Digital Identities and “Real” Selves

Well, we are drawing on the end of week 1 around the prompt for Digital Identity in our #DigPINS group and I thought I would check in about my own thoughts on the topic. As a facilitator of the community I can’t promise I’ll have the bandwidth to blog with everyone for every week but digital identity is something that I’m fascinated by and my thinking has been stimulated by all of our conversations and I was inspired to jump in.

Selves and Spaces

Digital identity is an interesting topic to me because it falls in this intersection of who a person is and what impact their environment has on the way they present themselves and how those two realms interact with one another. This is also why I appreciate how the identity week and the networks week in #DigPINS sort of feed into one another.

We like to think that we get to make the choice about who we are and while I think that we have a lot control over defining ourselves I can’t shake how much we are defined by our environments, the roles that we hold, and those that we are surrounded by. 

We like to think that we have the luxury of precisely and specifically defining ourselves for the world but that is never the case. This becomes particularly problematic in thinking about digital identity because there is a plethora of rhetoric both condemning and advocating for presentation of self online that just muddies the waters. 

One side of this paradigm promotes presentation of self, in excess, in as many platforms as possible, toward a complete representation of an authentic self, and holds up this idea as a way to become more in tune with who you are through the connecting with others. This is flawed of course but no better is the other side which sees digital connecting as narcissism and navel gazing at best and demonizes any kind of presentation of self online. 

Active listening

In 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Whol published “Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance” in the journal Psychiatry. Here, they brought in a new concept and term – the parasocial interaction. They observed that there was a one-sided social interaction that spectators could experience with television characters that could begin to feel like a personal relationship to some. If you have ever had a crush on a celebrity or hoped that your favorite TV character might fall in love with another character, you have had a parasocial interaction. 

Parasocial interactions most often are healthy and normal and can even aid in self-development. But for me this begs to ask a question about digital identity. Horton and Whol were looking at connections that spectators were making with people on television but in our modern times so many have the opportunity to create environments where they can be watched and where they try to build an audience. So many who are not professional actors or journalists. I’m sure there is more literature about how spectators of online content creators have parasocial interactions. I need to look into this more but I’m curious how this bleeds together when the content creators are connecting with each other.

Our identities are not just shaped by the digital creations we put out but by how they are received by those who read, view, and consume what we create. I’d like to suggest that as humans we are bigger than what we create. Be we celebrity or low-level education blogger we can’t control every aspect of how our creations will be received. They cannot represent the whole of who we are and yet it seems there persists an expectation that they should. Is this because we are used to parasocial connections that are made with those who are professionals in making content? Are we comparing our digital representations of self to those that have whole production teams behind them?

Real and Authentic Selves

I have a complicated relationship with the way we use the word “real” in online spaces. In terms of digital identity the word “authenticity” is another that gives me pause. It seems that those two narratives that I mentioned before – those two extremes: utopian presentation of self in excess and the other that shuns digital representation – both of these paradigms love to use these words. Both ascribe to the idea that “real” and “authentic” are things that could be simple. Simple as excess of content or lack of content in favor of physicality.

It rings more true for me that our “real” selves are much more complex than we want to admit and that our audiences, friends, and yes even families know us in contexts and environments that align to different presentations of self. That I don’t behave the same way with my family that I would in a job interview or in this blog post is normal and healthy. I think that expectations that we be all things in all contexts are misplaced. 

I recognize that this is dangerous territory,  and I should be clear that I’m not advocating for any of this at a lack of personal integrity. I am advocating for sincerity over authenticity and finding a way to celebrate digital contextualization that is not based in celebrity but in something closer to every-day experiences. It seems that if we can do that anywhere that it would be in learning spaces.  

I’m excited to start week 2 around networks and I’m really grateful that #DigPINS gives us all an opportunity to discuss these concepts. 

This post is cross listed as part of the January 2019 #DigPINS cohort that I helped to facilitate at https://snc.digpins.org/uncategorized/digital-identities-and-real-selves/

Image CC0 Author Foundry from Pixabay

2 thoughts on “Digital Identities and “Real” Selves”

  1. I’m really interested in the language you use here about actors, acting, and celebrity. Drama is, after all, a discipline taught in many of our colleges, and it seems odd that we don’t consult them more on these issues of the way your self-presentation interacts with your identity.

    (Of course, there’s the major difference that the actor does get to take themselves out of the role at the end of the day… or try to. But even there, maybe there are lessons about work-life balance we could all learn, or lessons about shifting social roles/identities from space to space, some of which are virtual.)

    Soap opera actors, in particular, seem to have a lot of stories about negative parasocial interactions… being accosted in the grocery store by someone who can’t separate the actor from the role, that kind of thing. It seems like that, too, might be a good model for getting accosted by a stranger about some part of your digital presentation. How do you handle criticism from someone who only knows a part of you?

    1. Hi Joe,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog. How does one handle criticism from someone who only knows a part of you?

      So, with a question like this I think we start to walk two lines – one between subjective and objective and one between criticism and critical.

      Personally, I’m not a finished book – hence the liminality, so criticism is something I tend to take seriously. I want to grow and I want to change toward a better self and a better environment around me so I’m always thankful for outside observations. I take my subjective experience seriously and understand the value in objective observation. However, the problem with objectivity is that it is always happening through a lens – there is always an observer. The observer brings sight and experience but with that they also bring their own blindnesses and lack of experience – or as you put it they only know part of you. Because of this I can’t exactly trust criticism for the sake of criticism. The critic is always viewing from a limited lens. As a subject who is being observed it is easy for an observer to objectify and I find that the only resolve is to meet criticism with criticality. If I expose the criticism to criticality and the criticism holds water, well then I am at fault here and I need to consider how I can change. If the criticism falls flat well then I can only assume that it was somehow flawed in the first place.

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