Reflecting on “Identity Work and Identity Play Online” #2013ASA

I was inspired by the conversation from the “Identity Work and Identity Play Online” session with @Greene_DM, @lportwoodstacer, @anitaconchita, @lnakamur, & @tmcphers–paper & names are below–at American Studies Association (#ASA2013). Building on the excellent papers from the session put together by Daniel Greene, Tara McPherson’s proposal of a “critical platform studies” speaks directly to my own work on queering data visualizations. It was a privilege to hear this session. The storify of the tweets is followed by the session’s abstract from the ASA site.

  • Access to Self and City: Internet Entrepreneurs and the Politics of Presentation and Space :: Daniel Greene (University of Maryland, College Park (MD))
  • The Work of Social Media Refusal: Thoughts on Labor, Productivity, and Identity among Facebook Resisters :: Laura Portwood-Stacer (New York University (NY))
  • Voces Móviles and the Precarity of Work and Play in Online/Offline Spaces :: Anne Cong-Huyen (University of California, Los Angeles (CA))
  • Spambaiting, Dog and Child Shaming, and the Racial Violence of Social Media :: Lisa Nakamura (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (MI))
  • Chair & Comments :: Tara McPherson (University of Southern California (CA))


This panel brings together four scholars working in diverse fields of American cultural studies to consider the stakes of identity performance online. We discuss the ways in which the making of selves online shifts between work and play, political act and consumer choice, exploited labor and pleasurable performance. We hope to prompt discussion of the shifts in cultural studies of the internet and the material conditions to which they have responded. Cultural critics responded to early moral panics about the commercial Web by analyzing neoliberal investments in advertising a world without race or gender, or in asserting the privilege to perform another race or gender as an act of ‘identity tourism’ in MUDs and chat rooms (Nakamura 1995). Contemporary cultural criticism has become less concerned with the free play of identity online, and more concerned with how that play becomes, through the ubiquitous surveillance of the ‘social Web’, free labor producing a profitable data profile from which users are alienated (Anderjevic 2012). It is of course a privilege to be thus surveilled and so we also link the exploitation of identity performance to more traditional accounts of exploitation in factories, fields, cities, and suburbs.

This panel brings together scholars employing diverse perspectives and methodologies in order to develop new vocabularies, critiques, and connections in the study of identity online. Daniel Greene’s ethnography of the Washington, D.C. internet economy links the always-on, work-friendly online self-presentation strategies of internet entrepreneurs to the refashioning of city spaces as private consumption sites for the privileged. Laura Portwood-Stacer’s analysis of media refusal discourses finds the refusal of sites like Facebook functioning alternately as individual dissent to the exploitation of social networking sites, a revaluation of a more traditional work ethos, and a performance of a protesting identity that is nonetheless still caught in the network. Anne Cong-Huyen’s reading of the Voces Móviles media advocacy platform draws attention to the work both volunteers and day laborers do in narrating, highlighting, and negotiating different identities to further their activist mission online and off. Lisa Nakamura’s investigation of internet shaming memes reveals a complex geneaology of racial abjection where the playful remixing of visual culture on such sites as becomes a “digital pillory.”

Because of our interest in prompting discussions on the state of the field, we are proposing a panel format of four 10-minute ‘talks’, with Tara McPherson acting as respondent and chair. In keeping with this year’s theme, we stress the imbrication of personal identity, collective action, and their shape within local and transnational manifestations of the mode of production. Given the degree to which new social movements make use of online communication, we ask whether there is an outside to an exploited internet or the speculative debt economy that evolved with it. We draw on the stories of activists, workers, and those locked out of both traditional political protest and knowledge work in order to stress the inseparability of online and offline, representation and materiality, identity and political-economy, and performance and production.


Anderjevic, Mark. “Estranged Free Labor.” In Digital Labor: The Internet As Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz, 149-164. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012.

Nakamura, Lisa. “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.” Works and Days: Essays in the Socio-Historical Dimensions of Literature & the Arts, 25/26 (Fall 1995, Winter 1996): 181-193.