Behind the Mask of Digital Identity

“Everyone presents himself to the others and to himself, and sees himself in the mirrors of their judgements.  The masks he then and thereafter presents to the world and its citizens are fashioned upon his anticipations of their judgements.”

Anselm Strauss“Mirrors and Masks: the search for identity.” (1969)

Although Strauss was writing more than two decades before the Internet became part of mainstream popular culture his quote applies equally well to the concept of how we present ourselves online through a digital identity. This post was very much fashioned with the anticipations and judgements of my audience in mind, and the points I intend to make play very much to that audience and have influenced the content and style of the post greatly. I have considered (some of my friends would say far too much for a humble blog post) what to include, and what not to include, not only because I want it to be useful and provide help to others who are just starting to ponder the possible conflicts within their own digital identity (or identities), but also because I am acutely aware of what this says about my own digital identity to others.

 mask blur

(Image by â™¥KatB Photography♥, available on Flickr under the Creative Commons licence)

Whenever someone tells us how we ought to present ourselves in life, we’re wary and often apprehensive about their motives, so why should we be any less skeptical when someone tells us how to present our digital identities? Without wanting to generalise in the realms of psychology too much, we all have our internal conflicts and our own idiosyncracies that make us who we are and that filters through into our digital identities. That’s what makes providing guidance on digital identity so challenging, because our motives for publishing vignettes of ourselves online, often for a variety of different audiences, on a variety of different social media sites and for a variety of different reasons, makes any guidance at best problematic and at worst, potentially damaging.

So why bother with what I, or anyone else for that matter, says about ensuring that the mask of your digital identity doesn’t slip? Do we all wear ‘masks’ or different hats for different occasions anyway, or are we always the same when it comes to our online interactions? What should we, with complete and unabashed honesty, share with the world and what should we keep private? Should we distinguish between our professional and social lives, and if so, where do we draw the line?

These questions and the artificial boundaries that spring up in response to them will vary enormously from individual to individual, but in spite of this variance we should all care, in my opinion, about our digital identities because they provide a lens for others when defining who we are. Granted, the picture is a little bit like a jigsaw with a number of pieces missing and often gets distorted and can sometimes be taken out of context, but it’s still a snapshot that reflects you in some way.

So why do I care?  And, more importantly, why should you care? Well, let’s just rewind a little and go back to the point about having different audiences, using different sites and for different reasons, for anything you publish online.  You should care because you’re probably an academic who is not only interested in your own digital identity, but you also have a level of responsibility for learners in terms of educating them in the safe and responsible use of online media. It’s also highly likely that you’re juggling a number of digital identities yourself and are wrestling with what to share/what not to share/where to share it/with whom, etc.

By not developing a digital identity not only are we not keeping abreast of how such online exchanges might benefit us, but we’re also doing our learners a disservice as well, because how can we possibly hope to educate them in how to traverse the ever evolving digital landscape, safely and responsibly, when we neither use nor understand how such networks operate ourselves?

Stories abound in the media about teachers making faux pas with learners through social media use, resulting in disciplinary action or, in some cases, dismissal, which no doubt puts off many from developing their own digital identity on any social media platforms at all.  However, according to Kevin Campbell-Wright, a fellow blogger and recognised expert on e-safety, is playing it safe always the safest option?  Withdrawing from the social media arena entirely might seem like an attractive option in light of the more negative stories in the media, but is it?

Ultimately, if we decide to take the decision to ‘opt out’ and go for online anonymity, there are still inherent risks.  In fact, in some walks of life, such as advertising, public relations or the media, no digital identity could be detrimental or equate to either a lack of achievement or to a perceived lack of competence with how social media operates entirely. Furthermore, is opting out really an option for modern learners? Werdmuller, co-founder of Elgg, argues in his blog that although no one is forced to join Facebook for example, it’s pretty much a mandatory part of the social experience for many and not joining is perceived as outside the norm and that you have something to hide.

Also, not venturing into the digital landscape yourself to develop an online presence doesn’t mean to say that someone else hasn’t done it on your behalf. The Pew Internet Project report (2007) carried out a study entitledDigital Footprints: Online identity management and search in the age of transparency that distinguishes between two types of digital footprint – active and passive. The former being a voluntary disclosure of personal information by the individual and the latter (passive) where the personal data of an individual is made available online with no intentional intervention from the individual. The revelation that we may have a digital identity that we were not even aware of may not necessarily be as sinister as it sounds – in the Web 2 world of photo sharing, blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc, it’s almost inevitable that someone, probably one of your friends or even family, has shared something about you online.

