The World’s Biggest Small Town: or, Be the Twit you Want to See in the World

Over the weekend, I delivered my first-ever solo keynote at the always-fabulous Blissdom Canada conference in Toronto. I also got to be David Bowie for an evening, which was also a first. Plus Jian Ghomeshi told me – BEFORE I dressed up – that my hair has a Bowie thing going on. Heady times, people.

My keynote was an exploration of the ways digital media shape who we are and how we operate together in the brave new world of teh Internets. Building on my Digital Identities work for #change11 back in May, I outlined some of the key features – or affordances – of digital media and the selves that emerge when we connect in digital spaces. These selves are facets of who we are, just as the varying faces we wear when we hang out with our kids or our moms or our bosses or our friends are facets of who we are. And much like our various embodied selves, these digital selves are performative, networked, and quantified – but their performances and networks and metrics are shaped by the platforms they exist on. And thus, so are we.

I argued that these selves offer us potential like never before, and also make us vulnerable like never before. Our networks have the potential to be worldwide, and to scale far bigger than any face-to-face network really can. Our performances leave visible traces. The measurements and quantifications by which we tend to judge our effects on others are new and emergent: we’re still learning how the different currencies of attention work in social media.

But my message was this: the Internet – and the social web in particular – is a commons that we need to start actively treating like the world’s biggest small town.

Connections matter. As humans, we need them. And we are making and modelling them every time we talk to each other online. We are shaping the norms and etiquettes of these online environments with our own traces and approaches. And when we treat each other as if there are no bodies on the other side of the screen – as if what we say online doesn’t have real, human effects and consequences – we contribute to making our small town less.

Here’s the slide deck from the presentation: Blissdom Canada will make the video available in the long run, too.


The most interesting part of the conversation, though, really came after the presentation, during questions. I was asked about kids and social media, and I launched into a diatribe that I hadn’t been fully aware I was gestating.

We seem to have decided not to teach kids how to be citizens of the small town.

Stranger Danger!
We tend to try to keep them out as much as possible, tell them it’s full of creeps and strangers (it has some, admittedly), and then when they turn thirteen, drop them legally on Main Street with a whole bunch of panicky warnings about not doing anything dangerous or stupid. Maybe we walk with them awhile, if they’re lucky.

But do we introduce them to our friends? Model for them the positive things that we do in online spaces? Scaffold them into our networks in relatively safe, supported ways so that the picture they get of the social norms of this small town is one of creativity and sharing and humour and being there for each other?

Do we create networks of supportive adults around kids – adults who know them in their day-to-day lives, who know whole groups of friends and can help them navigate the power relations of growing up from a sympathetic supervisory position while modelling humane ways of engaging with each other?

Nope.

We are so terrified of the spectre of the cyberpredator – and of the possibility of being thought one – that we make it almost suspect for leaders and teachers and adult friends in kids’ lives to want to interact with them online.

I think it does the kids – and all of us – a terrible disservice.

We’ve Abandoned the Playground to the Kids
We’ve known for generations that – left to their own devices – kids and adolescents play with power on their way to learning to be civilized citizens (if they learn…some just consolidate that power. Ahem). But bullying – the extended mis-use of power over another to target and shame – is a part of what we try to mitigate among kids by teaching the Golden Rule in the classroom and attempting to supervise the free-for-all of the playground.

With social media, though, we’ve banned it from schools entirely. The privacy implications – particularly the two-way friending of Facebook, I think, suggesting that the privacy we’re interested in may not be that of the kids – freak us out. So the majority of kids in this society are turning 13, getting a Facebook account (if they don’t have one long before) and wading into the most unsupervised social interaction space they’ve EVER been allowed in, societally, with the capacity for faceless networked mob behaviours and permanent traces of mistakes thrown in for good measure.

On the Internet, You’re Still Not a Dog
This collective blindness, I think, grew out of the once-common belief that there was a divide between the virtual and the so-called real. Early digital scholarship in the 90s investigated primarily closed or at least gated communities whose social interactions online were largely text-based and forum-bound. The tenor of most of the narratives that came out of that era can be summed up in the famous phrase “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

There are still a lot of people who treat – and think about – the Internet that way. Grown adults spew crap online as if there were no consequences of their ‘free speech:’ people comment on the subjects of online news stories as if they were vermin of the earth rather than human beings.

