Back in 2010, I ended up having a really rewarding Twitter conversation with some very smart people, talking about hypersigils and how they apply to the internet. I’ve been thinking more about the topic lately, and wanted to expand on what was said before.
Let’s start with the term hypersigil. The term was coined by Grant Morrison, but the concept has been around for a lot longer than that. The term has a certain magickal [sic] connotation because of its origins, and I know that some folks get squicked out about that. If it makes you feel any better, just think of it as a psychological focus used to affect personal change, in the form of creating a narrative. If that’s still not enough, come up with a better term that does an even better job of wrapping a complex concept into a compact term, that does an even better job of packing loads of exformation into one word, and then popularize that instead. I’d love to hear it.
Online Identity as a Hypersigil
Regardless of if you use a pseudonym or a real name, your online identity is an extension of your personal identity (whether you like or not). That is not to say that they are the same thing, however. Your online identity is created through the lens of personal and external curation, and given shape according to the nature of the communities you involve yourself with. Your Facebook account is not you, but it is a representation of you, one that you influence and direct, and choose what parts of yourself you reveal. You aren’t the only contributor to this identity — others who know you (online or off) also contribute, commenting on your posts, tagging you in pictures, otherwise fleshing out at least their own perception of who you are.
When you are content with who you are (or are simply unaware that you could be anything else), this sort of representation of yourself is arguably fine, and things need not progress any further: your online identity remains a sketch of your offline identity. The extent to which this group of people might want to influence their online identity is making sure images and information that goes up about them is flattering (or at the very least, not compromising). They are fine going by their real name, and their participation online generally only extends to those they know or knew offline.
However, there are individuals who, for varying reasons, recognize that one’s online identity does not have to reflect their offline identity. This is where the notion of hypersigils comes in. Through online communities and social media, individuals create an identity that is shaped by their intent, by their desire to become something other than their offline persona. Perhaps this is because they are painfully shy in person, and want to explore having a voice somewhere without the baggage of others’ expectations of who they were. Or taken further, those who are questioning their sexuality and their gender, and need an outlet for asking, exploring, and answering these questions. Or perhaps they just want to make a few subtle changes to their personality. Regardless, they use this online identity as a hypersigil. They create a narrative of who they are, whether formally on a profile, or just in behavior on forums. They iterate, evolve, flesh out this other self. They learn what to discard and what to keep in both identities, and — inevitably — affect their offline identity, their offline reality. They become more like they want to be.
On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog. (Peter Steiner)
There’s a been a push amongst certain groups (notably Google and Facebook, but others as well) to incorporate users’ real names in their profiles, under the misguided auspices that it will improve community interaction, reducing trolling and spam. Instead, all this does is push those who are most invested in creating an online community (i.e. those that wish to create a new identity for themselves, and need a community to manifest that identity in) away, ostracizing them, making them once again Other. If anything, I’d argue it increases trolling and flaming, as retaliation out of frustration.
That’s not to say everyone re-inventing themselves on the internet, leveraging the internet as a hypersigil, uses a pseudonym. Some are lucky enough to be in a position where they can use their real name, and not face repercussions for exploring and changing their identity. I doubt very much that they are in the majority, however. “Real name” policies effectively demolish many peoples’ ability to safely explore other aspects of their identity.
There’s still a lot to unpack about this particular topic. I feel very strongly that as humanity continues to evolve and advance, it will become increasingly important that there are avenues for people to explore alternative identities and roles in a safe manner. The internet has, thus far, been one of the only readily accessible solutions for this. It is important that we protect it.