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[Book Review]Identity and Digital Communication: Concepts, Theories, Practices

ARC Admin
2023-12-22 09:20 UTC+7 544
Rob Cover. Identity and Digital Communication: Concepts, Theories, Practices. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2023, pp. 190. ISBN: 978-1-032-28395-1 (Paper).

Rob Cover. Identity and Digital Communication: Concepts, Theories, Practices. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2023, pp. 190. ISBN: 978-1-032-28395-1 (Paper).

Religion and Social Communication 21, no. 1 (2023)

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  This book examines the construction/reconstruction of identities, social relationships, and communities in the online world. The author, a digital communication professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, explores the various aspects and understanding of identity construction related to issues in virtual communities and social media. The monograph is designed to serve as “an essential primer for scholars and students in media studies, psychology, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, computer science, as well as health practitioners, mental health advocates and community members” (back cover).

Numerous studies have explored different facets of our digital identities since the inception of the World Wide Web. In this book, the author brings the conversation up to date by examining recent technological advancements, including Tiktok and deepfake, as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With people staying at home and increasing their reliance on the internet for activities such as streaming entertainment, online shopping, and video conferencing with colleagues and loved ones, the author sheds light on the impact of these developments on online identity formation.  

The first chapter of the book delves into the historical development of identity theories and how they shape our understanding of identity formation in the digital age. Cover examines a range of perspectives, including Descartes’ philosophical concept of identity rooted in reason and rationality, the Marxist approach that views identity categories as sources of oppression, Freud’s fragmented view of identity into conscious and unconscious selves, and constructionist and postmodern approaches to identity and subjectivity. The author also explores post-structuralist theories by Foucault and Butler. However, the author cautions readers against adopting a singular theory to analyze the impact of digital communication on identity. Instead, the author suggests that it is more effective to draw from various approaches to create a comprehensive analytical framework to investigate the dynamic interplay between our identities and digital media.  

Cover explains that our understanding of the dichotomy between our offline and online identities emerged during the era of slower dial-up internet connections and bulky stationary computers. During that time, we viewed our online presence as a separate, ‘virtual’ identity from our ‘real-life’ identity when we were offline.  

However, with the advent of Web 2.0 and widespread broadband connectivity, we are now online 24/7, and social media has become a platform for showcasing our lived experiences. These technological advancements have allowed us to access a wide range of websites and online platforms where we can share content, express our opinions, and communicate and interact without the constraints of time and space.  

The second chapter of the book expands on this topic by drawing on Judith Butler’s theories of identity performativity. The author explores how social media enables us to express our identities through various media, such as text, images, and videos, as well as through our likes, shares, and links to other websites. These platforms provide us with opportunities to showcase various aspects and narratives of ourselves, allowing us to create and curate a virtual identity.  

Cover, in the succeeding chapters, raises interesting angles in viewing timely issues in making sense of our digital lives in identity terms. First, continuing the discussion of real/virtual and mind/body dichotomies, the author argues in Chapter 3 that “no digital communication is ever disembodied” (p. 75) and that our bodily practices today are in fact governed by our relationship with digital communication technologies.  

This is very much true in the case of “wearables” – electronic devices that we physically wear in order to track, analyze, and transmit our personal data on real-time basis. Recent advancements in the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) have led to the integration of wearable technology into a variety of settings, including health monitoring, entertainment and gaming, fashion and smart clothing, military applications, sports, and fitness.  

Second, in Chapter 4, the author aims to present deep fake technology in a different light. While acknowledging the concern and anxiety that it generates due to its role in spreading fake news, disinformation, misinformation, and misleading content, the author argues that deep fake’s “creative potential is powerful and most people are not motivated to use technology to produce false or deliberately misleading content,” (p. 79). Moreover, as a technology, it “fulfills a creative, cultural need” (p. 85).  

Indeed, AI-generated synthetic media, or deepfakes, has the potential to improve people’s lives and empower communities and institutions in various fields. For example, it can make accessibility tools smarter, deliver innovative and engaging lessons in education, help human rights activists and journalists in oppressive regimes anonymize individuals and protect their privacy, aid in crime forensics, and offer new opportunities in entertainment, film, and art.  

Third, in Chapter 7, Cover addresses the various concerns over social media algorithms, specifically as they were shown in the 2020 Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. He argues that “by positioning algorithms as technologically determining our everyday culture and lives, the Social Dilemma participates in what many technological-determinist perspectives have done about past communication technologies: created moral panic”(p. 141). Debunking six points raised by the documentary, the author explains that it “tries to show platforms as destroying aspects of the culture through which our identities are derived, suggesting that this occurs through a curtailment of our everyday agency to make informed decisions about our own lives” (p. 151).  

The author argues that what the documentary failed to consider is the value of user agency – our free will, our ability to be autonomous, and even disconnected from digital technology. We have the capacity to make independent and informed choices, and as pointed out earlier, can decide for ourselves how we represent ourselves, select relevant content, and articulate and curate our identities especially in our online communication.  

In Chapter 6, Cover tackles the issue of widespread hate speech, cancel culture, and other hostilities happening in the digital culture that destabilizes our sense of identity, mental health, and overall well-being. To address this, he emphasizes the importance of digital citizenship as a means to navigate digital environments safely and responsibly. Digital citizenship, in turn, fosters active and respectful engagement in online spaces while safeguarding our freedom, privacy, and security.  

The other chapters discuss the issues of globalization and re-nationalization of digital communication (Chapter 5), and the perception of authentic identities in light of the online platform TikTok (Chapter 8). The final chapter encapsulates the various issues raised by the author in the book, and attempts to predict future developments in digital communication and its implications in identity practices.  

Cover aptly closes the book by stating that one’s identity does not exist in a vacuum, as it is formed and constituted in relation to others. The book is an attempt to extrapolate the various intersections of our identities vis-à-vis digital communication and provide a scholarly and informed description of its different circumstances, which in turn will certainly enrich our further attempts to investigate and understand them.  

Roderick Evans Bartolome

Far Eastern University, Philippines