I greatly enjoyed the presentation given by Bonnie Stewart on the Change11 MOOC, which I’ll try to summarise here for those who haven’t been able to attend. Bonnie’s PhD is on the topic of digital identities and I myself am very interested in the question whether and how technologies influence our identity and perception of/by others.

Bonnie postulated six aspects of identity, which I found very intriguing. I’m not sure I understood all the fine details she proposed, since there were lively talks on the chat happening at the same time, but here is my summary list of the six “Facets of Self”:

(1) The performative self

Based on social science theory this refers to speech and other acts that trigger a state of being. Performativitiy is the creation of something through an enactment, i.e. through our performances we bring into being a particular version of ourselves: you are what you do and say. This can be most authentic if we create our identity through ordinary verbal and physical actions. However, such utterances and actions may be influenced by the context around us and especially in a networked public, it can lead to the notion of “if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck” – well, you create your online identity through the interactions you perform.

(2) The quantified articulated self

In networked publics, Bonnie explained, some otherwise invisible parts of your identity (your network of friends or people you follow) become visible. In certain environments they become a quantitative benchmark on who you are, and how influential you may be (klout.com, twitter followers, facebook friends, etc.). In some instances, this may provide an extra stimulus to performance. If you have a large twitter following, you might feel compelled to regularly feed them with your news. In other cases, you may get the feeling of frustration (like when no-one is your friend on facebook). So these identity mechanisms might have repercussions on who you “really” are. Bonnie, rightly, emphasised that behind these quantifications are often algorithms that do not necessarily favour your particular type of person.

not my klout score

(3) The participatory self

With this, I believe, she means the kind of continuous evaluation and feedback that is part of online interactions. Rather than seeing final and polished artefacts and products that we produce, we are being judged by and influenced in the development process we engage in (in an online public or network).  Additionally, Bonnie also includes here interactions with other people’s formative processes, artefacts or collaborative activities. As such it becomes an interesting concept educationally, and especially relevant with respect to lurking.

Still, I’m not hundred percent sure that it warrants it’s own category or should be subsumed under the performative self, since participation is also an act of performing, and so is non-participation.

(4) The asynchronous self

This encapsulates the different roles and space/time presence that engulf our being. One example Bonnie gave is the professional – private divide. This affected me on skype not so long ago, when my office decided to switch all staff onto skype accounts. Up to that point, I had used skype only and exclusively for privat calls and communication. All of a sudden, my address book of friends and family got flooded with business contacts up to the point where I had to create a separate account, so that when I want to show my online presence (or status info) to friends, I am not automatically available to work mates.

Another critical point she made about the asynchronous self is what I call the “haunting past”. Since the internet does not forget, it is becoming more difficult in a networked public to change your identity, which I hasten to add is part of our personal evolution. I don’t envy next generation politicians when their student party photos on facebook are dug up. Unforgetting leads to unforgiving, and this can potentially cause a lot of personal difficulties. In the physical environment, if you had personal problems with your teacher in school or boss at work, it was possible to make a fresh start at another place. In the networked public these issues are likely to follow you around everywhere both in terms of reach and persistence, as Bonnie rightly noted.

(5) The enmeshed self

This concept takes note of the augmented physical self through mixing, mashing, and extending personal presence in both worlds. It means your personal network of friends can be extended with world-wide connections at virtually any time. The sample situation would be sitting in a cafe with friends and texting someone else. It led to a bizzare situation when I observed two young girls sitting at a table together but both on the phone with non-present people. It kind of made me wonder what held these the two selves together in their physical presence, but maybe they were chatting with each other rather than talking across the table…

(6) The branded self

By this, Bonnie means the adoption of commercial practices that increasingly occupied social networks. Social networking has so much taken on professional commercial and advertising values that a lot of the personal presences are about promoting and selling yourself and presenting the right “image” of yourself to a potential “customer base”. Even social sharing and commons activities are most often related to personal branding rather than pure selfless altruism. What you receive may be social currency or (job) market value: and here we come back to klout & co.

(Personal addition:) The commodified self

I found the presentation extremely stimulating, because identities have occupied my thoughts for a long time, also in the earlier, non-digital aeons. To Bonnie’s categories, I would like to add the “commodified self” which takes an increasing part of our identity in networked publics. It too is rooted in the rising commercialisation of social networked publics, but happens to a lot of us without personal control or even awareness. This commodified self I would describe as being looked at as a product or an industrial production mechanism. Someone clever said: “if you don’t see a site selling a product – the product is YOU!” I’d agree to this in most instances in a world where clicks count. Our online behaviour is not only quantified like above, but also given a commercial value. Therefore, there is a specific move to not only reflect online behaviour neutrally, but to actively influence this behaviour and who we are. We are shaped and moulded into “good”, “valuable” web citizens by recommender systems, facebook apps, and ad pop-ups.

This may sound a bit awkward, but in this commodified self, I would also include the “Open” communities (open source, open access, OERs, etc.). As an industry in its own right, the man power of sharing and voluntary contributing open artefacts play an increasingly important role in the total networked public. A lot of people and ventures now rely on this provision, hence the production mechanisms are scaled up and become more industrialised. This leads individuals not to be recognised as a kind person who gives freely and happily, but as a systemic cog in the giant machine that has to run and function somehow.

Finally, I’d like to extend the question of the individual identity to group identities. There is no such thing as a global internet public that’s all the same. Platforms may divide communities, e.g. Xing vs LinkedIn. We cannot simply apply the above concepts to groupings of people be it ethnical, religious, political, punks, or otherwise. I’d be more than interested in investigations about digital stigmata, enmeshed stigmata of digital or real-life minorities and how technology influences the self-perception of a group. Some social groups I see gaining confidence through networked technology. For others (like the “elderly”) barriers that exist in real life, may virtually disappear. But new dividing lines may appear at an identity level, that we have not anticipated.

Remains the ultimate question: why do we even care about identity? Does it really matter whether the image that others see of us matches that of ourselves?

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