The truth is the digital is part of our lives, embedded as one context among many. Sure, it affords different kinds of traces and connections and interactions, as I discuss in the video, but these don’t make it separate.

I want to teach my kids how to navigate this world that’s embedded in the larger structure of all of our lives, and support them as they do.

What We’re Trying, Until We Figure Out a Better Plan
My six-year-old has a blog, and a locked Twitter account. He shares his creative stuff, and says hi to a friend in England, and last spring when I was away at a conference, his Dad helped him send me a picture of his missing front tooth. He left his first blog comment on an adult’s blog tonight, because Annie – whom he had ice cream with when she visited PEI last summer – wrote about this same issue today in reference to my talk.

Our rules for managing this aren’t firm: as we did with our own learning curve when we first went online, we’re making this up as we go along.

But we’re making it up with a fair amount of knowledge under our belts. Dave and I both have strong, longstanding and intersecting networks. We’ve met many of our online contacts. There’s trust.

We have networks, then, that we can gradually scaffold our kids into, in limited but slowly expanding ways. We’ve learned the lessons of boundaries and context collapse; of how to manage the attention that sometimes comes with being online. Hopefully we can pass some of those along in fairly painless teachable moments before the stakes get high, and before the kids migrate to networks populated primarily by peers. While I’m still the person they look to first, I want to teach them.

There are things I don’t like about digital media and what they bring to the fore. I don’t want my son to have to deal with being quantified just yet – though there are ways in which grading at school is already training him towards that, in the offline sense – or with brand or monetization. At the same time, if I can teach him early that part of his brand needs to be “I am kind,” that’s a win. I don’t want him bombarded with the advertising that comes part and parcel with a platform like Facebook, at least yet, though again I’d rather teach him early to unpack and resist the consumer identity his culture will foist on him.

I want to teach my kids to be good citizens, both of Charlottetown PEI and of this world’s biggest small town that is the Internet. I want to model and share with them, gradually and in age-appropriate ways, what it means to be a self online.

Will his presence on Twitter constrain me and my own performance of self? Maybe, though I teach on Twitter now and long ago stopped dropping eff-bombs. If his presence affects me at all it may be to encourage me to be kinder, less catty, all those good things. Not everything I post or share is aimed at him, or even appropriate for him. But even as he grows older and uses the site more frequently, I don’t mind talking about those gaps; about how my communications, like his, sometimes have different audiences.

His presence encourages me to be the Twitterer I want to see in the world. Or perhaps it makes me a twit. But it makes me a twit trying to give my child tools I know he’ll need, online and off.

And I’m okay with that, so far. :)

(Tune in next week when you’ll hear Nurse Janet clutch her pearls and say OMG now you’re talking about Facebook and teens and SCHOOLS?!?! Yeh. That.)

#change11: fleshing out the digital selves in practice (complete with augmented identity crisis)

What an interesting and slightly discombobulating ride this whole #change11 facilitation experience has been.

As I noted at the outset this week, this idea of digital identities and selves is for me simply a way of teasing out and naming some the threads of possibility and difference that digital sociality makes available to us. I offered up the six digital selves as ways to begin a conversation about how technological affordances and practices and norms shape us – not as separate or summative representations of who we are when we’re online.

You all have taken the conversation and run with it, and I have enjoyed trying to trace and map it as it’s unfolded.

This was my first attempt to think about networked publics within the reflective, participatory, social circuits of a networked public, and I’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, I learned a lot about myself, or my selves, rather, and how the particular affordances of this learning structure affected my own sense of identity.

The Performative Self
I got to share and perform my academic self at a scale that isn’t always available to me as a grad student on a small, primarily undergraduate campus. And in pushing my own comfort zones of digital performativity by stepping beyond writing or face-to-face presenting to video and liveslide facilitation – both of which are new to me – I got to feel, for the first time in a long time, both how heady and how intimidating performativity can be.

