Earlier this week I was asked to present on a Digital Identity panel hosted by Oxford Brookes University, alongside Josie Fraser, George Roberts and Patsy Clarke. The panel session focused on ‘Protecting and reflecting yourself online, issues of responsibility, trust and control’ and the presentations were as follows:
- Josie Fraser – The contemporary privacy debate; “friending” your students
- Helen Keegan – The evolution of a personal professional identity
- George Roberts – Conflated meanings at the institutional (and demonic) level
- Patsy Clarke – publicly private and privately public
I was asked to discuss multiple identities and representations, exploring identity play and the interactive tensions between individual and community. I decided to approach this from my own experience from perspective in terms of practice as a practitioner-researcher, describing my personal journey as it’s a journey which I think many people can relate to as it’s not been straightforward by any means (also, Cristina Costa keeps telling me to write it down 😉 so here goes:
I started using the internet early in 1994, at which time most of my friends thought I was being a ‘geek’ and a bit of a weirdo. Fast forward to the advent of Web 2.0 (i’m saving you a long story) when I joined Flickr and that became my hang-out.
I love Flickr.
Despite the occasional politics and fall-outs that are characteristic of any online community, it’s the ultimate Web 2.0 platform IMHO – pretty much anything that you can think of on the web is going on somewhere on Flickr, if you know how to find it.
Flickr is my online social space, although over the years it’s gradually spilled over into offline as friendships and relationships have formed within and across a multitude of overlapping groups. Virtual has become real (whatever that means), and one of the joys of meeting up with Flickr friends is the opening up of identity, as many community members adopt pseudonyms and personas online which conceal their RL personas. The community within which I participate has much in common with IRC and MUD behaviours in terms of identity play, and it is common for members to hold multiple Flickr accounts.
So yes, Flickr was my home in the Web 2.0 world…
Around the same time I start using blogs with students – although I never blogged myself until a colleague gave me a metaphorical kick up the butt and then I realised I quite enjoyed it. Anyway, I was careful never to give any indication of my real name and/or occupation on Flickr so I could keep my spaces separate (I didn’t want students finding my account, among other things). I could be completely juvenile on Flickr, talk on a professional level on my blog and nobody would be any the wiser – SL wasn’t a problem because both my avatar names were so obscure and anything I said disappeared into the ether. However, I did open another Flickr account for sensible pics…
There was a surge of interest as Education 2.0 went into the mainstream and an increasing number of online CoPs of EdTech practitioners emerged. While communities such as WebHeads had been around for a while, in the UK the community which saw EdTech-types connecting and aggregating like there was no tomorrow was JISC-EMERGE.
I was torn.
I really wanted to blog and hang out on EMERGE island, but there were only so many hours in the day! However, time wasn’t the real issue. The real issue was that people were linking, connecting, aggregating – my carefully constructed/hidden IDs were no longer easy to control, or prevent access to. I didn’t want to make my original Flickr account ‘friends only’ because I love the randomness of comments/tags, but at the same time I didn’t want to be doing everything publicly and ‘perfoming’ all the time. It’s a private space – that is, in the sense of ‘publicly private’…
Clashing context and blurring boundaries resulted in one or two awkward moments, but only one or two. The main problem was in relation to my own role within and across communities, in terms of insider research and an ongoing unpublished virtual ethnography which crosses the awkward line between participant and researcher (put it this way: it’s on hold).
However, there were more complications to come in the shape of Facebook. I thought it would be a good idea to have 2 accounts: 1 work, 1 play. This way I could decide where to hang out (it’s all part of my failed communication-management masterplan) and minimise ‘noise’ from friends when connecting with colleagues/from colleagues when connecting with friends.
Twitter added a whole new dimension to my increasingly fragmented online self – how to tweet to one audience without alienating/boring another and vice versa? I’m only a half-twit for this reason (although after reading this you may beg to differ).
So, by 2008 I had:
- 3 personal blogs (and was involved in numerous staff and student blogs)
- 2 SL avatars
- 2 facebook accounts
- 6 flickr accounts (3 work, 3 play)
I was tired, I wanted to be one person everywhere (well, nearly everywhere), and so I eventually settled on a constant screenname and streamlined the whole operation. Yes, I’m now Heloukee across most platforms. In most cases I set up entirely new accounts, which may result in a loss of kudos as I look like a newbie (for instance, apparently I only joined YouTube in 2009). Choosing the name was a lengthy process in itself as there’s already Helen Keegan of mobile marketing fame on the web (we’ve had a giggle about it, connecting on FB and LinkedIn etc.). I still retain a few old/personal/’hidden’ accounts (one of which being where I hang out the majority of the time), but on the whole I am more comfortable with a) my professional ID and b) my other networks knowing more about who I am and what I do.
I see aggregation in terms of pros and cons:
a) as a means of dealing with the mass of communication and avoiding overload
b) developing a strong online ID
a) loss of personal privacy i.e. ‘everybody knows what i’m doing’
b) lack of relevance to audience(s), Twitter being a good example of this
It’s been an interesting journey and having spoken to nearly 150 people about my experience I know that it’s fairly typical, but it does seem to be less in common in EdTech circles for some reason, possibly because the majority of people tend to mainly use internet professionally and to connect to RL friends/family – as opposed to complete loons on the internet?
Ultimately it’s a tale of identity and communication management – the management of our own digital brand, the public and the private self (and the publicly-private and the privately-public), and the ongoing reflexivity and recurrent sense-making which is often required as our lives are increasingly lived online.