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On Identity: #scio13

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When I think about identity. I think about Batwoman. Superheroes always present a great opportunity to talk about identity, what it means, and the measure of who someone truly is, compared to who they appear to be. Batwoman is my favorite. Not BatMAN, and not Batgirl, either. BatWOMAN. In particular, the Batwoman re-design that began again in 2006.

This new Batwoman is not, and never will be, romantically involved with Batman. She is, if anything, kind of his protege, but most often, she is a force of her own. She is strong, she is incredibly smart, she’s got an awesome costume and amazing fighting skills. And she has a lot of things to hide.

She is Batwoman. Real identity: Kate Kane. Discharged from West Point under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She is a lesbian, she WAS an identical twin (or maybe…she still is). She is the daughter of a highly respected (and very rich) general. She is a master martial artist. Irresponsible party girl by day. Batwoman by night. (Really, you should all read Elegy. It’s fantastic).

Of course, we all know superheroes have things to hide. They wouldn’t wear masks or their underwear on the outside if they didn’t. And because of this, they make great examples of the challenges you face when people don’t know who you are. Should you automatically assume someone in a mask and cape who dropped on your roof is a good guy? How do you know who to trust? And then there’s the side you deal with when you’re not a caped crusader. Won’t your friends wonder where the heck you go all the time? Won’t they wonder when they constantly see you turn up with some odd bruises? What if the villains find out about your loved ones (a problem that Spiderman seems to suffer from constantly)? And if you do end up in an impossible situation…who will get you out?

Being a costumed vigilante can be a lonely business.

Batwoman faces constant problems because of her various identities. Villains often initially don’t take her seriously, I mean, she’s a woman. She’s not Batman. She can’t maintain a relationship, no matter how much she wants to, because everyone wonders why she never shows up. Her father is caught and used against her. And it is clear, throughout the book, no matter how much she wants to be close to her friends, her family, she pushes everyone away.

No matter how close you want to be to someone, you have to keep something back. They can’t know about your nightlife. And this keeps them at a distance. The peril for letting someone in is a very real one (and something every superhero faces, sometimes once an issue!). You have to keep a wall up.

That wall can be painful. It keeps people out. But it is protective, too. It keeps people away, and so it keeps them safe. And it keeps the superhero safe, too. Safe from having people she cares about used against her. But of course, they end up not knowing she cares about them at all.

While we are, none of us, superheroes (except possibly @seelix), we can face similar problems of identity on the internet. Keeping up a wall can keep people away. But it can also keep you safe. On the other side, telling all can lend a lot of power to your words. It makes people identify with you, it makes people feel like they know you. It lends veracity to your statements, and can reveal deep and powerful feelings. But it also makes you vulnerable. Your identity can bring on attacks, just for being who you are. But it can also bring respect, as people see your bonafides. In theory, if what you’re writing is good, that shouldn’t matter. But in the reality of the internet, it’s something to be kept in mind.

We all have different identities that we undertake on the internet, sometimes several at a time, in different places. And depending on the identity you are using, you can face different decisions, choices and challenges. What are the pros and cons of your various identities? What powers do your identities have? How can you use them for good?

Kate Clancy and I will be leading a session on Identity and the Internet at #scio13!! It will be in room 3 on Saturday, and will be live-streamed for all the watch parties! Do you have your #scio13ID? Use the hastag, come on out, and talk with us about your identities, and how you can make the best use of them.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. zfaulkes 8:40 am 01/28/2013

    As for being yourself online, I might quote Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider) to continue the comics theme:

    “You can’t live in fear.”

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  2. 2. Melissa Bates 8:48 am 01/28/2013

    Redheaded superheroes are the best!

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  3. 3. scicurious 9:05 am 01/28/2013

    Zen, I would say it’s a great thing not to live in fear, until the fear is real, involving real threats (say of losing your job, or simply for being a woman or a feminist or LGBTQ or atheist or anything else). There are also issues of power, what if someone in power over you does not like what you are doing? Those who live on the internet completely without fear are either very lucky in that they are threatened by no one, or so boring that they have nothing worth hiding. Revealing important things on the internet can make you very vulnerable, and while it’s an important thing to do, it’s not something that anyone should do lightly.

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  4. 4. BrainBites 10:38 pm 01/28/2013

    I think there are many ways to use identities online, allowing room for your authentic self to be expressed, while also allowing that you may want to reach multiple audiences. If all this freedom means anything it should include the freedom to experiment. We don’t have to be only Batman or Bruce Wayne – we can also be the Joker, or something else entirely.

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  5. 5. aclhlsg 3:22 am 01/29/2013

    “What are the pros and cons of your various identities? What powers do your identities have? How can you use them for good?”

    This is a question on self concept? Referencing Burn (1979) and Rosenberg (1979), one can have three types of selves: actual self, social self, ideal self. When I am online I project my social self, which makes me aware of my social etiquette. When alone or with people who knows me well, I project my actual self since there is nothing much to hide. And then there is an imagined persona or character that I think I should align myself to, that to me is my ideal self. It is not already very comfortable to do that; I am sure you know what I mean.

    Most people would agree that one would put one their social and idealised self in unfamilair environments because that is a universal social mannerism one must adorn. It is not that an average well-meaning person has any other choice? Perhaps in role-play one can demonstrate certain traits that is consistent with one’s actual self and will not be judged to be wayward.

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