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. ;)