The evolving online identity

I am

Identity is an issue users struggle with across all online communities. Perhaps one reason for this is because more often than not, online identities are a crafted attempt to attract others.  While not always the case, often an online identity is an attempt to create some form of community or personal learning network rather than stand as a individualistic expression of our own identities.  For example, Twitter allows us 140 characters to define ourselves and identify the community we are trying to reach. Those few characters, the avatar picture we choose and the tweets we send out are strong determinants not only of who we are, but also of how we hope others to see us.  However, they are identities that may or may not be completely representative of our “real life” selves.

We create online identities with a purpose, yet virtual online communities provide the inherent flexibility and space for these identities to evolve and change. In regards to the identities employees choose in corporate online communities (such as a company intranet) Brown & Dugiud (2001) present an interesting and forgiving insight. “Work identities . . . are less something mandated by structure or dictated through culture, and more something that participation actually helps create” (p. 202).  In other words, it’s the act of participating and engaging that actually verifies the integrity of an online identity, rather than the credibility of the 140 characters next to your photo.

In my first post, I wrote, “I love that I am a constant work of progress.” While online virtual communities make erasing the past impossible, they provide us with the flexibility to explore. We can change our minds, shift our focus and mingle with different networks, altering our identity with every interaction should we choose. We must acknowledge that identities are shaped by our present interactions more so than the documented accomplishments of the past.  We are supposed  to be changing, evolving – that’s how we move forward. In order for individuals to be willing to embrace the vulnerability of online communities and establish virtual identities, communities must present a psychologically safe space that recognizes that the integrity of one’s opinion first and foremost lies in the act of participating, rather than being “right”.

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3 thoughts on “The evolving online identity”

  1. Great insights, Andee!

    Was struck by this, “While online virtual communities make erasing the past impossible, they provide us with the flexibility to explore. We can change our minds, shift our focus and mingle with different networks, altering our identity with every interaction should we choose. We must acknowledge that identities are shaped by our present interactions more so than the documented accomplishments of the past.”

    As someone who is generally sanguine about life, I think the past is an important part of who we are in the present, be it is a proud moment or less so. And the past gives the present a unique context, and meaning e.g. redemption.

    In the physical world, chronology manifests through effects like fading memory and healing wounds. And the present naturally stands out more because it engages all of our senses. In the virtual world, many senses are muted and effects are captured in words that may look the same whether we read it today or in 5 year’s time. How might this make virtual identities potentially different from real life identities? How might we sharpen the distinctions of time in the virtual world so we can have a better understanding of people’s evolving identities over time? And can help others understand that it is evolving identity that shapes identity, and overcome their potential concerns about virtual engagement?

    Or is this too sanguine a view? 🙂

    1. Hi Stanley – I love your comment because it highlights the importance of some key distinctions! First – I don’t think it’s possible to ever really be too sanguine 😉

      I completely agree with you that the past most definitely shapes who we are and how we end up in various roles, locations, viewpoints, etc. in life. What I think is different about online communities is that one’s present state doesn’t necessarily need to rely on the past in order to qualify for a certain space or role. Your credibility, specifically, is determined first and foremost by an individual’s willingness to participate rather than the number of qualifications from their past. And in that sense, online communities are extremely liberating.

      1. I love how you write and think! Glad I found you through Jeff!
        I think there’s a flipside to this though too – and that is not everyone finds it easy and comfortable to participate online – it’s a learned skill, a literacy that needs to be practiced and developed. Some people will take to it more easily than others. And I think a lot of it has to do also with what you discuss in your next post – opening yourself up to vulnerability and letting go of the compulsion to be in control – of how people respond to what you put out, whether people choose to interact with you – and I think to an extent – control over your own online identity.

        As you’ve suggested, online identity and credibility is relative – it can change in an instant (because a lot of what you do and say is documented, and open for all to see). The internet, or rather the people on it, can be fickle.

        The other thing is qualifications – I think perhaps there are still qualifications by which to judge credibility online, but they’re just different – perhaps it’s now things like number of followeers, likes, comments, connections – but also participation in conversation with others (as you’ve suggested here.) – who you converse with, what about, and how.

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