Constructing Our Identities through Online Images

Gail E. Hawisher
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
United States

This column is reprinted from the Technology department of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (JAAL). It contains the following sections:

Editor's Message

The Web has raised curious contradictions about personal identity. On one side we see an increasing depersonalization: Online courses now substitute e-mail for face-to-face meetings. The computerized form letter is the genre of choice in business. People work so much in isolation that the computer begins to replace all personal interaction and becomes an addiction. You can visit Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack's site at to see how far you, or “your friend,” has gone along the path to Internet Addictive Disorder.

On the other side, e-mail, Web rings (see, online photo albums, and other new media forms bring people together. Families and old friends stay connected by sharing pictures, video, and writing through the Internet. People of all ages now create images of themselves through their Web sites and their e-mail signatures (see this column, December 1998). Many people, especially in Japan, even put their diaries on the Web, sharing their daily events and their most personal thoughts with the global community.

Questions about how new technologies reshape our relations with one another and our own identities do not yield simple answers. As we use these technologies, we start with familiar goals -- to learn, to share, to commiserate, to have fun -- but we accomplish these goals in new ways. Moreover, as we adopt new practices, or ways of communicating and representing ourselves, we begin to change as well. If we want to know what these new practices mean for us and for literacy education, we need to look more closely at how people actually use the new media and what they mean to them.

In this month's column, we are fortunate to have Gail Hawisher discuss issues related to women's use of new communication technologies and, in particular, how women use personal images to connect with one another. Gail is known internationally for her work in writing studies, computers and composition, and literacy studies.

-- Bertram Bruce

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Issue of the Month:
An Online Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words

For the past few years, I've been engaged in research that looks at the online lives of women and the visual dimensions of the World Wide Web. My abiding interest lies in how the new technologies -- and, in this case, the Web -- change what we're about as writers and as teachers of writing. Most recently this research has taken the form of looking at how women, in and out of academe, represent themselves visually on the Web and how others represent them in this new medium. Here I'd like to bring together at least two aspects of this research, explore how women use and get used visually in electronic settings, and then turn to issues of the visual in our own teaching lives.

To begin, most published discussions have paid little attention to what happens when the mostly verbal context of electronic discourse is transformed into the visually rich space of the Web. Until recently those of us in literacy and technology studies have understandably focused almost exclusively on the textual. But the heightened possibilities for self-representation brought about by the Web suggest that a simple transfer of arguments about online verbal lives -- with their emphasis on egalitarianism -- is inadequate as a strategy for exploring visual representations.

To give you some background, I should note that 5 years ago when Patricia Sullivan and I began studying the online lives of 30 academic women in writing studies, visual authoring on the Web was still in its infancy (see Hawisher & Sullivan, 1998). As part of that study, however, we created a listserv -- women@waytoofast -- and discussed the many issues women encounter online, including the construction -- or not -- of images of ourselves. The chapter we authored in connection with the study (see our chapter in Hawisher & Selfe, 1999, pp. 268-291) was primarily concerned with verbal online experiences the women encountered, but here I'd like to turn to visual considerations that grew out of that study.

As part of the women@waytoofast discussion, in the time just preceding the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, some of the women began representing themselves visually and then talked of dress and appearance. It all started with one of the women's noting how much trouble she had remembering people online and then writing,

Well, it wouldn't have to be realistic photos or even faces. Pick an image. I know that this involves even more rhetorical choices, but I know that I'm not the only person in the world who isn't very word-oriented and something visual to hang a message on would help me a lot and others too I think. Why do electronic lists have to be so tyrannically verbal and linear? That's a pretty dorky bird I managed to construct above.

Less than an hour later, another added:

In Marge Piercy's He, She, It an older woman cruises the information networks giving herself a sexy young identity. Here's mine. The curly hair is accurate at regular intervals when the perms are new. (I'm not getting older, just better.)

And still another began to theorize about the opportunities online visuals might hold for women:

Re-imaging/imagining ourselves through technology seems like an empowering concept. Very connected to Foucault's technology of the self, gaining access to technology to change how we “appear” to the world, to revise those Virtual Valerie porn images to something that more accurately represents our lives in the material realm. Besides if Madonna can re-create herself every so often and get dubbed a feminist, why can't we?

Hope everyone has a relaxing holiday.

But there were still others who regarded the capability of representing ourselves online very seriously and not without important consequences. Another of the women wrote:

Hi everyone,

The very idea of choosing a face to accompany my online words horrifies me. Should I choose an “authentic” image, one that shows my age and deviations from standard female beauty markers? Or does the electronic medium license me to alter my image? License? Does it *mandate* that I alter my image....

