusations of in authenticity–one of the greatest moral sins in contemporary society. At the individual level, the moral imperative for authenticity is therefore the mechanism of identity stasis.
At the cultural level, institutionalization is the mechanism of stasis. Communities that form around a marginalized commonality (e.g. the stated need for a physical impairment) come quickly to establish a name for this way of being (e.g. transabled). This name, once applied, spreads with members across the web, obtains a Wikipedia page, is picked up by journalists and researchers and published in magazines, newspapers, and journals. These labels and meanings can, in some cases, be turned into medical conditions, partially eternalized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Digital technologies therefore facilitate the acquisition of new identities both interpersonally and culturally. This is enabling. At the same time, once acquired, these identities lose much of their fluidity. They are documented, archived, spread, and tangibly incorporated, constraining the evolution of a self and of a culture.