By April Short
The good, the bad, and the World Wide Web
In the last decade, the cyber world has swept the human world and permanently changed the way people communicate. Social networking tools provide people with the ability to stay in constant contact, explore their own identities, and even adopt entirely new personalities.
Internet Interaction as an Art
In his classroom, Ian Pollock experiments with a cutting edge medium of art. Pollock, a visual designer, teacher at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto and UC Santa Cruz lecturer, developed a project in which social networking sites such as Facebook.com and Myspace.com become the palette for his students’ self-portraits.
“The project is a kind of social theatre and it’s a kind of performance art,” Pollock said. “It is designed to be an identity exploration exercise.”
The assignment, dubbed “Project Alter Ego,” requires students to create a character to embody his or her own alter ego. Then, students must create an e-mail address for the character, a personal web page identity using two or more social networking sites, and original images of domestic life and personal artwork that belong to the character.
The project required students to investigate the role of personal identity in modern life.
“The idea is that you turn 180 degrees from who you are, but you must continue being an artist,” Pollock said. “You create work that’s not the kind of work you would normally produce. For example, a video artist may create a profile where he is a painter, and has to paint.”
Pollock said he previously assigned the Alter Ego project when he worked overseas at the American University in Cairo, but assigned it to UC Santa Cruz students for the first time last fall.
The project was inspired in part by MIT professor Shery Turkle’s 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. In her book, Turkle studies the way people interact on multi-user domains, or “MUD’s,” such as role-playing games on the Internet. In these games, people take on the roles of fictional characters in text-based, fictitious worlds. The book examined how people interact with computers and the consequences inherent to such interactions.
The assignment is also historically inspired. “This type of art has a long-standing background in art history,” Pollock said.
He went on to describe Marcel Duchamp, a French artist whose work influenced Western art following the First World War. Duchamp used the illustrious female pseudonym “Rrose Sélavy” – a pun that echoes the French phrase “Eros, c’est la vie,” which translates in English to “Eros, such is life.”
In 1921, Duchamp famously dressed up as a woman and posed for a series of photographs as the famous camera of Man Ray flashed, preserving his female persona forever in photography.
Katie Barretta, a UCSC second-year student, is currently working on the assignment for Pollock’s class. Barretta’s character is male, goes by the name of “Skyler Revello” and listens to rap music and hip-hop. His art includes graffiti and drawings on his Vans shoes.
“At first I thought it was going to be a really interesting project, but I found it was annoying because I really don’t like the character I created,” Barretta said. “He is my alter ego and we are complete polar opposites.”
Despite distain for her alter ego, Barretta appreciates the project’s artistic value.
“I think it’s a good idea because it helps you explore who you are in a sense, because it lets you explore the opposite of yourself,” she said. “It also helps you get involved in things that you normally wouldn’t have done.”
The project allows students to stray away from what Pollack feels is the overbearing educational focus on math and literacy.
“Everything gets cut except English and math, and what happens is that visual literature and cultural literature take a back seat,” Pollock said. “This culture isn’t a literary society, it’s a visual society. People are not taught the skills necessary to properly use the Internet.”
Per Gjerde is a social psychology professor at UCSC. His essay, Social Network Research in the Era of Globalization: Moving Beyond the Local, written alongside colleague Kim Cardilla, examines social networking and globalization.
“[Project Alter Ego] is an interesting thing to do, and this is done in a kind of safe environment. The problem is more that if you do this too much, I don’t think it will destabilize your identity, but you may take on a new form of identity,” Gjerde said. “Then people react to that created identity, and somehow you will have to continue to play that identity until you decide to cut it off.”
Sean Young is a recent graduate of Stanford University with a PhD in psychology and Masters degree in Health Services Research. Young recently submitted a chapter in a book on the psychology of Facebook.com. The book, which comes out in late October, examines the way people make decisions based on the website. Young said that studies, which he sites in his chapter uses, have concluded that the pictures posted on social networking sites such as Facebook affect the way peers interact in daily life.
“In some schools there are pictures of people drinking and people making out with each other,” Young said, “and at other schools — I’ve found Stanford to be different — you see pictures of people hanging out with their families and friends, or studying.”
Young says studies have concluded that with the growing popularity of social networking sites there has been less outside social interaction. “I was really surprised, everyone spends so much time on their computer. Stanford students spend more time than they think.”
In a study, Young found that Stanford students reported spending an average of 20 minutes per day on sites like Facebook. According to Facebook applications developers’ data, this is not the case. Students generally spent over double the amount of time they reported spending on these sites each day.
Gjerde mentions in his article that because social networking on the Internet can be quite socially influential, it is important for Internet users to keep from investing too much trust in Internet personalities.
“You have to be a little bit careful because a person might not be exactly who you think that person is,” Gjerde said. “You should be cautious with putting pictures and so on onto websites, because once they are on the web, they will always be on the web.”
Over 30 million photos are uploaded onto Facebook.com daily. The Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded in 2007 that 55 percent of all online teenagers had a profile on a social networking site.
Gjerde’s essay also notes that the lack of parental control on the Internet gives children opportunities that have the potential to be harmful. The lack of supervision, Gjerde says, is not necessarily dangerous, but it could be bad.
“Some caution would be appropriate,” Gjerde said. “I remember when I grew up, we had one telephone, and there were no cell phones. When it rang and I would take it, my mother would always ask who was calling. There was parental control with telephones, in a sense.”
Pollock said he is amazed with some of the photographs and information even his own high school students post on the World Wide Web.
“The digression of youth does not exist anymore—it is all part of public domain now,” Pollock said. “High school goofiness that always used to be private is now posted online on sites such as Facebook. It is now a part of your permanent record.”
Increasingly, 13- 20 year olds use social networking sites such as Myspace.com and Facebook.com to create blogs and post photos, videos and music. Social life as we know it rapidly converges with cyberspace. According to Gjerde, “As long as we educate ourselves about [possible] problems with the web, it can be a wonderful thing.”