In creating a face to accompany my words, how would I deal with the very diverse audience of the net -- remembering that I might want to retain a professional image for the job search and in addition construct a fanciful image for other lists or create some feminist symbol-face for this list? Will my female face get more or less respect if I make it nice looking, smiling? Does nice looking reinforce the nice training that I want to shed, or does it indicate my insistence on new and nice rules? Or should I make a face very much at odds with my words (mean face/nice words or nice face/mean words) in order to subvert stereotyping?

Ah so many rhetorical decisions if we add visual rhetoric. And gender issues become heightened, I think, rather than lessened.

And almost as an afterthought she added:

Is anyone here making home pages? I have enough trouble with words.

For some, the “faces,” “picts,” or “e-art,” as the women called them, were fun and foregrounded woman@waytoofast as a safe place in which to play -- an e-space where they might risk seeming foolish. Yet they immediately connected the personal and playful aspects of e-space with the serious, professional, and scholarly. E-art was used as a platform for self-representation and for self-critique at the same time that it moved the discussion into areas of how one represents oneself in e-space, in one's department, as a job candidate, or as an untenured faculty member.

Largely as a result of this study and the women's thoughtful responses, Patricia Sullivan and I turned from e-art to visual representation on the Web. The Web with its graphical interface makes possible the “imaging” or “re-imaging” that some of the women on waytoofast desired and may indeed allow us to represent one of our many selves more graphically to the rest of the online world. Alan Purves (1998) has written that the coming of print destroyed the importance of the image and made it suspect, but that today it has returned and is shaping the ways in which the new literate world operates.

Gunther Kress has argued that the landscape of the 1990s is “irrefutably multisemiotic” and that “the visual mode in particular has already taken a central position in many regions of this landscape” (in Hawisher & Selfe, 1999, p. 69). The Web underscores the importance of the visual to the extent that it firmly folds the visual into communication processes. That is, it allows Web authors simultaneously to construct and to broadcast themselves visually with an ease and speed that hasn't been possible before.

Yet despite the promise of the Web for visual images that resist categorization, last year when I again searched the waytoofast home pages, I found few home pages of the women@waytoofast. And when I did find home pages, there were few that seemed to be staking out new subject positions for themselves -- for the most part, we seemed to be going about the same old academic business as usual, featuring our academic accomplishments, our teaching, and sometimes something about our personal selves. At the following websites you can find fairly typical representations of what we saw. Cynthia Selfe's “look” for the department includes a pleasant photo of herself with links to her online curriculum vitae, which tells her viewers about her education, scholarship, teaching, and all those related categories that show up on academics' hardcopy credentials. (See My own departmental home page “look” also bears a strong resemblance to those in other academic departments and features the pleasant smiling image, along with links to my scholarly areas of interest and recent publications. (See

While there was some variation in the kinds of home pages the waytoofast women constructed, most of them exhibited a professional look that seems to cut across our institutions. A few of the women included childhood pictures to give a somewhat narrative representation of themselves, others included no pictures, but with artwork and color they managed to create an inviting personal image of themselves. See, for example, Nancy Kaplan's home page at Her home page includes the requisite professional information -- her affiliation, publications -- but also includes sites that she likes and that she calls “worth the whistle.” She closes her webpages with a metaphor of the kitchen and cooking, but not before she has introduced personal information, under Nancy Kaplan, in the very first reference to herself at the site.

Nancy Kaplan -- born quite a few years ago and then some time later educated at the University of Michigan and Cornell -- considers the really important things to be everything that's absent from her official home page:

Her children, Eva and Erica (a small bit of whose artwork can be found in the story about one of the many citizens of E/Street, a WEBaltimore Community). Her friend, partner, lover Stuart. And their three cats -- Athena (the portly), Lilith (the paranoid), and Vyvyan (the playful). I won't embarrass any of us, least of all Athena, with the family portraits.

Unlike my home page and Cynthia Selfe's, created by someone other than us (using snapshots taken or collected to advertise our departments), Nancy's home page is homegrown, so to speak, created to show students her interests but also to broadcast her persona to anyone on the Web who might come across her home page.

