In the project Dynamic Identity (age group 11-18) modules were prepared in which identities were presented as a set of roles we play. The modules were inspired by sociologist Erving Goffman (The presentation of Self in everyday life, 1959; Frame analysis, 1974). Highlighted in the modules were first of all, the difference between information given – information we consciously share about ourselves – and information given off – information about ourselves that we unwillingly share or that others share on us and secondly, the idea that our performances differ from situation to situation (we play different roles) and involve different audiences per role. Mixing audiences is seen as a bad idea in this theory because this undermines the credibility of one’s performance. An example given in the modules is of a girl, having a cool reputation at her school, who is visited at school by her mother. The mother brings with her the girl’s favourite teddy bear. For the girl this act by her mother means embarrassment: the audience of one role (school peer) is confronted with evidence of another role (sweet daughter).
In the first class room where the modules were presented students laughed with understanding about the example of the girl. When asked what would happen if one of their mothers would bring a favourite, cute toy of them to school, many shouted that that would be a disaster, horror, something terrible. But, when hearing about the theory behind the example, many were loudly voicing their disagreement. They argued that they were not playing roles; they were always the same person. Then the whole group of participants was asked one-by-one whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that different situations required different roles. Not one student agreed. At the end of the multi-session workshop, in the final questionnaire, students were asked to self-report on how much they had learned during the workshop about identity-related aspects. In the questionnaire the theory of identity as consisting of roles received the lowest score by students, either because they had not learned too much or because they did not agree.
The first presentation of the theory took place in the Netherlands. Then three more classes in the Netherlands followed, with the same result. The Dynamic Identity project partners then brainstormed about this outcome and decide to change the phrasing. No longer would playing roles be presented as equalling identities but rather as a theory on self-presentation. The underlying idea was that students might already have assumptions on identities that collided with the presented theory while they might not have assumptions on self-presentation or at least not to the extent that these collided with the theory.
The differently phrased modules were then presented in Greece and Poland and then once more in the Netherlands – but with the same result as during the first pilots. Many participants loudly voiced their disagreement. When asked one-by-one whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that different situations required different roles, not one student agreed. And in the questionnaires the theory about roles, this time presented as a theory of self-presentation, again received the lowest rating.
When students in the Netherlands, Poland and Greece were confronted with the fact that they probably behaved in one way in the class room and in another way at home, individual students explained that they only censured themselves at school because they did not want to risk punishment. So, as a result, they would refrain from saying certain things or doing certain things, but they would not say one thing at school and something else when they were with friends, nor would they do different things at school and with friends. When asked one-by-one, all students in all three countries agreed.
For many Dutch students this was also the reason why they did not react to teachers who would ask them in a friendly way to change their behaviour during normal class sessions but mainly reacted to threats of punishments. This specific subject was not touched upon during the Greek and Polish pilots.
According to Dutch research (Mediawijzer, 2015) children try to be honest online. When asked whether they would show a product on their vlog, even when it’s crappy in their eyes, 39% says yes and 28% says no. But the majority of those saying yes would give their honest opinion. The majority of those saying no would not show it because it is a crappy product.
What was observed by instructors, though, is that youngsters do say different things in different situations. If a teacher employs traditional transmission didactics then students are “playing a game of guess what’s in the teacher’s head” in the words of Dylan Wiliam (Embedded formative assessment, 2011). Students in that situation try hard to say what they think the teacher wants to hear, as was observed during the CDEI pilots – see outcome 5. But when students engage in a type of interactive didactics they open up more often and seem less afraid to say things that are not what the teacher expects to hear.
Typically at the start of any pilot session students would repeat to the project instructors what they thought that the instructors wanted to hear, for instance: “I never accept people whom I do not know in real life as online friends” or “I talk with my parents about my online experiences” or “I spend quality time with my parents” or “we have a very good quality program at our school for online safety”. But, in the right setting, many students would open up within fifteen minutes and tell the instructors whom they had never met before that they did communicate online with people they never met in real life, that they were hacking sites or were using anonymizers online and that they were experimenting sexually online – see outcome 5. This all to the amazement or embarrassment of the teachers (and sometimes parents) present.