Butler claims we bring ourselves into being, performatively, by constant repetitive, gestural citation of practices that are intelligible according to the norms of our culture. It hadn’t occurred to me how performing a role while still getting up to speed in appearing, say, intelligible – or intelligent – in that role can be extraordinarily intimidating: at least, it hadn’t occurred to me in years, since the last time I stepped so far out of my comfort zone to do something in public. The intimidation factor of performative acts may be something to consider when encountering people who are resistant to social networks and digital endeavours: online interactions tend to be more visibly or overtly performative than other aspects of our lives, and self-consciousness may contribute to some people’s hesitancy to engage.

The Quantified, Articulated self
My quantified self notices that I got a bunch of new Twitter followers this week, and my articulated self was excited to find out who they were and start to connect in return. I’m not a particularly good quantified self, however, in the sense that my practices don’t maximize my retention of Twitter followers, because I don’t auto-follow back. If you followed me, and you’d like to be part of a mutual network, just say hi.

My quantified self was mildly disappointed to notice that my Klout score didn’t measurably improve during the flurry of conversation this week, though again, if I were a better quantified self, I’d actually be tracking how many conversations and blog posts and FB chats I engaged in. Instead I just threw myself – splat – into the deep end and tried to connect. I had fun, even if my quantified self was mildly disappointed in me.

The Participatory Self
This, for me, was the self that this week was really all about.

Networked participation is such a different pedagogical model – if it could even be called that – than any other teaching or facilitation experience I’ve had. It’s the piece that makes this connectivist MOOC model so appealing to me: it’s distributed, and while the facilitator is accorded a disproportionate place of prominence within the network, the flow of ideas is many-to-many, not many-to-one. Other people’s comments on participants’ posts were as much as part of the conversation as my own: I chased the conversation, rather than driving it. In a distributed model, it’s easy to lose track of stuff unless you have a more organized quantified self than I do, tracking everything with apps and analytics, but I still managed to stumble on a lot of ideas and conversations about digital identities this week: to such an extent that my own ideas are shifting to adapt to and accommodate what they’ve encountered.

Finding your thoughts reflected forty different ways takes you beyond reflexivity – or the self looking at itself being watched – to diffraction, the optical creation of difference in the gaze process. It’ll take awhile, I think, for my participatory self to come to terms with how this experience has altered its own sense of self: my thesis thanks all you who had a part in the process.

The Asynchronous Self
Interestingly, the week’s facilitation centered around a synchronous live event, for which I was delighted to have nearly 50 people present (pipe down, Quantified Self) and engaged on the slides and in the chat. This drove home for me a point I don’t think I made particularly well in my first post of the week: appreciation of asynchronicity as an affordance does NOT mean lack of appreciation for real-time connection and live interaction, whether mediated or no. I may not especially want to chat on the phone, person-to-person, at any given time of your choosing, but being together with others in an interactive manner in real time for an event? Co-presence helps strengthen ties in social networks both online and off.

In fact, in an attention economy like social media, the capacity to create what Dave Cormier and Dave White coined “eventedness” a couple of year back is a big part of creating coherence and belonging within networked publics. Thanks to all of you who came out and who tweeted and shared comments from and responses to the livechat, thus helping ensure I didn’t feel like I’d thrown a MOOC and nobody came.

Where I particularly appreciated the affordance of asynchronous communication this week was in the one-to-one contacts I got to make with many of you through your comments here and your posts on your own blogs. It’s true that in many cases there are real limitations placed on the depth of our contact and discussion because of the asynchronicity of blog comments, but that asynchronous factor is what allows most of to participate in something like a MOOC in the first place. We’re all professionals, with other commitments. Taking a week out of our lives to attend a face-to-face class – or teach it – is a privilege the majority of us couldn’t swing. So the asynchronous self – with all its good and bad – is necessary just in making this kind of experience possible.

The Augmented Reality Self
Augmented reality is, in its simplest form, simply a way of saying that our digital lives enhance and augment – but are not separate or divided from – our physical selves. This view of our digital practices suggests that identity is multiple across spheres, and actions in each sphere influence all the selves we perform.

