Arnold Roosendaal: Who Decides Who I Am Online?

During the third session on March 9th, The Private in the Public, Arnold Roosendaal argued how commercial companies construct our online identities, intruding to the users’ individual autonomy by presetting choices and inclusion/ exclusion mechanisms.

Roosendaal stated that, at first sight, all users have to make choices in order to form their online representations. However, their impression of ultimate control over the way they represent themselves is mistaken.

Following that argument, a question rises: do we really decide who we are online? And if we don’t, who decides who we are online? 

(Click here for the video of Arnold Roosendaal’s presentation)

According to Roosendaal, the core of our online identities derives from our virtual interactions and  the fragments of data that we share.  The datasets that are formed, and saved by third parties (and on the servers of social networking platforms, search engines, applications)  represent ourselves even when we are offline.

Moreover, Roosendaal argued that as average users we cannot control the flow of information regarding our own identities. More extensively, focusing on the visible part of our online personas,we cannot control what is said about us, eg. by our “friends” on Facebook.  A user’s identity is constructed, compiled by the sum of shares and updates on social media, questions on search engines, requests for advice or directions and even mistakes and accidental posts. Despite the fact that we tend to be unaware of the visibility of our personas, commercial companies and platforms compile our typed attempts to communicate and form a very detailed profile of who we really are.

As Roosendaal noted, this is not such a revelation; at some point we all have wondered or read about privacy risks, cookies and business transactions that commodify our online profiles. What is new, is that we have reached that stage where the platforms and networks we use are our identity providers who can control what we see and how we socially interact. The identity providers decide how we can access platforms such as Spotify, how we can apply for jobs online, which adds match our personalities, what we are interested in etc.. In the era where we are supposed to be free to interact online, without borders of distance or time, we are not free to choose who we are online.

Returning to his key question, Roosendaal logically concluded that we are not empowered to construct our online identities: we do not decide who we are online.