Interchangeable Identities: The Collision of Culture, Technology, and Self

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

Photo Courtesy of Sara Kiesling

For those who came of age just before the rise and fall of Napster, what music they listened to depended greatly on where they were from, who their friends were, what their parents listened to, and, above all, it was primarily determined by the “tyranny of geography.”  Such tyranny, Chris Anderson suggests in The Long Tail, made it so fans only had access the music that existed on the limited shelf space in stores that were within a few miles of their homes.  Much of this is still true, but with one exception.  “Now,” Seth Godin writes in Tribes, “the Internet eliminates geography.”  After the fact, what we have is those who were born digital and epidemic of file-sharing that has preceded them — where an entirely different portrait of music consumption has emerged – because fans are no longer limited by geography, but by their ability to imagine and willingness to explore the abundance of music that lives online.

"What happens is that we begin to “take stuff because it’s there..."

Many would argue, and correctly so, that the appeal of file-sharing among college students and teenagers alike is because it made music free.  This, in their minds at least, being the positive implication of file-sharing, but there are many negative sides too.  “People often don’t care as much about things they don’t pay for, and as a result they don’t think as much about how they consume them,” Anderson says in Free, his follow-up release.  “Free,” he contends, “can encourage gluttony, hoarding, thoughtless consumption, waste, guilt, and greed.”  What happens is that we begin to “take stuff because it’s there, not necessarily because we want it.”  Yet, even years later, common rhetoric in the record industry still says every song downloaded off the file-sharing networks is a lost sale, which, as Anderson suggests, may not actually be the case.

The problem with this assumption is that it negates the core appeal of the Internet, which is that – beyond its aspects of sociality and sheer capacity for establishing and maintaining connections – it also gives college students and teenagers the ability experiment, explore, and reinvent their identities.  “Digital Natives are certainly experimenting with multiple identities,” Professors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser write in Born Digital.  “Sometimes, they are recreating or amplifying aspects of their real-space identities when they go online.”  They explain further, “In other instances, they are experimenting online with who they are, trying on roles and looks and relationships that they might never dare to try on in ‘real space.’”  It is this aspect of identity experimentation that aligns with file-sharing in the way that college students and teenagers often times will download music that they may have never considered listening to or buying.

“During our teenage years, we begin to discover that there exists a world of different ideas, different cultures, different people,” neurologist Daniel Levitin writes in This Is Your Brain on Music.  “We experiment with the idea that we don’t have to limit our life’s course, our personalities, or our decisions to what we were taught by our parents, or to the way we were brought up.”  He adds, “We also seek out different kinds of music.”  This is where the true appeal of file-sharing becomes clearer.  In the college dorms and bedrooms of Middle America, you have students and teenagers – who at no fault of their own – have questionable access to “good music” by traditional means.  Yet, through the Internet, lives an abundance of songs that probably outnumber the purchasing power of them and their parents combined.


The moment music became digital and shareable on the Internet, all bets were off.  You had students and teenagers who were essentially consuming and deleting music.  Download seven albums, put them on their iPod, and listen to them for a week.  Then, delete the four that they didn’t like as much and keep the three that they did.  All of the sudden, they were less likely to accept sunk costs.  What this refers to in music is when you get so excited for an album that you buy it the day that it comes out.  You play it in your CD player and listen to it.  The longer you waited to hear it, the more you’ll listen to it.  And, even if you didn’t like it very much, that’s okay, because, maybe, it will grow on you.  Eventually, you stop listening to the album, but you won’t sell it, since doing so would force you to acknowledge a loss.

"College students and teenagers don’t have the money for that..."

With digital music there is only and inevitably the feeling of loss if we purchase an album that didn’t live up to our expectations, because there is absolutely no resale value – even if and when we decided to live up to our poor decision and accept the sunk costs.  College students and teenagers don’t have the money for that, especially when they are at a point in their lives where they are experimenting with their identities and their taste in music.  We think of file-sharing and have been programmed to associate it with stealing, yet, no one, it seems, has taken the time to stop and wonder whether or not the true appeal of file-sharing aligns with their path through adolescence.  However, this is not to be taken as an excuse for behavior that runs contrary to the profitability of an industry, but of a plea for us to reconsider our thoughts.

What we forget is that, “Human beings are complex creatures who are going to do whatever it takes to make themselves as well of as possible,” Charles Wheelan explains in Naked Economics.  “Sometimes it is easy to predict how that will unfold; sometimes it is enormously complex.”  This relates to the law of unintended consequences, which, Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, describes as, “Even when you have someone clever designing the rules, the incentives, with thousands or millions of people with something at stake, scheming on the other side, they almost always figure a way around whatever system you set up.”  He says, “The most powerful idea of [that law] is that anyone who thinks they can set up a set of rules, thinks they are smarter than the market, in some sense, usually loses.”

It was the record industry who released their golden compact disc into the hands of college students and teenagers who would later figure out, with the advent of personal burning software, that they could make perfect physical and digital copies of it.  Neither the record industry nor the students and teenagers intended to bring a nearly $15-billion-a-year juggernaut to its knees, but together, they did.  Point being that, for as long as we try to prop up the old model, we are only denying the kind of access to music that the next generation of music fan actually wants, which is, to the best of our knowledge, the ability to experiment, explore, and reinvent their tastes in music — much in the same way they do so with their identities on social networks.  This “freedom” to be themselves, that’s what they really want.