This was vividly driven home to me yesterday, when my dear old friend Jeff Lebow synchronized and posted last Wednesday’s video, audio, live slides and discussion session and posted it on YouTube. It was awesome of Jeff to do it, as I’d only gotten around to getting the slides up on Slideshare, but not to syncing the audio, let alone the chat.

So yep, awesome. Except then I watched it. And I lisped. Badly. All my sibilant sounds were like loud hissing feedback, and the little clicks that sometimes punctuate my speech were more like chicken clucks, and overall I sounded like I had marbles in my mouth.

And my first thought was not, Wow, wtf happened to the audio? It was Oh. My. God. I’ve been lisping my whole life and NOBODY TOLD ME! Because I forgot about the affordances – or lack thereof – of the digital self. I forgot that the self I see reflected back at me in my augmented reality is not always actually real.

I said aloud, “The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep is sick” and listened anxiously. Not much lisp, really. I clicked over to my introductory video for this week, and thought I sounded distinctly less hissy.

I wondered, aghast, how I’d managed to develop a lisp in only three short days! At forty!

Then it occurred to me that possibly it was just the audio. But my Performative Self was concerned that nobody else was going to know that, and my branded self worried I’d never get a speaking engagement again.

The video gave me an identity crisis. Because I live enmeshed between atoms and bits, and sometimes I forget that the two don’t operate quite the same. ;)

 The Branded Self
I find it interesting to think about how different communities and networks emphasize some of the selves more than others do: in the communities that tend to converge around MOOCs, for example, there is minimal incursion – to date – of monetization and its attendant practices. Facilitating this course this week brought me not a single sponsorship proposal (happily), whereas within momblogging and narrative blogging circles, daily pitches to sample and pimp products and events and releases have long been the norm for bloggers and community members with any prominence. I’ve chosen not to monetize my blogging, outside of speaking gigs, so for me the regular pitches to Try Product X for Mother’s Day! and Tell Your Readers All About Our Marvellous New Whatchamacallit! are more irritations than opportunities, but they simply come with the territory. And they shape the territory: in momblogging circles, the Me Inc. perspective on one’s practices and identity is just how things operate, even for those of us who stay outside the territory of overt monetization. I have business cards for my blog, because that is how that sphere operates.

So this one? Was a bit refreshing, because of the ways in which this community and its discourses exist in part as a pushback to the encroaching neoliberalism in higher ed today. But don’t think it’s not coming, people.

As my final word to #change11, let me play prognosticator and prophet from a land in which branded, commodified selves have a long heritage and say this.

All of us in higher ed need to grapple openly and creatively with our relationships to the monetization that’s on the horizon. Because it’s there, and it’s looming, and now is the time to come to terms with both what it threatens and what it offers.

The play and experimentation – and volunteerism – represented by our connectivist MOOCs and their attendant practices are increasingly less visible in the cultural discourse around education and technologies. That’s no fault of anyone here, in my opinion. Nor does it mean we’re headed for a dystopia. But the game is changing, and a field that’s been remarkably free of the particular affordances -and structuring limitations – of economic capital is entering a new era.

Yesterday, The Atlantic posted the first mainstream media article on MOOCs that simply took the term at face value, as if the word popped up history-less last fall with the creation of the Stanford AI course and MITx. But their MOOC model is not this MOOC model, make no mistake. And  if the tweets that came out of the Education Innovation Summit last month were any indication, a bevy of Ed Reform-minded politicians and movers and shakers are lined up to put dollars behind start-ups in ed and higher ed. Again, not necessarily a dystopic picture, but one to be wary of. And to be strategic about.

My own experience as a blogger in a field long since monetized is this. The branding and commodification hasn’t, contrary to my initial pearl-clutching horror, ruined everything.  I know monetized bloggers who push the narrative and conversation envelope, though often from within specific niches, and who participate and perform within their networked publics in ways that add real value to their communities. And I don’t begrudge them the money they make doing so. Everybody needs to eat. Those who dismiss all monetization as “selling out” are often safely ensconced in the kind of pensioned jobs that others of us may never see.

