the unbearable lightness of being…digital

The other afternoon, I’d hoped to hang out in George Siemens‘ #change11 live session on sensemaking and wayfinding in digital environments, but taxes and dinner and all the other demands of living got in the way. As ever. So I caught up this morning.

Which is fitting, since sensemaking and wayfinding as a construct deals in part with the challenges of engaging with live, participatory media when one can’t always be present in the firehose of information onslaught that it generates.

Sometimes this digital identity stuff gets overwhelming.

Not the thinking and the research. The living it.

The Learning Curve: Digital Identity & Sociality Mean Constant Sensemaking & Wayfinding
Connect, filter, engage, share, participate, curate, perform, strategize, relate, produce, add value: these are some of the verbs and phrases affiliated with identity in the age of social media.

I think “locate and tether” need to be added to the list.

I don’t think of my digital life or self as particularly separate from my so-called “real” one. I’m interested in the phenomenon of enmeshed, augmented identity: how our digital practices shape and are shaped by the multiple other aspects of our lives. Most of us today live in atoms & bytes, both. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the online world is both the stage and repository of central aspects of my self and life.

But the particulars that distinguish my digital identity and existence from how I operate when the laptop is shut?

In two weeks’ time, I’m leading the second-last of the change11 MOOC topics, on digital identities and subjectivities. In short, exploring who we are when we’re online. I’m also in the middle of writing the methodologies chapter for my thesis proposal, explaining the ethnographic study I’ll be doing next year on digital identity.

I think of these kinds of adventures as exploratory learning curves: I’ve never facilitated a MOOC, nor outlined a methods and methodologies plan. I’m learning, cobbling together ideas as I go.

Dealing with constantly making sense of semi-contextualized information is a part of navigating anything new. It can be stressful, but also exhilarating and rewarding.

But when digital identity isn’t just your field but a huge part of your so-called “real life” – the way you interact with vast swaths of your personal and professional world – then the constant sensemaking and wayfinding and learning?

I wonder if it isn’t the hardest part of social media practice.

Digital Identity Means Farewell, Linearity?
See, I’m not much of a morning person. Every day, far too shortly after dawn, I half-open one eye. I croak with forced cheer at the children as I exhort them to dress and make their beds and eat. The coffee gets made, and then the world gradually shifts into focus and lunches get packed and off we all go.

What makes mornings doable for me is that my fridge stays in the same place every day. There are few variables for me to navigate in my blurry, unresilient state. Sure, the kids have moods and some days I need to actually shower or remember to write a cheque. But overall, there’s a routine I can stumble through in linear fashion.

Minimal sense-making and wayfinding are required.

HEY! Who Moved the Damn Fridge?
Online, my digital identity enters a new and multiple and constantly-shifting world everyday.

The architecture does tend to remain the same – though it is occasionally altered at random, leaving me wondering where the bloody fridge got to or why my Direct Messages have disappeared – but instead of four people trundling through the relative routine of getting dressed, fed, and out the door, there are thousands of people going every which way.

It’s like waking up in a brand new train station every single day. Some good friends and interesting acquaintances are usually there with you, passing through, but you can’t be sure any of them will actually be present. And, rather like my offspring, there’s no predicting or accounting for what kind of knot people’s knickers will be in on any given morning.

Digital Sociality: The Stress of Waking Up in a New Train Station Everyday
This is all part of what makes social media interesting. It also adds the stress and pressure of constant, public navigation of non-linearity to what are basically daily, mundane interactions.

Digital sociality means constantly trying to ascertain if you’ve understood the context of a conversation enough to enter it.

Digital sociality means having to re-orient yourself in space and time and relationality each time the context changes, which can be minute-to-minute.

Digital sociality means patching together disjointed fragments in order to frame a present in which to be.

Digital sociality means the effort to communicate intent and tone and personality with economy and concision, without necessarily being sure who’s listening or how they will hear what you say.

Digital sociality means pressure to maintain enough of a traceable public identity, via blog and social media platforms, that people can build the trust necessary to engage with you as an actual entity and not an anonymous troll (I waxed didactic on this one in Dave’s comments section this morning).

Now, these are – boiled down – simply a part of human interaction.  Other than the final point, which is specific to dis-embodied and distributed engagements in environments where people may not necessarily have pre-existing social ties, they’re part of social life in all arenas. Humans are semi-predictable creatures, at best.

But the architecture of our daily lives – our homes, our streets and offices, our built environments in general – are pretty static.