So, what practical steps can you, or your learners, take to monitor your digital identity and ensure that the way in which it is “presented to the world” gives you a degree of autonomy to present the facets you want to present?

There are various ways of keeping tabs on your digital identity. Obviously, you can google yourself from time to time, but I’d recommend that you search for your name on a range of different search engines as the criteria they use for ranking web pages will vary, so the websites where your name crops up will also vary in the search results. This method also presumes that you will actively search for results against your name on a fairly regular basis, which (even for the most egocentric amongst us) could mean you forget and miss something.  In fact, according to the aforementioned Pew report, as little as 3% of people regularly make a habit of monitoring their online presence, 22% say they check “every once in a while” whilst the remaining 74% have only ever checked their digital footprint once or twice.

Alternatively, you could try Google Alerts, which will monitor the web for occurrences of your name and will then email you the results (here’s a quick YouTube tutorial that shows you how). This approach removes the onus from you to actively keep searching for new instances of passive digital footprints associated with your name. Should you come across something that is less than flattering, such as a snide tweet, an unflattering photo, or derogatory blog post, etc, you at least have the opportunity to address it and defend your position.  I say opportunity, because in certain cases the best response is no response, as some people deliberately try to provoke a response with such behaviour and it’s always worth considering the impact and credibility of each instance on a case by case basis.

Concerns over how you interact and are perceived by learners in a digital environment provides one incentive to cultivate a positive digital identity, but that same perception amongst peers is equally important and, crucially, how you come across to future employers too, who are increasingly starting to research potential employees on the Internet prior to interview.

This all sounds a little negative, so let’s look at the positives of having a digital identity too. The advantages of keeping in touch with family and friends that are geographically dispersed speak for themselves, and no doubt accounts for the fact that Facebook recorded some 845 million monthly active users by the end of 2011. By monitoring you can also stumble upon a number of complimentary instances of your name too that you weren’t aware of and deserve acknowledgement and perhaps even a response. This is particularly the case at educational events where the use of Twitter as a backchannel can offer a lively compliment to the proceedings, but people often miss out on this if they don’t use Twitter. The same is equally true of blogs that can also provide a more reflective source of topical issues prevalent in education today – if you’ve done something that’s particularly innovative or noteworthy then there’s an excellent chance that someone, somewhere will have blogged about it. In fact, in the article 14 Things You Should Do To Protect Your Online Reputation Invesp recommends taking control by setting up social media profiles and your own blog with your own domain name as a means of establishing a positive digital identity. Not only does this minimise the possibility that someone else may maliciously set up a negative, false profile in your name, but also by keeping your own blog you have the control to voice your own views rather than allowing others to present potentially skewed and negative interpretations that may reflect badly on you to others.

According to the Open University’s Careers website having a positive digital footprint is also an excellent opportunity to market yourself to potential employers. As well as keeping a blog there are a number of sites where you can develop a profile to showcase your skills and experience and allow you to control what you share publicly.  Linked In, for example, is the world’s largest professional network with over a 150 million profiles where you can decide which elements of your profile are public and visible to search engines. You can also improve SEO by including your name in a personalised URL for your account, which will ensure a higher ranking in any search against your name.  There’s a plethora of sites that offer tips and advice on making the most of your digital identity on Linked In, but for an excellent overview I’d recommend looking at Pooky Hesmondhalgh’s 10 tips for getting the most out of Linked In.

If you’d like to find out more about digital identity, especially in relation to teaching and learning, I can also strongly recommend Catherine Cronin‘s post, Resources for exploring digital identity, privacy and authenticity, which provided me with many of the ideas (and inspiration) for this post too. When it comes to developing your own digital identity, even though there are certainly more questions than answers, the important thing is to explore the options so that you can make an informed decision on which tools are appropriate (or not) for you, and how to make best use of them. Yes, this will almost certainly involve some mistakes and a certain amount of self discovery along the way – but isn’t that what learning is all about?

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