As digital music migrates from iPods to mobile phones, it is necessary to take into account what makes this shift so profound.  According to Sociologist Barry Wellman, “Computer-supported communication is everywhere, but it is situated nowhere. It is I-alone that is reachable wherever I am: at a home, hotel, office, highway, or shopping center.”  He says, “The person has become the portal.”  In recent years, the mobile phone has become not only a fashion object and signifier of social status, but it “has become one dimension of how we construct our own identity.”  It’s the central hub where college students and teenagers alike navigate their on- and offline identities, store their music collection, and stay constantly connected to their various worlds.  It’s their life, in their pocket.

“young people … use it as a badge to convey information
about themselves and the social groups to which they belong…”

Never before has so much of their lives been open to interpretation and discrimination.  Whether they are conscious of it or not, many of them are making clear public statements about who they are and how they want to be perceived.  “The mobile phone is not just a functional item; it is also a symbolic item,” Jonathan Donner and Richard Ling write in Mobile Communication.  “The selection of mobile phones and mobile telephone services is not only a signal to others of how we wish to be seen, but also a way that we integrate our self-image.”  The identity claims that individuals make with mobile phones are not unlike the ones they make with music.   It has been suggested in a recent study that, “young people … use it as a badge to convey information about themselves and the social groups to which they belong…”

“In Western culture in particular,” Levitin continues, “the choice of music has important social consequences.  We listen to the music that our friends listen to.  Particularly when we are young and in search of identity, we form bonds or social groups with people who we want to be like, or whom we believe we have something in common with.”  With the increasingly public nature of their social networks and the identity claims they make – a collision of culture, technology, and self occurs – and a new breed of music consumerism emerges.  It is an ever more complex “blending of the longing for individual statement and the simultaneous and opposite desire for group identification” – one that is navigated and mediated through mobile phones, not in isolation, but in the public eye.

It, then, is the ownership of the ‘correct’ type of mobile phone, the possession of the ‘right’ genres of music, and participation on the ‘approved’ social networking sites that show students and teenagers are “aware of the current fashion and that they are active in the creation and maintenance of their own identity.”  For those who are too passive in this practice, the social consequences are much, much higher.  When viewed through the lens of fashion, it becomes clear that the mobile phone and digital music have gone beyond simply being digital technologies and culture “to being a type of icon in the adolescent's pursuit of their own identity.”  How successful that individual is at interpreting the current styles can be translated into the degree of influence that they have within the peer culture in which they participate.


In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell tells a parable of the epidemic of teen smoking in America that occurred in the 1990s.  What he observed at the time is that much of the efforts to stop smoking among teenagers had failed.  Despite the measures taken to restrict and police cigarette advertising, raising the price of cigarettes, and running extensive public health campaigns through various media outlets to try educate teens about the dangers of smoking, they still smoked and in increasing numbers.  “As any parent of a teenage child will tell you,” he says, “the essential contrariness of adolescents suggests that the more adults inveigh against smoking and its dangers, the more teens, paradoxically, will want to try it.”  Sure enough, he argues, that’s exactly what happened.

"sharing in the emotional experience and expressive
language and rituals of adolescence..."

“Teenage smoking,” he writes, which is, perhaps, much like file-sharing, “is about being a teenager, about sharing in the emotional experience and expressive language and rituals of adolescence, which are impenetrable and irrational to outsiders…”  What do the chances of getting cancer later in life or being sued for $150,000 per willful infringement of a downloaded track have in common?  Well, in a study done in 2006, researchers concluded that “teens are more likely to ponder the risks, take longer in weighing the pros and cons of engaging in high-risk behavior than adults – and actually overestimate the risks.”  The primary difference being that in these scenarios teenagers just “often decide the benefits – the immediate gratification or peer acceptance – outweigh the risks.”

Thus far, the recording industry has focused on shutting down the services and sites that facilitate file-sharing, and, then, even went as far as targeting and suing individuals in relation to file-sharing. “Which,” as Mark Earls, author of Herd, argues, “misses the point entirely, because we are not discrete, self-determining individuals; we do what we do largely because of our interaction with — and under the influence of — others.”  College students and teenagers file-share, because everyone is file-sharing, and almost everyone, at their age, does it, because they too, are experimenting with their identities.  “What we should be doing instead of fighting experimentation,” Gladwell says towards teen smoking, which also applies to file-sharing, “is making sure that experimentation doesn’t have serious consequences.”

Why file-sharing and new services like Spotify and Grooveshark appeal so deeply to college students and teenagers, perhaps, isn’t that big of a mystery.  At a time of continuous influx in their lives, music becomes their only constant in a sea of change.  “Given that individuals use music as a vehicle of self-expression,” in a world where they are experimenting, exploring, and reinventing their identities, it should be of no surprise that they figured out a way around the set of rules that “clever people” in the record industry put in place in the physical world, because to them, such “rules” no longer make any sense in the digital world.  Instead of acknowledging the nature of the next generation of consumers, they have simply denied college students and teenager’s access to a system that actually appeals to who they are and how they experiment with their identities.


  • Sara Kiesling (@sarakiesling) is 24-year-old music photographer from Minneapolis, MN.  She can be reached at:  sarakieslingatgmaildotcom.


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