Of course, there are other images of women on the Web that the women themselves did not create -- that were posted to the Web not to advertise their departments or professional credentials but to sell the wares of society. Let me shift focus for a moment to mention another image of women that I found at the commercial enterprise of Victoria's Secret back in 1996. These pictures surprised me not so much for their content but for the fact that they were maintained by Jake, a student at Georgia Institute of Technology. When the website was accessed, you saw a lingerie-clad woman not so different from those we see in fashion magazines, only this time gazing directly out at us from the screen rather than a page. At the time you could also order the clothes pictured there through Jake, who included his own e-mail address and working 800 phone number.

These images are the same kind that bombard us daily in the popular media and, more recently, in the catalogues that have taken over snail mail. In writing of the growing use of the visual, Gunther Kress (in Hawisher & Selfe, 1999) noted that

The body is coming to be used as a medium of representation and communication: even a brief look at a contemporary rock video will illustrate this clearly enough, and so do the industries of aerobics, jogging, roller-blading, and the televisual entertainments developed out of these. (p. 69)

He might well have added the World Wide Web. He went on to argue that

These changes are not in themselves new: the body has been used in many cultures and in many periods as a medium of communication.... The point is...that after a period of some two-to-three hundred years of the dominance of writing as the means of communication and representation, there is now, yet again, a deep shift taking place in this system. (p. 69)

But, as Kress would readily admit, not all uses of representations of the body are the same. The Victoria's Secret online bodies tend to emphasize current objectified representations of “femaleness” and serve to reproduce the age-old stereotypical relations between the sexes.

Another of the women in the waytoofast study, Kitty Locker, also has a website where she chooses to represent herself more as a teacher or resource person, pointing her students (and whoever else might access her pages) to sites on the Web that she finds information-worthy and wants to share with others. (See Although her page doesn't disrupt conventional notions of femaleness, it did lead me to a group of websites in which women's home pages begin to challenge the culture's dominant narratives as to what it means to be female.

Thinking about how women in fields other than writing might represent themselves, I pursued one resource on Locker's page, “Women and the Web,” and came to “Babes on the Web.” (See and click on “the original Babes on the Web.”) Ostensibly, Rob Toups's “Babes on the Web” would seem to support the stereotypical representations of women. An interesting aspect of these webpages, however, is that although Toups constructed his home page, replete with an image of himself with cigar and rifle, he didn't construct the pages of the women to which his links lead. Despite being among the 400+ “babes” he advertises, the women themselves created the personas that emerge from their pages. I should note that Kitty Locker probably did not intend for viewers to access Babes on the Web from her website. But because we can't necessarily control the content of all the links we insert, no Web creator is ever completely sure as to where his or her links might lead.

Among the 400+ women linked at Toups's site is Eve Andersson, who greets us with a headshot that strikes a traditional pose, smiling and affable, but with green face, red hair, and antennae, all enhanced by a constant stream of soft murmurings of the numbers that are pi, namely, 3.14159.... (See She calls herself the “famous” Eve Astrid Andersson. Although the green face and antennae signal deviations from a professional demeanor, Eve populates her space with displays of her academic credentials and work experience. The viewer learns that she graduated from Cal Tech, moved to Berkeley as a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and was formerly an employee of Creative Internet Design, a Web consulting agency in Pasadena, California. Interwoven in her “credentializing” are fables, personal information, games, creative writing, artwork, photos of herself and family, and spoofs of her lived experiences. Through it all, she visually represents herself as an athlete, lab technician in workout clothes, traveler, jailbird, wine taster, thinker, 20-something with-it chick -- all working to challenge stereotypical images of a 20-something woman engineer. An alien, who was yellow as a baby, Eve entertains viewers with stories of her growth to her adult green state. The mixture of cartoons with colorized photos (and “real” ones) lends a childlike whimsy to the life of a young woman who also depicts herself as a devotee of pi.

When placed alongside the professional and institutional home pages, Eve Andersson and other women on the Web seem to stake out multiple subject positions for themselves. They “doctor” photos, use cartoons, animate quirky representations of themselves, and in general play with the visual in ways that blur the boundaries between physical and virtual selves. It's a cyborgian move in that they're using the technology to capture representations of themselves while at the same time adding and changing bodily features. In displaying their ears, calves, and sometimes tattoos, they celebrate their own writings of their bodies. In contrast, the professional women presented earlier are ostensibly valued for their minds and knowledge -- their bodies are extraneous and potentially damaging to their success.

With these images, then, we begin to see how some in and out of the field of writing studies represent themselves on the Web and how they are represented. We see women pictured in online advertising in ways that seem familiar to us -- as objects to be ogled and stimulated, commodities to be sold and bought. But we also see examples of the possibilities the new media begin to provide women for activism -- for forging new social arrangements by creating a visual discourse that startles and disturbs. In claiming this cyborg territory as their own, the 20-something women on the Web -- Laurel Gilbert and Crystal Kile (1996) told us that “grrrls have attitude, girls don't” -- clothe themselves in “attitude” and, as Donna Haraway (1991) aptly stated, commit their cyborg selves to “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity” (p. 151).

