This chapter is rooted in the circumstance that new digital technologies for communication and networking continue to be understood in inherited and long-standing moral terms. A range of media practitioners – Internet users, developers, and media and culture theoreticians – have expressed their delight and fascination with the idea of sharing private and professional data via MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Fotolog, Habbo, Linkedin, V kontakte, BlackPlanet and a number of other social-networking sites. Touting these virtual communication platforms as ‘social utilities’, their enthusiasts see them as bringing together new communities of communicators in a world ‘where’, contrarily, ‘disconnection and the value of individuality predominate’ (McLard and Anderson 2008). Harnessing a measure of innovation and activism, new media platforms are presented as the ‘conceptual technologies’ of contemporary social thought. At the same time, another group of users and commentators are considerably more sceptical about the possibilities for meaningful social interaction offered by these technologies; after all, networked socialising supposes the same values of individuality and separation critiqued by the new media enthusiasts. Media sceptics claim then, astringently, that digital technologies are superficial media that, rather than enhancing social experience, in fact degrade it, trivialising communication and deepening loneliness. In a recent article published in The Times Higher Education Supplement (2009), for example, Facebook is described as an ego trip for its users, lacking in reflectiveness and nuance, with the potential to seriously fracture society. Facebook users, it is suggested, are narcissists bombarding their readers with trite detail in the hope that they will thereby secure some kind of intimacy.
The aim of this piece is to reflect on contemporary modes of self-representation and self-extension in electronic spaces and informational economies. My analytical attention is given over to the moral discourses noted above, but also more generally to an anthropological analysis of portraiture and social software. Ethnographically I focus on a few portraits, and on a particular artistic project known as the etoy Mission Eternity Project, which claims to challenge communication and memory culture by hacking into and morphing traditional concepts of informational archives and memory spaces. The chapter analyses different instances of how people compose and circulate extensions of themselves, and discusses the moral issues that arise when these extensions are also responses to mortality, feelings of proximity and sharing.