When confronted with this change in behaviour and the difference between what they stated initially and after a while many students denied that they said anything different. Rather they explained that in situations in which they do not feel trust they do not say anything. This led the instructors to understand that not saying anything may equal saying that what is expected.
This might be an explanation for why many youngsters claim they do not play a role. When conforming to what is being expected equals not saying anything then roles are on the same level as external, non-relevant behaviour.
The denial by youngsters that they play roles at first sight seems to affirm the general human need for consistency of one’s behaviour and identity that was discussed in outcome 2. This would then put the apparent lack of consistency in the observed identity narratives and their sensitivity to the context and audience to which they are put into words (see outcome 2) in a difficult perspective. But, a coincidental measurement in a questionnaire sheds a different light on the outcome.
In a questionnaire following the viewing of the two recordings of the participants’ answers to the question: Who are you until now in the Dynamic Identity project (see outcome 2) three questions were asked:
- Which of the two videos do you consider the better one? Please explain why.
- What new things did you learn about yourself when watching the two videos?
- What did you do differently in the second video when compared to the first?
All students (age group 11-18) provided detailed answers to questions 1 and 3. While answering question 1 some stated that they liked their first video better because they were more spontaneous and more themselves. Others stated that they liked the second video better because now they knew the question and could prepare for an answer so that in the second video they expressed themselves more confidently and more clear.
These answers made it sound as if the participants had a feeling of who they were but had never put this in words. For some the forced setting produced better results putting in words who they are while for other the controlled setting produced better results. This could be the reason for outcome 2: while individuals do not have a predefined identity narrative ready in their heads, they do seem to have a feeling, a hunch, an intuition of whom they are and seem to use this as a measurement frame to measure against their own attempts to put their identities in words.
Answers to question 3 were very detailed too. Participants would describe in great length what they did differently in the second video and why they did this differently. But, to question 2 all participants answered: “nothing”. Even when asked to stand-up one-by-one and repeat their answer all said: “nothing”. Some participants used a defiant tone when saying it, others a more apologetic tone and yet others a more neutral tone, but all said the same word nonetheless.
To the instructors at first this seemed paradoxical. How could it be that individuals see a difference between two states, can explain why these states are different, and can even chose between these states, then say that there occurred no learning in between these two states? And then it dawned on the instructors that this was probably it. For the participants these states were not hierarchically connected as a before-state and after-state, as was the case for the instructors. They were not linked as a state in which they had not yet learned something and then they had learned something but rather just saw the two states as… two states. In the one state they behaved in one way and in the other state they behaved in another way. Because of their meta-assumption about whom they are they were capable of judging in which state their self-presentation was more and in which state their self-presentation was less in accordance with this meta-assumption. But, these states were not better or worse in themselves. They were only reactions to outside conditions, not representations of inner change or growth. It seemed that while differences in states were acknowledged the difference in what they said was not. The inner evaluation of what happened differed from what was observable from the outside.
Returning to the subject that youngsters say that they do not play roles, it might – hypothetically – start to make sense. Playing roles presupposes that an individual wants to fit in an externally defined role and tries to adapt to its requirements. One can then either cynically adapt one’s self or one can adapt one’s self with good will but in the end all role-playing involves a degree of calculation. If one, in addition, has a clear perception of whom he or she is in the form of an identity narration then the calculation involves establishing per situation how much and which parts of one’s identity one needs to involve to play a role and how much and what one needs to fake.
If, on the other hand, one does not have a clear image of one’s identity, but only a meta-conception, then one cannot calculate with one’s identity, only show more or less of it in situations – even if they look differently from the outside – exactly as participants described above. One then tries to be oneself as much as possible and in situations in which that is not possible one follows the frame at hand without having the feeling that one is playing a role because one does not feel involved. In this hypothetical interpretation there also is no learning involved because one’s meta-conception of whom one is and one’s phrasing of one’s identity do not involve perceived evolution. One’s meta-conception of whom one is only evolves subconsciously, if at all, while one’s descriptive phrasing is only about showing more or less of one’s identity in given settings.
