April 18, 2016

Air-B-N-Me: Self Representation in the Digital Age

Category: Digital Citizenship
Computer-generated image of two women dancing in ballroom dresses

Is your real life anything like your online version of it? How have open networks and social media shaped our perceptions of both ourselves and others? The politics of representation in the digital age continue to shed provocative light on the divide between what is real and what is represented.

In my current New Media Studies class, my students and I have found it useful to consider this question by investigating the idea of “filtering” — a concept that Jill Walker Rettberg writes about extensively in Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. Filters may refer to both the apps and digital tools that aid us in editing our images. But, this trope also refers to the cultural filters that have shaped our view onto the world. What aspects of reality do we filter out? What conventions do we take for granted without question? What ideologies have we been steeped in that shape our perception of reality? This term is indeed a useful metaphor when thinking about the stakes of self representation online. There are the filters we employ to exact forms of control over our self-representation, and there are the cultural filters that limit our own self understanding as we attempt to project a version of (our evolving) self. My students have spoken thoughtfully about distinctions we perceive in public versus private lives, of intimacy, of what “knowing someone” may or may not mean. In this day and age, we are leaving the digital breadcrumbs of our own personal narrative arc in each and every act of social writing. Can we exert an effective control over that story in the age of remix and refraction redux?  

As my students and I have pursued this collective reflection on the stakes of “shaping” a life online, we have simultaneously jumped into a networked narrative experiment that places these analytical queries at the center of an online improvisational game. “Air-B-N-Me” is a #netprov — an open online improv game — in which participants play in the fictional world of Life Swapping.  Players will post and comment on advertisements for moments in their lives when they typically “check out,” so that online viewers can “check in.” By using a mobile streaming service (Periscope), lifeswappers are able to tune in on someone else’s life for selected moments. Here is the invitation:  

“Welcome to Air-B-N-Me.” In this exchange economy, we share our cars, our homes, and all our stuff. What if we could share our lives? If you ache to be anywhere but here, welcome to Air-B-N-Me, a new experience in lifeswapping. When you feel like checking out of your own life, check into somebody else’s. Why not turn your downtime into a timeshare?

The Air-B-N-Me game is an artful #Netprov — a networked improvisation narrative. As scholar-artists Mark Marino and Rob Wittig have written, “netprov is a genre born of this media moment out of the classical Western tradition of improvisational theater and the tradition in digital culture of engaging in computer-mediated communication within theatrical and conversational metaphors.” According to Wittig, netprov is a digital art form “that creates written stories that are networked, collaborative and improvised in real time.” Consider these interesting points of reflection that serve as entry points for playing the Air-B-N-Me game:

  • What are moments in your life when you tend to tune out?
  • What are moments when you’d like to be anywhere but there? (Perhaps because the moment is too intense, too uncomfortable, too important.)
  • How might others experience these same moments?
  • Whose life would you like to swap into? Why?

Each Air-B-N-Me player writes a profile for a character who wants to rent moments of their life, ads for specific moments (a.k.a. “swappertunities”) that a character wants to rent, and imaginary reviews of visits to other characters’ lives.  

In the age of selfies and #hashtag identity, we must ask ourselves if the inability to understand beyond difference has increased in the internet age. What kinds of literacies are needed to push back on the “sound byte essentialisms” that proliferate with so many filtered versions of self.  Collaborative fiction in social media might prove to be the best place to crack open these paradoxes. We will collaborate, tell stories, and breathe life into our online persona. With Air-B-N-Me, we can also have a bit of performative fun while further pondering the difficult conundrum of mediated identity.

Banner image credit: Imelda Whitfield