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More on Your Online Identity

A few weeks ago I was musing about online identity (still am) and what we needed to do to manage ourselves in an "I'm Googling You" world. The other night Angela White left me a comment that got me thinking about that again:

I don't want to have to limit any part of me - I am all of those things. I have many interests and many of them are online. But I do think that before I started really blogging I never thought about these things, I have never consciously branded myself - and therefore I think it has, as you say, "just happened." And it's messy and all over the place.

That's the thing. Our digital identities ARE all over the place. If we've "managed" that process, then presumably we're presenting our best sides, presenting an idealized self as we'd like the world to see us. But if we haven't managed it, then a more "real" self, flaws and all may emerge. Or is my idealized self, the "brand" I present online any less "me" than the less-than-perfect parts of me? Not sure. The video above is an interesting little foray into the idea suggesting that the "brand" we present online is as legitimately a self as any other.

Related to this idea of the idealized self, an essay in Time from a few weeks ago, "You Are Not My Friend" on how we're using social networks like Facebook for branding:

But really, these sites aren't about connecting and reconnecting. They're a platform for self-branding. Old people are always worrying that our blogging and personal websites and MySpace profiles are taking away our privacy, but they clearly don't understand the word privacy. We're not sharing things we don't want other people to know. We're showing you our best posed, retouched photos. We're listing the Pynchon books we want you to think we've read all the way through. We're allowing other people to write whatever they want about us on our walls, unless we don't like it, in which case we just erase it. If we had that much privacy in real life, the bathrooms at that Minnesota airport would be empty.

Having spent some time on Facebook and MySpace, not sure that I agree that we're presenting idealized versions of ourselves in these networks--I've seen enough photos and wall comments on that "wild party last weekend, dude" to think that on social networks we're doing less identity management than maybe we should.

Maybe what we need, as John Powers suggested, is a way to start forgetting some things. Maybe all this computing power that makes digital identity so challenging (the Web NEVER forgets) is the real problem.

As humans we've always managed how we present ourselves to the world--we've always wanted to put our best foot forward. But in the digital world, what that looks like gets much broader--I can have several identities at once, all living on in their own little worlds--and my various identities are always there, just a Google search away. Makes it harder to change and to grow when an employer can so quickly and easily find out that 10 years ago you were seriously into partying. Does that employer have the ability to use that information for good or does it appear as immediate as anything you did 10 months ago and therefore makes you still suspect?

I suspect that we have a ways to go in learning how to evaluate and integrate all these facets of identity. In real life, I can only present one identity at a time. I might bring in different pieces as we get to know each other better, but you generally have the time to integrate these new pieces of knowledge about me into what you already know and the process feels more organic. But I'm already seeing that presenting different faces to the world online is more problematic--we have a hard time integrating all those pieces together at once. What do we we do when your blog, your Facebook profile and your activity on various online forums shows me all facets of who you are within 5 minutes. Can I handle that? Can I integrate all of that or will I just look at the negative pieces and run the other way? 

No answers here--just some more questions. I agree with Angela that this is all very messy.

Comments

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As you know, this is a very real topic for me. I wrestle with it every day, especially as different opportunities open themselves up in my niche. I hope you don't mind if I incorporate this into a recent post that I have been thinking on in regards to this exact topic...with links of course (grin). You are very succinct and eloquent in addressing this issue!

I have found these posts and subsequent comments about identity and so on to be both interesting and valuable. I am finally starting to present a side of me that isn't often seen in public ie a questioning, doubtful person.I have just written a blog entry talking about my professional doubts, which I believe is very 'brave' considering where and who I work with. So I am waiting to see if there is any reaction in my profession. Thanks a lot

Over the past couple of months I've been trying to understand social networks like Facebook. That's meant exploring a bit. It's very interesting for an old guy, entering geezerhood, to look at how younger people present themselves. Something the experience of age allows is knowing that the presentation of yourself as a young person will change. It changes because as Mary Catherine Bateson wrote we're composing our lives.

The first book I ever bought when I was 17, as more or less a professional book, was "Values and Teaching" by Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin and Sidney Simon. Raths thought that we grow and learn from our experiences and out of these experiences we develop values. Values tend to give direction to our lives.

Raths also thought that values had to be chosen from options. Choosing values is a little bit like trying on clothes in that we have to embrace them, and get close in order to make a judgment as to whether they are right. I think kids more than adults understand this.

The trouble with thinking about our online identities as a brand is that brands are relatively static, but we're growing and learning so our identities reflect that.

There are transcendent values, perhaps not doing to others that which is repugnant to you, or forgiving others just as you forgive, are a couple. Transcendent values are very specific and objective, but not easily nailed down. The reason is that living is growing and learning. Our values are important in the context of our lives.

Like you I don't have the answers, just questions. I do think that as we put more of ourselves online that it will change how we see others too. Perhaps we'll become not so quick to know the answers about others, and more willing to ask questions to discover one another. Perhaps together we'll begin to imagine our identities as collaborative and creative compositions.

Phil Jones is a smart guy. Here's a recent post about Facebook that's really interesting. http://blahsploitation.blogspot.com/2007/10/hmmmm.html

Less on the deep philosophical end of the question and more on the pragmatic side, I just saw an interesting example of a "social media resume." This is an effort by someone to provide a single place for a potential employer to see a collection from all his various online presences. This might be a partial solution to Angela's worries of being spread out all over with multiple accounts.
http://www.bryper.com/2007/10/08/die-resume-die-die-die/

John, I agree with your observation about where the metaphor of branding breaks down as our identity changes. Is there a better metaphor for "putting our best foot forward" with our online identities than branding?

About better metaphors...I'm not so good about metaphors or tagging. But in terms of "putting our best foot forward" the branding metaphor is actually useful. As Phil Jones points out Facebook might be viewed as "social-network management" services. So Facebook allows --or will soon allow--a professional network. The challenge is for people to keep, for example their S&M networks, separate and private, from their professional stuff. It is hard to figure out the terrain, so how effectively we become in managing our diverse networks becomes is an open question. But Phil certainly has his finger on something; people now need to manage their social networks. Advertisers target their ads all the time. Now regular people will start to do so too.

WOW! Thanks for all of these great comments and thoughts! I love how all of you are pushing my thinking on this.

John--I agree with you that there are pros and cons to calling all of this branding. I'm not really a big fan of the term, actually, but I haven't come across anything that conveys the sense of more focused, consistent messages. Certainly as we grow and develop as people, there should be room for our "brands" to change. I also am not keen on the idea that we have to be that focused in our messages. For example, I have interests and expertise in several different areas that are not necessarily related. I struggle all the time with how to convey my "brand" as I find that we live in a world where we want the specialists, not the generalists. People seem to be confused if we offer that we could do a variety of things. Or maybe that's just how I'm interpreting it. :-)

I agree with you that we have to look at how we manage our different personas and that Facebook may be a platform for that, although I have mixed feelings about them. I participate there because that's where people are, but it's not necessarily my favorite destination.

Christy--thank you for the references to the social media resume. That's actually very interesting and a little of where I've tried to go in creating an online portfolio for myself. But again, I struggle with the consistency factor as I have experiences and projects spread into a variety of areas, so it can be hard to provide the focus.

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