An additional strong indication that youngsters perceive identities like this was found by the instructors while conducting dialogues with students during the Dynamiczna Tozsamosc project 2011 and 2012 and the Dynamic Identity project. In Poland many youngsters declared that when they met someone new offline or online that they were not sure beforehand what the other person would be like. They stated that they could not know whether the other person would be like them, or not. This is a new phenomenon for Poland where members of older generations expect by default that when they meet someone new, this new person will think exactly as they do. And, they are more tolerant towards otherness – a trend that exists worldwide.
The otherness that is presupposed to be an option for others is also surprising because youngsters currently look much more alike than youngsters of previous generations. It is rare to meet in class rooms youngsters that have an outspoken different outlook. The Economist sees the trend of a “rising temperance among the youth”: less sex, alcohol and drugs. “Television stations aimed at young people have dropped programmes that glamorise rebellion and high-living, says Christian Kurz, of Viacom, a media company which owns MTV.”
Maybe, as danah boyd seems to think, the outspoken parts of youngster identity have migrated online where they can be member of fringe groups and niche communities.
Accepting for the moment the hypothesis that youngsters have no conscious concept of whom they are and do not want to fit in externally defined roles but only decide whether to show more or less of what they consider, on a non-language level, to be themselves, then Bauman’s liquidity takes on a new dimension.
Bauman (Identity, 2004; Liquid life, 2005; Liquid times, 2007) presupposes that individuals in liquidity change all the time, without having the option of solidifying one’s identity. Taking as a starting point the theory that we all have an identity narrative that is consolidated to an ever growing extent, as well as the theory that we all play roles that are situation-dependent, then this ever changing liquidity is a very painful and fearful process leading to existential anxiety. If, on the other hand, the hypothetical situation that was sketched above is taken as a point of reference, then the liquidity is a given rhythm that sometimes requires one to show one’s self more and sometimes requires to show one’s self less. Both in reality and in one’s identity then no major changes are expected that would indicate an evolution in whatever direction. This would mean that liquid reality is experienced by mny youngsters but does not leave significant traces on their self, only possibly on their trust in their surroundings.
Nevertheless it turns out that traces are left by liquid reality, just not in a Goffman-way. Youngsters do not change temporarily as a result of the requirements of a situation, but many change dynamically in interaction with various situations. They seem to take bites out of reality and mix the elements they select out of reality into a dynamic whole that is in a permanent flux. This way they are always themselves, always authentic, even though they permanently change. Their identities then are not a given entity that can be formulated when prompted – see outcome 2 – but are a fluid way to interact with reality.
In the mix that are their identities, not just positive elements are incorporated by many youngsters, but also negative elements, as was found during the Dynamic Identity pilots. When asked to draw a selfie that should never occur, about half of the youngsters in the Netherlands drew themselves in front of the then recently downed airplane MH17 or in front of a scene of IS beheadings. During the workshop the downed plane was only mentioned once in passing while no word was said about IS. These images were not drawn indifferently. When asked whether they wanted to show their drawings to others and hang them on the wall, a majority of the participants asked for permission to destroy their drawings.
It seems that, although many youngsters seem to slide through liquid reality, it does lead to anxiety. The mix that is the identity of many youngsters does not have an internal consistency, as was seen in outcome 2. While this helps these youngsters to navigate through their fast changing surroundings it also denies them the possibility of having deep reflections that stem from the confrontation of a carefully constructed self with the reality that surrounds them. While youngsters take in all kinds of elements, they have no hook to hang these elements on. It is as with their technology use – see outcome 6: technically many youngsters are extremely skilled but they lack critical reflection.
Whereas many adults, according to Bauman, are scared to become superfluous and need to run ever faster to at least stay at the same place, the anxiety of many youngsters looks different: they seem to look for frames of affirmation and trust around them as potential buffers against the impact of the negative elements of liquidity.