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.
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/