Online, this tends to be less true. Law & LaTour’s work in – and beyond – Actor Network Theory goes so far as to posit that technologies can be actors and agents in relational interactions. My own dissertation focus will be on practices, thus foregrounding the human, but from the assumption that human practices are shaped by technological affordances: I am wordier on Facebook than on Twitter, simply because I can be.

And where we interact via platforms that we have no ownership of or control over, like Facebook and Twitter, we can truly wake up in the morning and find the fridge gone. Or in the basement. Change can happen very quickly, in a way not paralleled in embodied spaces.

The challenge of digital sociality is it’s all a constant, repeating learning curve.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Digital
In social media, the sensemaking and wayfinding processes that George foregrounds – how we make meaning, how we know what we know, how we understand others – have to be on overdrive all the time, trying to orient me to relationships, contexts, and goals all at once. It’s a tall order.

And when they fail to operate optimally – these untaught, gradually-acquired habits of navigation and constant re-orientation – I find myself accidentally floating away.

I follow a random link to cupcakes or world peace or the latest news in post-structural feminism, it matters not, and half an hour and sixteen links later, I surface, bewildered, wondering what in Jesus’ name just happened.

My digital self may not be especially different from my embodied person, but it sure has a hell of a harder time finding the fridge in the mornings. It has to work harder to stay focused on why it went to the fridge for in the first place. As a digital being, I have to work constantly to orient and re-orient myself to where I am and what I’m doing; to why and with whom I’m engaging.

This will be part of what we take up in my #change11 week starting May 7th. If you want to join in, even if you’ve fallen away from the MOOC or haven’t been part of it til now, you’re very welcome.

And in anticipation, I’ve started a Mendeley group on digital identities. After a week or two of initial neglect because I floated away from it and forgot to go back, my plan is now to start populating it with papers – and hopefully discussion – on the topic. Feel free to join in, and if you’ve happened on anything related to the idea of digital identity – please contribute. Crowdsourcing is one of the great benefits of digital sociality, after all.

Just don’t float away on your way on over. ;)

29 Comments the unbearable lightness of being…digital

  1. Pam @writewrds

    I’m fascinated by this. Necessarily, it changes how we think — our brain function. How we process and use information, how we spend and organize time.
    This way of thinking, socializing and doing didn’t exist 25 years ago. I agree we may not be much different digitally from how we are in reality, but I think the assumption (and consumption) of digital identities has altered us collectively.

    1. bon

      i suppose it does change how we think, Pam…at least to an extent, though i don’t know much about that b/c i look at it through the sociocultural lens, not the brain function lens. brains are interesting, but to me, how human practices and knowledge shape and are shaped by technologies is the shiny thing i can’t seem to turn away from. ;)

      on your final comment…how DO you think digital identities alter us collectively?

  2. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    As usual I love your ideas and metaphors (the fridge works well)- looking forward to your #change11 session.

    I’ve had trouble discerning the line between my online and (whatever the opposite is) other activities are. It seems like people construct them as being different when everything we do in social spaces represents some selective opening of this mystery we call “Self”.

    I recently made a video keynote for the Flat Classroom Project on “We, Our Digital Selves, and Us” playing on me being 3 characters

    and have an upcoming live session to play this out more (I hope to be liberally borrowing from yours).

    A friend recently suggested a metaphor of thinking how we go about choosing our clothes depending on the social context we expect to be in, dress wear for work, formal wear for dining out, comfy jeans for being at home, torn ones for working in the yard- this present signals to the world but also to us to the facets of self we are choosing to share.

    1. bon

      thanks much for the video, Alan…may i use that (at least in part) in the #change11 session?

      funny you mention the clothes…when i first starting talking about brand as a part of digital identity a couple of years ago, i told the story of explaining to Dave that no matter what he wore, he was making a choice about how he’d be read up and received: that there is no neutral.

  3. Catherine Cronin

    So happy I found your post today (thanks to Twitter). As a lapsed #change11 participant, I appreciate your open welcome to rejoin for your session in 2 weeks — I plan to do that. And as for exploring digital identity, I have been doing this myself and with my students this year, so I welcome the opportunity to share resource and ideas with you and others online. Don’t know why I waited so long to start using Mendeley! I have an account now and will join the group. Thanks :)

    1. bon

      glad you found me Catherine! welcome to the Mendeley group, and i’ll look forward to talking further in the #change11 session.