Let me now turn briefly to our work as teachers in online classroom settings and tell a story on myself. A few years ago, with a digital camera, I began taking pictures of my students and featured them in a graphical conference program I was using at the time and also in the pages of class websites. Most of the students seemed to enjoy the representations and would regularly remind me that they hadn't yet had their pictures taken or posted. For several semesters, then, I organized my classes in this way, extending class discussion online and enhancing it, I thought, with the visual representations. I did this in both graduate and undergraduate classes until one of the undergraduates, a young African American woman, complained about her picture and asked me to take it again, which I did. Although I noticed that the second picture wasn't any better, the student didn't complain, but I began wondering about this picture taking I was doing and realized that invariably my African American students tended not to look like themselves in the pictures; often they looked older and their features were flattened. What I didn't know and what I've subsequently learned is that most processes of photographic reproduction have been “optimized” for European faces. Our photographic processes emphasize the kinds of contrast that you can achieve with pale faces; they are not set up to catch the kinds of contrast that dark faces comprise (Winston, 1996). In other words, color palettes on computers tend to be optimized for light faces and exhibit a much greater range of lighter colors (and pinks and reds) than of the kinds of colors found in darker faces.

What conclusions can we begin to draw from these snippets of the pictorial presented here? First, there is the group of academic women on waytoofast who think that at times the visual might help in online communication. Some of them, however, disagree and argue that images present all sorts of problems we have not yet adequately considered.

Second, there is the huge growth of the World Wide Web on which we can represent ourselves pictorially although only a few women in the study fully availed themselves of the capability. And some who initially included pictures don't now. Perhaps they have decided to eschew the visual, retreating in an age when stalking and harassment have become all too familiar.

Third, we see some women representing themselves online -- with the visual and the verbal -- in creative, rhetorically effective ways. Eve Andersson and many other 20-something women, whose websites I studied for this research, make the visual work for them.

Fourth, we see women being represented through online advertising in ways that seem familiar to us, but the visual immediacy of the Web tends to transform the viewing experience, startling us (or at least me) with its vividness and energy. Finally, you see me as teacher, incorporating computer technology into my class in unthinking ways. In representing the students visually, I unwittingly made computer technology work to emphasize my place in the world at the expense of someone else's.

Perhaps the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from these examples is that the electronic world, and even our “unelectronic” world, is packed full of images that we view and interpret daily and which, in turn, exert a tremendous influence over us. When we become objects on the Web and have no say in how we're being represented, the outcome is predictable -- we end up reproducing old identities and re-create traditional narratives with new technologies.

Certainly this world of images, on the Web and otherwise, argues for our own -- and our students' -- greater critical awareness of the workings of the visual. Increasingly, as teachers, we are expected to use the visual as an adjunct to our teaching, and I would argue that few of us are able either to interpret or construct images with sufficient understanding of what we perceive or convey with our own designs. Few of us are as expert as the 20-something Eve Andersson and her self-representation as a green-faced devotee of pi; few construct so personable a site as Nancy Kaplan's “kitchen.”

I end with a quotation from Susan Leigh Star, sociologist, poet, feminist. In an unpublished manuscript ,“From Hestia to Homepage: Feminism and the Concept of Home in Cyberspace,” she notes that “we have known for a long time that home can be a safe haven -- or the most dangerous place a woman can be (statistically it is the most likely place for a woman to meet a violent death).” Let us hope that our “homes” in cyberspace can contribute to our students' and our own positive sense of home -- without inviting the dangers, without creating misrepresentations. Let us make sure that the online pictures we produce work to convey the 1,000 words we wish to send. If we neglect tending to the visual in our professional work and our teaching lives, we are likely to wake up one morning to find that we live primarily in a world not only of the sound byte but also of the quick take.

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Gilbert, L., & Kile, C. (1996). Surfer grrrls: Look, Ethel! An Internet guide for us. Seattle, WA: Seal Press.

Haraway, D.J. (1991). Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.
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Hawisher, G.E., & Selfe, C.L. (1999). Passions, pedagogies, and 21st century technologies. Logan, UT, and Urbana, IL: Utah State University Press and The National Council of Teachers of English.

