I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean by the term collectivism, particularly when we refer to collective identity… for my work, this is especially relevant to the online context. There are different types of collectivism, and we have as many examples of them as there could be definitions. But I think I’ve found a way to describe it in a two axis model, from weak and strong versions of collectivism to it’s natural antonym, individualism.
A lot of early online identity work focuses on personal identity through the weak individualism perspective. This is the “second life” of Sherry Turkle, the virtual “rape in cyberspace” described by Jullian Dibbell, and the multiple personas and characters that were promised as positive experiments in identity construction. The anonymity we were accustomed when interacting with others online let us play different roles, made us weary of strangers, and allowed us to vanish when we shut off the computer.
Today, there is a persistency to that online identity, because our self is integrated with our online identities so that we have a strong individualism perspective. Companies like Facebook and Google push users to use their real names. Privacy and tracking worries us in different ways when we continually offer up the “selfie,” tag photos with our location and monitor our behavior through devices like Fitbit and self-tracking apps. We understand that users are the products of the social media that they use, being offered up to advertisers and seemingly unhuman corporations, and we are subject to algorithmic data apps that are all watching us. Sometimes we see ourselves as disjointed, isolated, and further alienated from each other, despite the supposed interconnectedness of the internet. We worry about how digital media affects our physiology as we grow closer to it (such as in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows).
The strong collectivism concept is how we are used to thinking about people in groups – the “smart mob,” the riot, which comes together to destroy and wreak havoc for a brief time before dissipating with no essence. It is very temporary but powerful, tenable yet unstable. It is Anonymous, or a legion of botnet zombie computers controlled by people who seem as bland as the beige on old PC cases. They are a monolith, like the old Soviets, and when they disappear there is nothing left.
In contrast to this, I believe the most useful important perspective is the weak collective which I see as a recursive public (to borrow Kelty’s term). It is flexible, it adapts, and it is formed out of the relationships and collaboration of individuals who work together, rather than march in step. OWS was an interesting example of this – the relationships formed during the physical protest (which resembled a mob) actually resulted in loose networks of people which transitioned from the demonstration spectacle to community programs that later provided needed services to others (such as the OccupySandy groups). These is the ideal the “network society” Marcuse writes about.
The hackathon is an interesting site for recursive publics, because attendees are distinctly individualistic, with differing agendas and motivations, but they come together and form relationships in this temporary space which, as one attendee put it very recently, as participants are “collecting ideas from one hackathon and apply them to the others. this can lead to interesting mashups. i look at a hackathon as kind of like an Ouija board for geeks — a weird discovery process with other weird people like you.”