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  5. Jennifer Maddrell

    Hey, Bonnie … for whatever it is worth ($0.02 at best?), you are on to something very important here. For the past month, I’ve been struggling to piece together a paper that gets at the heart of your fridge and train station metaphors. [Warning: mixed metaphor alert] As someone who passes through various digital train stations each day, I am constantly trying to find my fridge. In my paper, I’m trying to say that online learning environments function at their best when they encourage learners to travel down and around all kinds of swirly and messy paths (train stations?), but that we also need to contemplate a home base (fridge?) … a place with stuff that they recognize and where there is a good chance they will stumble on (at least a few of) their peeps. In my paper, I’m layering in fancy terms like “ambient awareness”, but in the end … I’m just saying that it really sucks when we are making our way through our messy and magical digital journey and we can’t find our fridge :)

    1. bon

      i look forward to reading it, Jen…and yeh, i agree that it’s important to be able to orient oneself: expending too much mental energy on the mundane leaves little left for the other possibilities of interaction, at least for me. this is true whether online or offline…because in truth i don’t experience them as distinct but rather just parts of my life. except that navigating the bytes part of my life tends to require more attentiveness to orientation than the atoms part.

      i suppose it’s possible that that’s because i live mostly on my couch, writing?

      i’ll take full ownership/blame of the mixed train/fridge metaphor…i was thinking of it as waking up in a place that is structurally largely familiar across settings but not a single contained dwelling.

      1. Jennifer Maddrell

        hmmm … back to the fridge … when I read your post the first time through, I was thinking about something familiar that is always THERE (you know where it IS and you expect it to be THERE when you leave and return). I think of my Skype chat with Dave, John, and Jeff like that. When the interwebs send me to an “a-ha” moment or something / someone pisses me off, I go THERE to BE with my peeps. So, sounds like I stole your fridge (metaphor) and ran with it :)

  6. Jabiz Raisdana

    Let me admit that I am exhausted and suffering from a bit of digital burn out, but I still find your work and research fascinating.You are exploring many of the themes and ideas that draw me to the web and these networks.

    Thank you for doing the work, intellectualizing it, making it real and sharing it with us. I am learning a lot from you and your work.

    Will try and comment more substantial in the future. For now, just know I was hear. I read. I learned, and I appreciate.

    1. bon

      feeling a bit burnt myself, Jabiz…which is in part where this post came from. i get lost easily out here lately.

      just glad you were here. glad to have you in the conversation.

      1. Sarah Lohnes Watulak

        A propos of living in a world of constantly changing waypoints and digital fatigue, I wonder about the consequences for folks who aren’t able to easily navigate this environment? Who operate more naturally in a static world, and thus who find more success (personal, social, economic, academic, however you define it in a given context) in a world without (or with limits on) Twitter and RSS and blogging and Facebook? I’m not sure that instruction in new social media skills and competencies is the right answer, although this is the one I usually hear. What about the people who opt to opt out? I actually have college students who feel this way, who don’t want a smartphone because they don’t want to be constantly connected.

        I also think the general narrative around what it means to be a digital native assumes that our students are naturally capable of living and succeeding in this environment… a risky expectation, imo, especially if we continue to use it to structure students’ academic and social opportunities.

        1. bon

          see, i don’t have a smartphone.

          and i don’t believe in digital natives. i think younger learners may be more accustomed to computers being simply a part of learning, but i don’t think that means they have effective literacies for navigating or constructing knowledge online, by any means. i think all that needs to be scaffolded.

          that said, i’ve taught students – for years – who don’t like to read. who find text even in its traditional, more static, print form very difficult or undesirable to navigate. i’m all about giving them multiple strategies and trying to present options for alternatives, where possible, but interacting with print text? still a necessary part of becoming a “learned” person in our culture.

          i see digital sociality much the same way. i think there are all kinds of ways to opt in and out, to make choices around practices, though i’m not sure we – as a culture – understand the practices yet and therefore the choices. but the idea that it’s an optional overlay onto the “real” of academic culture or learning today, altogether? i don’t buy it. what it means to know in a given time changes with the technologies of the time. digital & media literacies are part of learning now. not for their own sake. and yes, they privilege some over others, as all literacies and skills do. but they are part of the base equation now, IMO.

          1. Sarah Lohnes Watulak

            Yup (the idea of the “digital native” is phooey) and yup (text still plays an important – and some would argue, central – role in formal schooling). :)

            I guess my point is that I think it’s important to understand that digital media are part of the base equation, as you nicely put it. Not to just assume it, as the digital native narrative would have use believe, but to acknowledge that a) it’s a significant change that b) will privilege some over the others, so that c) we can do some thinking around we can do to address those gaps.

