Identity, Globalization, and Digital Communication

A New Paradigm

In The Power of Identity, Manuel Castells refers often to the “network society.” He defines it in the preface of the book when he refers to the “network society” as “a new global structure.” He calls it “a new institutional form” and “the techno-economic transformation of society” (Castells xxxvii-xxxviii). What Castells is getting at here is the globalization of society.

Digital communication and networking platforms have contributed significantly to the rise of this new global structure. Consider this information released in January of 2015 by The Next Web, a leading authority on digital media and consumer digital behavior:

  • There are over 3 billion active internet users worldwide.
  • More than 2 billion social media accounts are active globally.
  • Over 3.5 billion people use mobile devices around the world.

North America holds only a 10% share of the first two numbers cited above, and 5% of the third. The rest spans the globe. This is evidence of a globally networked society in which 42% of the world’s population is online, and nearly 30% are social network users (Williams). Technology is making the world smaller as it makes networking and communicating around the world easier.

So, what is “identity”? Let’s go back to Castells. In The Power of Identity, Manuel Castells defines identity as “people’s source of meaning and experience.” He goes on to further define it as something which is constructed, but not necessarily by oneself (Castells 6). Castells identifies three methods of identity construction, which he labels “legitimizing,” “resistance,” and “project” identity.

The first, he says, is constructed by dominant institutions, ideologies, and organizations (Castells 8-9). These are organizations of authority. Government is an example as it defines a person’s citizenship, and in some cases, social status and economic standing. Identity is born from where a person stands in his local, national, or global society.

“Resistance identity” and “project identity” are interrelated as each results from a group or community rising above something, standing for something, or fighting against something. Resisting oppression, discrimination, or (in extreme cases) even genocide (e.g. the Holocaust) drives people to action: Projects. Consider the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or today’s gay pride and rights movements. These resistances have motivated people to identify themselves as a particular ethnic minority, homosexual, bisexual, and they work together to construct and maintain these identities. This gives identity to the individual, who strengthens the group, giving it great power of identity.

Some large hierarchical organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church can create all three types of identities. The Catholic Church is a dominant institution as it puts forth teachings to its faithful (members) about how to live, conduct themselves, and relate to others using virtues such as holiness, humility and charity. This helps to construct legitimizing identity, but the Church can also construct resistance and project identity. Those who do not fully understand, or simply disagree with, the teachings of the Church might rebel, thus creating identity through resistance. Feminism among women who desire ordination to the order of priests is an example.

The Protestant reformation is an example of project identity stemming from the Catholic Church. Consider the root word of Protestant: Protest. In the early 16th century King Henry VIII of England broke with the Catholic Church in protest of the Church not granting him an annulment of marriage. The Church of England, now known as the Anglican Church, was born. A project created identity (“Henry VIII”).

Now that we understand “network society” and “identity” through definitions and examples, let us explore the meaning of identity in the network society, and the advantages and disadvantages of a strong theoretical and practical focus on “identity politics.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines “identity politics” as a “wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups” (“Identity Politics”). This sounds a great deal like resistance and project identity. In fact, identity politics are just that: The projects of those resisting.

In the network society, the global society, identity expands beyond national borders. Cultural, ethnic, and religious identity have spanned the globe since long before we were networked. European immigrants, for example, brought ethnicity and culture to the new world. Another example: The Catholic and Anglican identities mentioned above, while rooted in Rome and London, describe people in nearly every part of the world.

In a globally connected society, identities that once existed on a small scale take a global position. An example of maybe a minor identity having global presence was personified on February 27 of this year when actor Leonard Nimoy, most known for his portrayal of Spock in the Star Trek franchise, died. When the news broke, hashtags like #StarTrek, #Spock, and #LLAP (for “Live Long, and Prosper,” Spock’s traditional Star Trek greeting) began trending on Twitter. Nimoy’s name began trending on Facebook (Ingham).

We saw above that social networks are global networks. The identity of “Trekkie” or Star Trek fan is a global one supported in the network society. Coming together in a time of sorrow is an advantage to a network society.

Global networking is very powerful. Social media, in particular, can be extremely influential. This can be a disadvantage. According to a report by ABC7 Chicago, the terrorist organization The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is using social media for recruitment. Using Twitter accounts, ABC7’s Eyewitness News team assisted in identifying a network of over 160,000 people tied to 11 known terrorist groups (“ISIS Recruiting”).

In a related story, ISIS “is deploying social media and the promise of adventure to enlist young British Muslim girls to wage jihad in the Middle East,” says Time Magazine. A week after three teenage girls suddenly and unexpectedly flew to Istanbul, Time says girls like them are being targeted online. “Many of these girls are not allowed out, or to do certain things in society,” said the Quilliam Foundation’s managing director Haras Rafiq in Time’s article. “When they are online, they are being targeted with messages of empowerment” (Toppa). This is resistance identity and identity politics in action.

The power of a globally connected society is tremendous. In Power and Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transitional Threats, the authors refer to today’s world as one in which “rising powers must agree to cooperate … and embrace new standards of responsibility for all states” (Jones, Pascual, and Stedman 3). We must use the power of digital and social media with great responsibility. This, in itself, is an identity: The identity of those using the power responsibly.

Global communication tools themselves have the potential to construct group and resistance identity. Facebook, for example, is an online community of over 1.35 billion monthly active users (Protalinski). It has rules, etiquette, and specific expectations and ways of communicating. Those who use Facebook fall into a particular group identity. So do those who do not.

Those who fear, resist, or don’t understand Facebook are part of a very strong group identity. Regardless of their reasoning for not using the popular social media tool, they identify as non-users, holdouts, even as above or superior to the technology. This results in resistance identity. While this might be an identity based in fear, judgmentalism, or self-righteousness, it is an identity nonetheless.

As digital technology continues to grow and become more prominent around the globe, mainstream identities like nationality and religion will grow, so will niche group identities like that of “Trekkies” and fans of particular art forms, philosophies, etc. New identities will form based on the technology itself. Some identities (like that of ISIS) will grow using digital media. Identity is evolving.


Works Cited

Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Ingham, Alexandria. “Leonard Nimoy Honored through Social Media.” guardianlv.com. Liberty Voice. 28 Feb 2015. Web.

“Henry VIII.” bbb.co.uk. British Broadcasting Corporation. n.d. Web.

“Identity Politics.” plato.stanford.edu. Stanford University. 7 Feb 2012. Web.

“ISIS Recruiting U.S. Terrorists on Social Media.” Eyewitness News. By Chuck Goudie and Barb Markoff. CBS. WLS-TV, Chicago. 25 Feb 2015. Television.

Jones, Bruce, Carlos Pascual, and Stephen John Stedman. Power and Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transitional Threats. Harrisonburg: R.R. Donnelly, 2009. Print.

Protalinski, Emil. “Facebook passes 1.35B monthly active users.” venturebeat.com. Venture Beat. 28 Oct. 2014. Web.

Toppa, Sabrina. “ISIS Uses Social Media to Lure British Muslim Girls, Think Tank Says.” time.com. Time Magazine. 24 Feb 2015. Web.

Williams, Owen. “2015 Worldwide Internet, Mobile and Social Media Trends: Get into 376 Pages of Data.” thenextweb.com. The Next Web. 21 Jan 2015. Web.

John Baldino, OFS, MALS
John Baldino, OFS, MALS

John Baldino is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He teaches philosophy, religious studies, and communications at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania. John is President and Managing Director of Baldino Digital.

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Identity, Globalization, and Digital Communication