But those niches change things, as does the sense of oneself as an identity within a market.

Facilitating #change11 this week made one thing very clear for me: networks are what matters about what we do here. This is a networked public, and the affordances of that networked public are what makes this experience so different from traditional hierarchical models of learner and knower.

And here’s the thing, looking down the road. Brand can exist in networks. Neoliberalism can exist in networks. Monetization can exist in networks, to an extent. But where these operate as trojan horses for bringing hierarchical institutional power back into the game to dominate, box out and silence the creative and connective power of networks, then be nervous. The affordances of the Internet open up all kinds of possibilities and selves and worlds. I do not want to go back into the box, people.

I opened my presentation the other day with Haraway’s cyborg, and I leave you with her. She is subversive, irreverent, blasphemous to her origins. Haraway envisioned her as the illegitimate child of the military-industrial complex, who contained within her oppositional, intimate, always relational self the capacity to escape the teleology of the 20th century story.

A year or so ago, I began playing with the idea of the branded cyborg; Haraway’s cyborg with the explicit digital identity of brand and commodity grafted on to her. A cyborg for this 21st century conversation. A cyborg for Ed Reform times.

I secretly hope, of course, that she is the Master’s Tool who can dismantle the Master’s house. I secretly hope that we, in our digital identities, are her.

Digital Identities: Six Key Selves of Networked Publics

Welcome to the home stretch of #change11, everybody.

This week we’ll be looking at digital identities and subjectivities, or – basically – who we are in social media spaces.

I’m hoping this week will be, above all, a conversation: digital identity is always a lived experience as well as conceptual territory, so everyone has a contribution to offer based on their own practices and experiences..

Part of making those contributions a conversation is connecting: I’m not sure where conversations will emerge, but as they do, I’d love to be in them. If you’re new or coming out of hibernation, the #change11 FB group has been a rich space for discussion lately, so I recommend checking it out, and lively debate is very very welcome in the comments here. ;)

If you’d like to respond to any of the conversation on a platform of your own, please link back here so I can find you and join in. :)

The live chat session for this week will be here Wednesday, May 9th, at 11am EDT. I’ll have a few live slides that I’m hoping you can help me by adding your two cents to. I want to know what your practices are, and how you navigate identity in social media spaces.
***

Digital Identities as Affordances of Social Media: Who are We in a Networked Public?
This week’s discussion bridges from and builds on last week’s topic, facilitated by George Veletsianos. Like George’s work, mine focuses on practices and participation and how these function. George, however, looks specifically at scholars: my interest is in the broader concept of identity and how we are shaped by our digital practices.

George’s work is premised in looking at what Selwyn & Grant call the “state of the actual;” my work straddles both actuality and potentiality.  I am interested in what we do that makes us who we are in social media spaces, thus my concept of digital identity is practice-based. At the same time, I see identity as a lens through which we can examine the potentialities specific to social networks. I use the concept of identity to explore what it is that social software makes possible in practice.

The Wikipedia definition of “digital identity” frames it, more or less, as the set of data constituted by a person’s interactions online, and that specific user’s psychological relationship to his or her data trail.

For the purposes of our discussion this week, I’d like to expand the definition beyond the traces and trails we leave behind for Google to find, and frame digital identities as the selves brought into being by the affordances – the specific structures and norms – of social media and what danah boyd calls “networked publics.”

Here’s a short(ish) introductory video to some of the basic premises of this week’s discussion.
Bonnie Stewart – Digital Identities Intro

Bonnie Stewart Digital Identities Intro.mov

***

Six Key Selves of Networked Publics
If you’d like to delve a little deeper than just the video, below are six key digital “selves” that I’d like to discuss and explore this coming week. They’re by no means an exhaustive list, so input and additions are very welcome, but they introduce some of the ways in social media norms and affordances impact identity practices. Links offer a bit of further reading – formal papers, blog posts, videos, all sorts of resources – in each of these directions. Following those trails is, of course, optional.

