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Digital identities

In this video Dr Darren Reed looks at the identities we assume in the online world.

In the video above, Dr Darren Reed outlines the importance of our online identities, and how essential it is that we possess the necessary skills – the digital literacies – required to forge those identities: identities that allow us to participate in online communities.

Personal identity is a complex and multifaceted concept: our identity is crafted from a number of different factors: our background, ethnic group, interactions with other, beliefs, the decisions we make…

Often we have no control over how others perceive us, or how they might interpret our interactions with them. Our personal identity is something that evolves over time and can change, sometimes drastically, throughout our lifetime as we interact with new people and gain new knowledge and understandings.

We present ourselves in particular ways in different contexts, in what might be described as the performance of identity. How you behave with your parents may be very different to how you behave with your friends, for instance. And this extends to the online world. Indeed, digital technologies give us the opportunity to represent the hand we’ve been dealt in yet more creative ways. We’re back to Peter Steiner’s dog again.

Construction of personal identity

When we consider the construction of our online identity we could see this as the emergence of a new kind of self (as Hongladarom does). There is a fuzziness between the online and offline self that cannot be completely separated, but the controls that we have in the online environment offer new opportunities to construct our personal identity. In an online world where the written word often represents us far more than our voice and conversations are not, for the most part, conducted in real time (at least not at the speed of speech), we can be more selective about what we post, carefully crafting our sentences to cultivate the right impression. This, of course, requires literacies: literacy in the conventional understanding of the term (our ability to use written language is essential in a written medium), but also digital literacies like being able to navigate and edit online text, being able to copy and paste, and understanding the grammar and short-hand of the medium in which you’re posting (e.g. ‘threads’ and ‘@’s in Twitter).

In addition to the potential for greater eloquence, we can also take control of how we look. Our visual appearance becomes that of our avatar, which may be a photo of us, or it may be a photo of a kitten, or an alien, or a tree, or whatever we like. Again, understanding the codes and conventions of this online environment is a literacy, as is the ability to source and edit the image that represents us.

In the online world, then, we can, to a large extent, try to be who we want to be – or at least experiment with our identities and try things out with far less risk than we might encounter in the physical world. But our ability to shape our identity is governed by our understanding of the medium.

“Pictures or it didn’t happen”

Some online communication is more anonymous than others, and that effects how creative we can be with our identity. Research by Zhao, Grasmuck & Martin has shown that identities created in a named environment differ to those constructed in an anonymous online setting: “Facebook users predominantly claim their identities implicitly rather than explicitly – they ‘show rather than tell’ – and stress group and consumer identities over personally narrated ones.”

‘Picture or it didn’t happen’ has become the populist mantra of the socially networked digital age. We exist now in a Facebook / Twitter / Instagram stream of pictures of workouts, steps taken, dinners, family parties (that we didn’t attend), holidays, other people’s family events, ‘milestones’… In the online world do we become, in some levels, one dimensional? Is our identity purely based on what we post, or is it influenced or contextualised by other aspects such as the specific makeup of the social networks in which we are engaging? Across the rest of this activity, we’ll explore in more depth the interaction of our virtual and physical selves.

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