Virtual identity: Subversive attention

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Eddie Vedder, Damien Echols

Eddie Vedder embraces Damien Echols
(CC BY-SA CarolinaaPPaz)

While working on this month’s edition on virtual identity, I’ve been reading Life After Death, Damien Echols’ memoir of a ruptured life. At 18, Echols was convicted along with two other men of the murders of three children, allegedly in a Satanic ritual.

It wasn’t until 2011, after Echols had spent 18 years facing execution on Death Row, that he and the other two members of the “West Memphis Three” were released in the wake of new DNA evidence and critical media attention. The prosecution’s case had rested on coercive confessions and unfounded fears about the involvement of local heavy metal enthusiasts in Satanic orgies. Thus it seems that one horror — the murder of three innocent second graders — was followed by another, in which three teenagers were convicted of those murders based on little more than the crime of liking Metallica [1]. Unfortunately stories like Echols’ aren’t that surprising.

Identity gets intertwined with attention — how we see ourselves, and how others see (or don’t see) us.

In addition to its portrayal of grave problems in the American justice system, the book is striking for the layered and conflicting accounts of identity that come into play. Identity gets intertwined with attention — how we see ourselves, and how others see (or don’t see) us.

Echols first came to the attention of local authorities because of his outsider identity. He was a ‘freak’ because he wore black and t-shirts advertising metal bands. He explored a range of religious practices — Catholicism (which led him to change his name [2]), Wicca, mystical esoterica — in a community where evangelical fundamentalism held sway. His difference made him a magnet for rumors.

At the time of his arrest, Echols was a high school dropout on disability living in a trailer with his girlfriend and her mother. His vulnerability as a teen metalhead in 1993 West Memphis was magnified by poverty and a history of hospitalizations for mental illness.  (He did however have the advantage of being White; perhaps the end of this story would have been another tragic death if he didn’t.) The attention Echols attracted made him vulnerable to the powerful institutions that sought to convict him.

Rebellious teenagers, trolls, artists: many of us are agents provocateurs in some way in our lives.

Yet one senses throughout the book that Echols craved attention. He wanted to be seen — not as someone poor, not as a failure because he didn’t finish high school — but as a thoughtful person with unique interests and abilities. As he says in the book, he was naive about the police interest in him, believing that he could not be convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed. Perhaps, in his naivete, he even courted their attention a bit? Rebellious teenagers, trolls, artists: many of us are agent provocateurs in some way in our lives.

But as Echols’ trial approached, he writes, “It seemed like the entire world was howling for my blood.”

It’s hard to be subversive when people want to kill you.

Still, attention — of the right kind, from the right people — eventually led to his release. Although many of Echols’ interactions with media had been “disastrous”, when an HBO documentary came out that told a different story about him, many people, some of whom were very influential, began to see themselves in him:

On a daily basis I started receiving letters and cards from people all over the country who had seen the film Paradise Lost, and were horrified by it. The overwhelming sentiment was, ‘That could have been me they did that to!‘ If you are understand the impact this had on me, you have to understand that up until that point I had received no sympathy or empathy from anyone. Everywhere I turned, I found nothing but disgust, contempt, and hatred… I clutched those letters to my chest and slept with them under my head. I had never been so thankful for anything in my entire life.

As the wave of support for the Memphis Three grew, so too did Echols’ belief that media attention could change their circumstances. Echoing an idea expressed by many insurgents, Echols observes “The only way they can’t hurt you is if someone is paying attention…They could not drag me into a dark alley if I had a spotlight shining on me.

Sure, the reader thinks, but what about that time when the whole world was howling for your blood? A few pages later Echols describes another side to that celebratory attention, as he begins to feel  “exposed for anyone and everyone to examine and poke at with a stick.”

Being visible with support from someone at the pinnacle of an attention hierarchy like Johnny Depp is still pretty different from being visible on your MySpace page to people who see the world through dominant, powerful lenses. Echols doesn’t seem to have been online much if at all prior his arrest — it was a different time — but I wonder who he would have been in a virtual world then, how his presence would have been interpreted, and what kinds of support or fear he would have encountered. Would he have been visible or invisible, and to whom?

It’s no wonder that we want control over how we present ourselves, and in what contexts. As in Echols’ case, self-presentation and how others see us can be a matter of life or death.  For survivors of stalking or abusive relationships, for people whose employment prospects are harmed by having their political opinions easily retrievable, and in so many other contexts, control over one’s virtual identities can make all the difference in the discrimination and danger people are exposed to.

For whistleblowers like Edward Snowden (aka Verax), control over how one identifies is the difference between speaking up or staying silent. And in the wake of Snowden’s revelations about PRISM, the importance of understanding virtual identities and how they are controlled becomes even more apparent.

We want privacy, but we also want attention. If we embrace digital media, we want to have adventures with it; push the boundaries of identity and see what happens.

As attention economies become more dominant, social science seeks to uncover the ways that people reinforce and subvert those economies. When are virtual identities subversive?

As attention economies mediated by virtual interaction become more dominant, social science seeks to uncover the ways that people reinforce and subvert those economies. When are virtual identities subversive? How do we understand virtual identity in context? These are questions that ethnographic methods can play a critical role in addressing. As Tom Boellstorff observed, “ethnography has always been a ‘virtual’ kind of project because it’s about standing in someone else’s shoes – like being the avatar of someone else.”

So this month we’ll talk about virtual identity: pseudonyms, outing, collective identity, role playing, anonymity and onymity. Along the way we’ll explore the different contexts of Adderall use, Weird Twitter, and even time travel [3].

March to the streets ’cause I’m willing and I’m able
Categorize me, I defy every label

(Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monae aka Cindy Mayweather aka 57821, with Erykah Badu)

Notes and things

[1] Sad but true

[2] When he converted to Catholicism as a teenager, Echols changed his name from ‘Michael’ to ‘Damien’ after Father Damien. Some detractors say Echols really renamed himself after the kid in the Omen movie so that he could turn into the AntiChrist and infiltrate the Catholic church (??). Since my own confirmation name was inspired by both St. Brigid and Brigitte Bardot, I can’t judge Echols’ motivations, but I can say that naming yourself after Brigitte Bardot will not turn you into her. Presumably the same goes for the AntiChrist.

[3] About time travel:

The time traveler who talks to himself, on the telephone perhaps, looks for all the world like two different people talking to each other. It isn’t quite right to say that the whole of him is in two places at once, since neither of the two stages involved in the conversation is the whole of him, or even the whole of the part of him that is located at the (external) time of the conversation. What’s true is that he, unlike the rest of us, has two different complete stages located at the same time at different places. What reason have I, then, to regard him as one person and not two? What unites his stages, including the simultaneous ones, into a single person? The problem of personal identity is especially acute if he is the sort of time traveler whose journeys are instantaneous, a broken streak consisting of several unconnected segments.

Lewis, David K. (1976). The paradoxes of time travel. American Philosophical Quarterly, 13(2), 145–152.

Bonus picture of David K. Lewis:


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