‘The Pleasures of an Alias on Social Media’ by Jan Blommaert

Ahead of the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses later this year (which we are sponsoring), plenary speaker, Jan Blommaert, has written an inspiring piece initiating conversation around some of the themes of the conference. 

Jan Blommaert

One of the intriguing things I keep hearing from people who are active on social media is that they use an alias there, because the use of their real name would prevent them from ‘being myself’. This always triggers a critical question from me: isn’t your real name part of your core identity? And how can you really be yourself when you avoid using that absolute and primary identity label of yours – your real name?

While the point might seem trivial to some, it is quite a challenge to widespread perceptions of what it is to be ‘real’. In his classic Seeing Like a State, James Scott explained at great length how important the use of fixed and structured personal names was for the emerging nation-states of Modernity. The names we got (often somewhere in the 18th-19th century) became the alpha and omega of the bureaucratic system of governance: when a name could be conclusively stuck on an individual, that individual was ‘known’ and could be treated as a subject with rights, entitlements, duties and obligations derived from bureaucratically administered laws and rules. We carry our names, consequently, on a range of identity documents: passport, social security or health insurance card, driver’s licence, staff card, library card, and so forth; we write and read our names on the top of thousands of official documents that regulate our everyday lives. Why? Because our names identify us as real, as really existing persons that can be identified, held responsible, involved or excluded from social and political processes. In view of that, avoiding using your real name, hiding it from others or giving a false name when asked for it, is strongly associated with deviance, abnormality, transgression and crime.

On social media, however, the practice is widespread. Very large numbers of otherwise decent and upstanding citizens operate ‘undercover’, if you wish, hiding behind the mask of a bogus name and arguing that it is this mask that enables them to be ‘real’ in interactions with others on social media. It shows us how different the rules and codes of social media interaction are, and how these technologies have shaped a different area of social action operating alongside those of the ‘real’ world of nation-state bureaucratic and social life.

The people I know and had the occasion to talk to about this practice argued that an alias grants them a modicum of freedom of speech on social media. In that sense, it offered them some degree of freedom to speak freely, without the obstacles and restrictions generated by offline life. Their real names, as said above, connect them to the rights and entitlements, but also the restrictions of offline existence, and such restrictions might be compelling. Their employers, for instance, might not be amused by some of the Tweets posted by known employees; such expressions of individual opinion and subjectivity could get them into trouble with political patrons, relatives or other members of the offline communities in which they function. The structures of their ‘real’ offline social existence, in short, prevent them from speaking freely in the public sphere generated by social media.

The use of an alias, thus, is usually an effect of conscious and calibrated decisions in which the opportunities of the online public culture are weighed against the conventional restrictions of offline public culture. Different sets of norms and codes of conduct are measured against each other, and the conclusion for these people is that you can only be uniquely and really yourself on social media when you delete or mask your real name – when you become someone else or remain an anonymous voice, in other words.

I see this as part of ‘the care of the selfie’. We are familiar with the argument developed by a range of scholars, from Foucault to Goffman, that our social existence in Modernity is dependent on large and infinitely detailed sets of norms and regulations for impression management, aimed at appearing as a ‘normal’ subject in the eyes of others. These norms and regulations are socially sanctioned, and all of us are invited to internalize and incorporate them through self-regulation and self-censorship – the things Foucault called ‘the care of the self’. What the use of aliases on social media demonstrates, I think, is how this offline care of the self is now complemented by similar sets of norms and regulations governing our online social lives. The use of aliases, along with a range of other practices, is part of a constructed ‘selfie’, an identity designed solely for online presence.

When meticulously constructed, maintained and applied, this selfie offers us the pleasures of aspects of social life not attainable elsewhere. Or, if you wish, it offers us membership into a community culture that runs in conjunction with the cultures of offline communities but can no longer be detached from it. Which is why we can be truly ourselves there in very different ways from those we practice elsewhere.

You can read more about the themes of the conference in this post on our blog.

6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses

Next year, the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses is due to take place. Multilingual Matters is sponsoring the conference, specifically in order to enable two early career researchers from developing countries to attend it. This post is written by Massimiliano Spotti, the Conference Host and Co-organizer.

In October 2018, the International Conference on Multicultural Discourses sets its foot in Europe for the first time. To be more precise at Babylon – Centre for the Study of Superdiversity, at Tilburg University. Together with Jan Blommaert (Director of Babylon) and Shi-xu, Founder of Cultural Discourse Studies (CDS) and founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Multicultural Discourses (JMD), I reflect on the developments of this field ten years down the line.

In introducing this conference and its landing in Europe, I think we should start from the body of scholarship that has characterized CDS’ very first days. The first goal of CDS was (and still is) to draw attention to the cultural nature of human discourse and communication. As one of the first issues of its Journal stated, the purpose was to consciously and critically consider issues of cultural diversity and Western-centrism across arenas such as politics, academia, education and public discourses. To be honest, what struck me the most when publishing there one of my first peer-reviewed articles on teachers teaching to migrants, was a permeating feeling of voicing the unheard, the left-out, those in short that were for one reason or another in a minority position.

Although chased by the continuous pressure of the increasingly complex nature exerted on human encounters and discourses by globalization in both society and academia, CDS has remained able to keep its word. It has set forth on exploring the implications of discrimination through power on policy and human interactions, becoming an outstanding outlet for both Western and non-Western scholars to fight back and either re-discover or aspire to and, through that, reclaim their voices and academic identities within an established research paradigm.

There is still much more to do though. The increased entanglement of discourses across the global North and the global South; the unexpected results of their (often) unplanned points of intersection; the new centers of coagulation that these processes of entanglement bring to bear; the production of culturally rooted discourses around them. These are all emergent phenomena and urgent attention is needed there.

Ultimately, this is what we hope to do in the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses. That is to contend – once again – that culture is not just a different and thus innocent perspective in knowledge forming and value giving to people and their doings. Rather, our hope and wish for this conference is that it will allow us to unveil another layer of those historically evolving sets of discourses, rules and actions that put some people in power while others are marginalized.

You can find out more about the conference on its website here.