Jamie Poster: Virtual Kiss-in: Politics, Desire and Identity in Cyberspace.
Articles » February 2001

During a brief ten-minute period, in a virtual space, involving virtual people, something extraordinary happened. A group of simulated lesbians staged a kiss-in in a Fundamentalist Christian chat room. They used their desire to disturb the heteronormativity of the Christian space. This weird identity moment stands as an example that both challenges and supports several of theories about identity in cyberspace. An analysis of the kiss-in will illuminate the problems associated with the multiplicity and fragmentation of subjects in cyberspace.

Many conversations about cyberspace celebrate what has come to be called "identity play." Since Internet communication is entirely mediated by technology, users have no way of authenticating or verifying the identity of their interlocutors. By verification and authentication, I mean the process by which individuals identify and read each other as subjects. The body plays a critical role in the process of identification.

The reliance upon corporeal cues (touch, sound, sight) to attach a body to an identity is suspect and problematic, to say the least. Due to the hyper-mediation of cyberspace, the already problematic identification and verification of interlocutors becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. A lot of critical writing on cyberspace asserts that this anonymity fosters the testing out of alternate identities.

The celebrated effect of Internet identity play is thought to be the fragmentation of the illusory unified subject, and a conscious critique of the Enlightened subject on the part of Internet users. Theorists such as Sherry Turkle suggest that when individuals engage in different identity performances on the Internet they become aware of the multiple positions people inhabit in the real world.

What is often left out of this conversation is the common circumstance in which users set out to produce stable identities in the anonymous and invisible terrain of cyberspace. The larger project from which this article stems explores one specific site in which this occurs: a lesbian chat room. In this space, regular users attempt to create stable identities for themselves, and in turn foster a stable community based on an idealized lesbian identity. The overall project seeks to explore how the lesbian identities deployed in this space face the problem of invisibility and identity play, as it precludes them from truly "legitimizing" their lesbian site.

Many of the complications around identity and essentialism that are played out in the lesbian chat room are evident in one isolated event. In a game of "truth or dare," ten virtual lesbians were dared to stage a kiss-in. They did so and chose as their target a Fundamentalist Christian chat room.

In this case, a group of chat room regulars used the invisibility of cyberspace to perform online activism. The virtual kiss-in stands as an exemplary moment in which many of the complications of attempting to deploy stable identities in cyberspace are evident. Theories of fragmentation undoubtedly illuminate and accurately explain the condition of subjectivity in cyberspace, but some aspects might not be fully explained in terms of fragmentation and multiplicity.

In this particular case, the invisibility (which precludes the existence of already-problematic identities in cyberspace) is used to further the political agenda of the virtual lesbian subjects involved. What do we do with hyperbolically fractured subjects that act politically on behalf of a unified ideal?

The chat rooms that I will be discussing function in a communicational mode called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Each chat room resides on a particular server that is connected to immense networks of other chat rooms, any of which can be accessed internationally. The technological prerequisites for chat room participation are a personal computer and an Internet connection.

Implicit in these requirements are financial resources, a certain level of technological knowledge and relative command of the English language. With the necessary technology and knowledge, one accesses a chat room by connecting to the network and selecting a room among literally 10,000 interest-based options.

The communicational mode is synchronous; all of the participants communicate with one another in real-time, like telephone conversations with text instead of voice. Several users contribute to one or more conversations in the public space of the chat room.

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