Something that interests me. I’ve been used as a psychological study in a marketing consultation report. Or, actually, in 2004, someone took my Names article (Itself three years old at that point, and now seven) and used it as a basis for part of Three Dreams: New Qualitative Analysis in the Dreamworld.
With that in mind, let us turn to our final sample of data. It is drawn from the website of a British man who calls himself Aquarion. The site appears to have been up and running for some four years and in that time Aquarion has added a good deal of content, principally diary entries, links and opinion pieces. The part of the website that will interest us is a passage of text from a page entitled “Article – Names”. It reads as follows:
(Contents of Names article follows)
EM and DA will help us get to grips with this text. The EM emphasis on personal accountability helps us see that Aquarion is not simply expressing a preference for one or another form of address. More than that, he orientates to his preference as problematic and his account of himself is organised so as to anticipate and deal with those problems. For instance, in line 40, Aquarion signs off “Yours in total sincerity”, clearly an acknowledgement of the problem of deliberate insincerity – deception – as a feature of life online. In lines 9-14 Aquarion justifies himself with reference to some previous bad experience that was the result of his failure to adequately conceal his ‘real’ identity from troublemakers (notice the emphasis on “ever” in line 12, which stresses the severity of the problem he encountered without going into details). His allusion to this experience additionally serves the very useful purpose of rhetorically categorising Aquarion in a socially recognisable group of ‘innocent victims’ and distancing him from a contrasting group of internet wrong-doers. Moreover, in lines 23-24, Aquarion offers the conspicuously rational criterion of public recognisability as the reason for his preferred title (and notice how that distinguishes him from, and opposes him to, the sort of person who would go online for the express purpose of achieving invisibility and hiding from public view). In lines 5-8 and his postscript of lines 42-43 he presents himself as someone who follows “the rules” of service providers by exposing his “real name”, even when doing so is to his own disadvantage and even though the rules are conventionally not enforced. Finally, we should not overlook his ironic self-description of line 38: “Aquarion is a fairly mucked up person” – amongst other things, a display of self-knowledge and transparency that trades on the common-sense idea that someone genuinely “mucked up” would be unlikely to advertise the fact.
At the same time, interleaved with Aquarion’s various acknowledgements of the problem of deception are signs that he orientates to precisely the opposite issue: the idea that the internet offers as its unique and characteristic benefit the possibility of a new self. Insights from DA help us to see how this is achieved. For instance, he makes effective use of techniques of normalisation and nominalisation, both of which are thoroughly researched and discussed in the DA literature (e.g., see Potter, 1996). On line 1 he uses inverted commas and upper-case letters to offer the self-reflective question of “Who is Aquarion” as the sort of question that persons in cyberspace might routinely encounter. He repeats the technique on line 29. It is not just that he personally prefers not to feel confused about who he ‘really’ is but in fact (he suggests) “Who Do I Want To Be Today …?” is a common “problem” of a known “variety” that the reading audience could be expected to recognise. Moreover, notice the wording and structure of “Who Do I Want To Be Today…?”. Aquarion could have offered an alternative, something like “Who Am I?”, for example, but in fact he is hearably drawing on the culturally available resource that is the Microsoft strapline “Where do you want to go today?”. In so doing, he normalises “Who Do I Want To Be Today…?” as a problem of the technology and therefore not unique to the “mucked up” individual. Finally, we cannot conclude even a superficial analysis of Aquarion’s “article” without reference to the absolutely fascinating phenomenon that is “$REALME” (line 28). This ingenious linguistic construction could only happen in textual form (there is no oral equivalent) and indeed only makes sense in the context of the net. It consists of three elements, all working together. There is the use of exclusively upper-case letters, the welding-together of ‘real’ and ‘me’ to form a single word, and the preface of “$”. Away from cyberspace, “$” reliably means ‘dollars’ but in the context of the internet, signs such as ‘$’, ‘?’, ‘#’ and even ‘*’ take on a new and flexible range of functions that are unique to the digital environment and therefore function as metonyms for it. The combined use of these three elements serves to ironise Aquarion’s ‘real self’ and display it as no less constructed and contingent than the online version which is known as ‘Aquarion’. That is, had Aquarion simply inserted his ‘real’ name in place of “$REALME”, readers might have had difficulty accepting that the two identities are different but equal and more or less interchangeable. There would have been the risk that readers would feel that Aquarion’s ‘real’ name was in fact the original and authentic ‘self’ that he ought to use, while the name ‘Aquarion’ looked, in contrast, like more of a costume or a disguise. However, his ingenious and imaginative construction “$REALME” resembles an off-line ‘real’ name even less than “Aquarion” and so the reading audience is helped and encouraged to understand “Aquarion” as an adequately genuine and authentic ID.
What is the upshot for marketing? Clearly, the number and range of ways that it’s possible to exploit the dream of Transformation far exceeds traditional ideas of purchasing products so as to become a muscular hero or raving beauty, although those functions of the dream are still going strong. The lesson offered to us by Aquarion is that there are certain aspects of contemporary social life in which consumers themselves will put Transformation and Alter Identity on the agenda. The point, then, is to achieve some insight into why and how that happens, and to understand both the triggers and barriers so that we can offer products and services that help consumers do what they are attempting to do of their own accord. For example, the Aquarion text suggests that people are going to respond well to any product or service that helps them take advantage of the internet’s opportunities for self re-invention while simultaneously facilitating their display of themselves as one of the ‘good guys’. People are evidently looking for ways to mark themselves as honest and transparent, not despite but because they also want the facility to be anything but. Moreover, it may be that “Who Do I Want To Be Today?” articulates a consumer need that’s even more relevant and genuine than “Where do I want to go?” and this is certainly something that would merit some more research. Evidently, thinking of the internet as a ‘space’ around which consumers travel – ‘surfing’ to places of interest and eventually returning ‘home’ – is only one possible metaphor for what people are actually doing online. It might be even more relevant and useful to provide people with metaphors that facilitate identity play, freedom and work on the self as well as those that facilitate travel and exploration.
This amuses me. Partly because of the seemingly genuine attempt to work out how “online people” think, partly the outsiders viewpoint that puts a remarkable emphasis on my throw-away phrase that includes a pop-culture (or, at least, pop-geek-culture) reference.
But mostly that the article, which was part of a sequence of me slowly over-analysing myself and my identity until it (the identity) completely collapsed under the weight of my own theories, has itself been over-analysed, and was apparently presented at a conference!
I do hope someone took the presentation and dissected it into little pieces with logological scalpels, that would make my day.
Of course, I’m also interested in the very fact that Ms. Lowes took it upon herself not to contact me at all when she found this goldmine of pseudo-intellectual claptrap and used it to base her paper on. However, since I’ve just reprinted a large swathe of it, I should probably avoid throwing stones.
I only found it because I did a search for my old usenet sig, ‘Yours in Total Sincerity’.