Hawisher, G.E., & Sullivan, P. (1998). Women on the networks: Searching for e-spaces of their own. In S. Jarratt & L. Worsham (Eds.), In other words: Feminism and composition (pp. 172-197). New York: Modern Languages Association.

Purves, A.C. (1998). The Web of text and the Web of God: An essay on the third information revolution. New York: Guilford

Winston, B. (1996). Technologies of seeing: Photography, cinematography and television. London: British Film Institute.

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Some listservs in writing studies and literacy and technology:

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Literacy Webpage of the Month

The Media Foundation, a nonprofit organization, manages the Adbusters site, sponsors the Canadian Adbusters magazine, and supports PowerShift, an advocacy advertising agency. The foundation describes itself as “a global network of artists, writers, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to launch the new social activist movement of the information age.” Included at the site are “spoof ads,” such as the visual representation of a sneaker-making Indonesian woman “being all that she can be” while running barefoot with a baby in her arms. Other visually compelling ads include “Joe Chemo,” lying in a coffin, and another, a picture of “Baby McFry” outfitted with a crown of french-fried potatoes and bib featuring an M in the shape of arches. There are also “uncommercials” such as the one that features a pig draped over North America, reminding viewers that the average North American consumes 5 times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than someone in China, and 30 times more than a person in India. Overall, the website invites viewers to take seriously visual commercial representations and to question their impact on our daily lives.

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ASCII -- an acronym for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange. ASCII text refers to information that can be transmitted easily from one environment to another because it is without control characters particular to specific software and hardware. It includes few characters from languages other than English.

Cyborg -- usually refers to a being that is half machine, half living entity. Donna Haraway wrote that “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (1991, p. 149).

E-art -- electronic art, used here to indicate ASCII pictorial representations.

Egalitarianism -- refers to equality for human beings across different social settings. When applied to electronic environments, the term is used to argue that a lack of social context cues in online discourse results automatically in nonhierarchical structures across gender, race, sexual orientation, and a host of our other differences. In other words, because paralinguistic cues (e.g., appearance, facial expressions, and tone of voice) are absent online, what is said supposedly becomes more important than who says it.

Listserv -- software that enables receipt of e-mail submissions and the redistribution of the messages to individual e-mail accounts. The term today has been generalized to refer to the electronic discussion group itself, such as WAC-L, a list or listserv on writing across the curriculum.

Multisemiotic -- several modes, including the visual, aural, and written, are all part of the society's meaning-making apparatus. With the rise of electronic communication technologies, increasingly our senses are assaulted with sound, images, and even smells that conspire to gain our attention.

Picts -- a term used here to refer to the ASCII representations women created on the listserv women@waytoofast.

Quick take -- a photograph or image that may misrepresent the person or event being captured digitally or on film. Sound bytes and quick takes are often stripped of the context necessary for adequately understanding what's at hand.

Semiotics -- a theory of signs aimed at studying how images and other kinds of social discourse are produced, interpreted, and come to “mean.”

Visual discourse -- pictorial representation of language in action.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

Adler, K., & Pointon, M. (Eds.). (1993). The body imaged: The human form and visual culture since the Renaissance. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Balsamo, A. (1996). Technologies of the gendered body: Reading cyborg women. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.

Dibbell, J. (1993). A rape in cyberspace, or how an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards, and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society. The Village Voice, 21, 36-42.

Eldred, J.C., & Hawisher, G.E. (1995). Researching electronic networks. Written Communication, 12(3), 330-359.

Gill, M.S. (1994, January). Terror on-line. Vogue, 163-166, 195.

Hawisher, G.E. (1992). Electronic meetings of the minds: Research, electronic conferences, and composition studies. In G.E. Hawisher & P. LeBlanc (Eds.), Re-imagining computers and composition: Teaching and research in the virtual age (pp. 81-101). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Kaplan, N., & Farrell, E. (1997). Weavers of Webs: A portrait of young women on the net. In G.E. Hawisher & C.L. Selfe (Eds.), Literacy, technology, and society: Confronting the issues (pp. 424-440). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kress, G., & Van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.

Star, S.L. (Ed.). (1995). The cultures of computing. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

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About the Guest Author

Hawisher directs the Center for Writing Studies ( and at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA. She is also co-editor of Computers and Composition (, and for the electronic version). E-mail: Mail: Gail E. Hawisher, Center for Writing Studies, Department of English, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, English Bldg. 201, MC 718, 608 S. Wright, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.

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Reading Online,
Posted March 2000
Published simultaneously in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy
© 2000 International Reading Association, Inc. ISSN 1096-1232