Videor Ergo Sum:

The Online Search for Disembodied Identity

"'Cogito ergo sum' is an insufficient measure of existence within Usenet. ... Without some sort of response beyond interior cogitation there is nothing to be perceived by other Usenet users." (MacKinnon 119)

1Much early research into computer-mediated communication (CMC) claimed that meaningful online interaction between individuals who didn't know each other 'in real life' was very unlikely, that online communities could never develop -- too restrictive seemed the medium, too lacking in extratextual cues to each participant's identity (like variations of the tone and style of one's language) to build relationships. Such views have been comprehensively refuted by now, of course: 'virtual community' has become one of the CMC researchers' favourite buzzwords, and it is widely accepted that the language of online interaction is rich with newly-invented cues that replace the body language and voice inflection changes that accompany oral communication -- smilies and acronyms are only the most immediately obvious of such tools.

2In any form of communication, we use these cues mainly to get our own identity across, and to uncover that of others -- beyond the actual content of the message, cues tell us how a speaker feels about what they're saying, whether they're sympathetic, angry, ironic, and more generally hint at a speaker's level of education, interest in the topic at hand, general state of mind, and much more. The different cue system of interaction on the Net may delay the communication of identity particularly for inexperienced users, but won't prevent it altogether -- the many closely-networked groups of participants on Usenet newsgroups are a strong testimony to that fact.

3The most celebrated benefit of online interaction is that we can now freely choose any identity we'd like to take on: leaving our 'meat', our bodily existence, behind as we 'jack in' to the network (to use William Gibson's terms), we can recreate ourselves in any shape or form we want. But to take on such identity is only half the story, and much like wearing extravagant clothes only in the privacy of one's own home -- on the Net, where merely physical existence is irrelevant, you have to show your identity to exist. Only if you participate will you truly be a part of the online community -- lurkers are nothing but insubstantial shadows of users whose potential for existence hasn't yet been realised. Like streams of subspace energy in Star Trek's transporter rooms, they haven't materialised yet, and only will with the creation of a newsgroup posting or Webpage, or any other form of communication.

4 Even that is not the full story, though: just as oral communication requires at least a speaker and a listener, the presentation of an identity online also needs an audience. Again, too, the nature of the medium means that the presence of an audience can only be confirmed if that audience shows its presence in some way. "Without a visible response, a written statement remains isolated and apparently unperceived -- a persona's existence is neither generated nor substantiated", as MacKinnon writes (119). Disembodied as participants in discussion groups are, for their online identities to exist they depend crucially on an engagement in sufficiently meaningful communication, therefore -- this inevitable need to communicate thus is what makes online communities so strong, in comparison with similar offline groups where group members may simply refuse to communicate and still use this as a strong statement as to their identity. Online, those who choose to stand on the sidelines and sneer, as it were, don't really exist at all.

5 This finding doesn't just apply to newsgroups and other discussion fora: Webpages similarly have little actual existence unless they are viewed -- much like Schrödinger's cat, they exist in a state of potentiality which can only be realised through access. Again, however, Web access doesn't usually leave any obvious traces -- the nature of the Internet as an electronic medium means that a site which has only been accessed once will look just the same as one that has had millions of hits. This is where the growing industry of Web counters and statistics servers comes in, services which offer anything from a mere count of accesses to a page to a detailed list of countries, domains, and referring pages the visitors came from. (And indeed, this very journal keeps track of its access statistics, too.)

6 Descartes's physical-world premise of 'cogito ergo sum' isn't directly applicable to the online world, then. Merely to be able to think does not prove that you exist as an Internet participant; neither, as we have seen, does being able to write, or publish Web pages. As MacKinnon writes, the new credo for the information age has now become "I am perceived, therefore I am" (119) - videor ergo sum. Only this makes real the disembodied self-chosen identity which computer-mediated communication affords us.