  7. Vanessa Vaile

    A while back I came across a piece comparing Facebook culture and social exchanges actual small town versions of the same. Resonates because I live in a very small town. Sigh, now to find it again. Eureka! How a small town resembles Facebook

    So how do our pre-existing local (and other) identities shape our digital ones? How (much) can (or should) we integrate different IRL and digital identities?

    1. bon

      i think – though it may be hard to tell from this post, Vanessa – that our digital selves are enmeshed with our wake-up-in-the-morning selves…so absolutely, there’s a lot of influence and mutual constitution going on, and integration is already fairly significant.

      i see this whenever i stumble into political conversations online, for instance.

      and having grown up in a small town predisposes me to certain kinds of relationality, for sure: i wrote a few years ago that i don’t find the public aspects of identity and reputation that permeate social media especially unfamiliar:

      and yet…it’s the distinctions that interest me. what IS different about online vs my small town? what factors shape that? these are the fascinations driving me.

    1. bon

      …i don’t know where the sink is either, Christine…but the MOOC and Mendeley pieces are easier.

      a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course – here’s Dave in a video from our 2010 research project outlining briefly what they are:

      and Mendeley is one of many free tools available to grad students and academics and anybody else interested to collate research: there are a bunch, Mendeley happens to have decent social capacity for grouping together people with like interests and sharing resources. :)

  8. Quadelle

    I’ve been feeling a bit lost of late in the digital world. My blog is on hold until my thesis is finished, I’m wary of sharing too much of myself on FB, and I’m on Twitter so intermittently of late that making a comment or an observation doesn’t generate discussion like it once did. Although, I can at least still join in discussions, which is vital because although I love the wealth of knowledge and exposure to fascinating links, it’s the discussions and connections with people that give the online experience the most meaning for me.

    If I disappear from the online scene for a while there are so many other voices to take my place that most of the people I get online to connect with would not notice my absence. This is different than in person – where people notice if I’m missing or if we haven’t caught up for a while, and make an effort to touch base. I suspect it’s the same for many of us, and is an extension of the lack of clarity online about depth of relationships. It is clear in person when a connection is fleeting or acquaintance level only vs an actual friendship level. It is harder to gauge these things online, especially as people tend to go really deep really fast – so depth (a traditional indication of greater closeness) does not necessarily carry any more significance than information sharing. The usual cues aren’t in place to provide clarity, certainty or security – both in terms of what to expect and what to offer. In some ways the fluidity of this suits me, in other ways I dislike the ambiguity as it adds to the sense of everything / everyone online being disposable or unimportant. Yet, the people I connect with I don’t see as disposable, nor unimportant.

    Well, this was certainly a mishmash of thoughts! I better stop before I write an essay. :)

    1. bon

      excellent point…and one i haven’t given enough thought to. my instinctive response is that Twitter, particularly, functions like a cocktail party or mixer event: unless the people absent are your absolute core people, the ones who brung you, as it were.

      but what identity pressures does that create for constant presence? i wonder.

  9. atomic geography

    My OnLine self enjoyed this post. Gonna have to trn off the computer to find out what OffLine self thinks about it though.

    The OnLineIdentity/OffLineIdentity duality carries with it all the risks and rewards of any duality. How do we eat, much less discuss anything without saying This/NotThis? But at the same time it suggests some kind of unspoken idealized entity that some how keeps getting in the way, or hiding things. Maybe we should ask the machines how/what they feel/think about all this?

    1. bon

      see, for me the great trouble in talking about this is that i don’t think we have a dual identity at all…my selves are multiple and integrated across online and offline “interfaces.”

      but. at the same time, the particular affordances of technological platforms create particular pressures and those interest me, so i try to talk about them specifically. but it still doesn’t mean i think there’s a dualism at work.

      currently reading this, hoping it’ll help me find new ways to discuss this:

      1. atomic geography

        Actually I agree ther is no dual identity an am arguing (however unclearly) against duality. I agree with the idea of multiple identities. It’s the idea of a single identiy that corresponds with an idealized self I disagree with. Or at least with such an identity that doesn’t change.

        AT the same time, duality is anecessary tool in creating information. So it like our sense of self is something of a necessary illusion.

        For an even more unclear version of what I’m tring to get at try:

        BTW – really enjoy the discussion here

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