Cathblog - Being our real selves online

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Newspapers have said a lot about the 'real' Julia Gillard lately. The Chaser's current political series Yes We Canberra juxtaposed the old Julia with her newest incarnation for laughs; by all accounts, they look pretty similar.
 
However, this idea of a true or 'real' version of our self, uninhibited by the roles we play (or our campaign strategists) is not limited to Gillard or the political arena. "I wish they could see the real me" is something many of us have sighed at one time or another.
 
In fact, some of the greatest literature of the 20th Century explores the truthfulness of our identities. The Great Gatsby is one of the clearest and most eloquent examples of this, inviting readers to follow Gatsby's reinvention of himself as a way to explore the control we have over our own identity and what we get stuck with?
 
Meanwhile self help books do a roaring trade (at times realistically) challenging us to become better versions of who we are or (misleadingly) inviting us to be any-versions of who we are.
 
Our technology also has the potential to heighten concerns over identity. A few years ago having a website or blog was the domain of companies and writers. Now, in an era of ubiquitous Facebook and MySpace use, are individuals really managing their own 'brand' as well as staying connected?
 
Does Facebook show the 'real' me or market a superior version; one that never takes a bad photo (thank you un-tag), who balances friendships with hundreds (goodbye quiet Friday nights) and charts overseas trips like a National Geographic spread. And if so, what does this mean?
 
There are now workshops, resources, government programs, the works, about how to manage this technology. Countless morality tales exist about staff fired for inappropriate material posted on line or athletes shamed, almost as if their digital self was a louder, coarser relative; neither quite distant enough or fit for public.
 
Anand Giridharadas, the technology columnist for the New York Times recently explored these issues and so much more in a Sydney address entitled "This Digital Life".
 
He made the salient point that as technology fosters new ways of interacting, our default seems to be set on running with it, rather than first taking a step back and asking is this (a) how I want to relate and (b) will it help me become the person I want to be.  He posits questions rather than gives definitive answers, which is wise considering the complexity of the issues involved.
 
In a point I'm sure Christine Hogan would appreciate, he notes bemusedly how incivility has become almost a characteristic of online discussion boards. He calls for a study about why anonymity and downright rudeness are such easy bed follows.
 
It might seem obvious (because people can) but there are important anthropological/ethical questions at stake.
 
Namely, was the Greek philosopher Glaucon correct when he weaved his story about the ring of Gyges in Plato's The Republic? Gyges, a simple Lydian farmer, came across a magical ring which turned him invisible. Free from any punitive consequences he did what, according to Glaucon, anyone would do; namely bed the queen, kill the king and usurp the throne.
 
Is this what we get when people become invisible or anonymous? And if so, do we need to relearn that between Big Brother and total anonymity there is a middle way of accountability, which fosters community without losing diversity?
 
In the digital realm as outside of it, we must confront both these issues of identity and accountability.  We need more commentators like Giridharadas to stimulate debate about the relationship between technology and the people we are or are becoming. Really.

Evan Ellis is Social Justice Coordinator for the Diocese of Parramatta.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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