In the livechat on Wednesday, these six aspects of digital identity – and the implications they hold for higher education – will be the focus of our discussion.

1. The Performative, Public Self
The networked self is neither a discrete, unique snowflake that can be examined entirely unto itself, outside relationality, nor a generic group member. The networked self is linked in multiple, complex, individual node-to-node relationships with others as part of an ever-shifting public. It is also performative, constituting itself within that public through its practices and gestures.

Within network publics the performative self experiences both the flattening of hierarchies across space and status (I talked to theorist Henry Giroux on Twitter the other day! And he followed me back! Yay! Access!) and the network theory principle that big nodes are more likely to attract attention and links (Giroux didn’t actually talk back to me. Boo. Sniff. But his semi-celebrity status in the world of academia means he’s always going to have a wider pool of people aware of him and clamouring for his attention).

The performative self in networked publics tends to be conscious of his or her multiplicity and performative nature: Rob Horning’s post on the data self does a very entertaining job of encapsulating much of how this self differs from previous cultural conceptions of identity and subjectivity.

2. The Quantified – or Articulated – Self
In social networks, our network contacts are visible and articulated, and our actions and contributions are quantified. This makes the act of choosing to follow or “friend” another person always already a public, performative statement (see above) and likewise a notch in the belt of one’s personal metrics. Status and scale in social networks are frequently treated as overtly measurable attributes, tracked in clicks and follows and @s and likes by tools like Klout: I have hesitancies about the applications and limitations of algorithms as stand-ins for identity, especially when we begin to think about the self in learning contexts.

3. The Participatory Self
The participatory, networked self is not only mobile and connected, never fully disengaged from the communications of the network, but is able to engage and contribute at a click to the self-presentation of others. This is based in part on the produsage or prosumer nature of networked publics, merging production and consumption: within my networks I am both a creator of my own content but also a consumer of that which my peers produce and share. My relationships are groomed by the constant iterative work of participation, and my comfort with working in isolation towards a final product – as was the paper model of creative work – recedes in the rear-view mirror.

4. The Asynchronous Self
Simply put: I hate when my phone rings. And I’m not alone. Digital sociality practices and networked publics moved increasingly towards asynchronous mediated communications, rather than the interruptive, immediate demands of telephones. Last night, as I tried to record the video for this post, my stepmother called. Twice. I rest my case? ;)

5. The PolySocial – or Augmented Reality – Self
Contrary to much of the digital identity scholarship of the 1990s, which tended to emphasize the fluidity of identity uncoupled from the gendered and signified body – the “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” theme – the concept of networked publics has given rise to a far more enmeshed notion of reality. Drawing from this, my work frames digital identities not as virtual selves, but as particular subjects brought into being by our relational, mobile interactions in the world of bits and extending into the world of atoms.  My networks and relationships – and therefore my identities – exist within the enmeshed and multi-faceted realities of contemporary human interaction.

On the cyborgology blog, Nathan Jurgenson, PJ Rey et al have done an exceptional job of examining and detailing the complexities of what they call Augmented Reality, or the enmeshed and mutually influential confluence of atoms and bits. Sally Applin and Michael Fischer offer the somewhat differently framed concept of PolySocial Reality to explore the interoperability of contemporary contexts.

And from the perspective of someone who once pretended to be a dog, Alan Levine (@cogdog) has a great video keynote narrating his experiences as a self in the enmeshed world of atoms and bits.

6. The Neo-Liberal, Branded Self
Our social networking platforms are increasingly neo-liberal “Me, Inc” spaces where we are exhorted to monetize and to “find our niche.”  I’ve argued that in these spaces, no matter how we choose to perform our identity, we end up branding ourselves.

So. Six starting places for conversation. Recognize any of these? Do any resonate with your own practices?

And have any of them been part of your #change11 experience? I’m hoping that the discussions this week will serve as a bit of a retrospective for the course, from a polysocial identity point of view: how has participation (even peripheral participation) in a distributed, networked learning experience like this shaped your sense of self?

 

Pinterest: digital identity, Stepford Wives edition

Oh, Pinterest.

You’re so pretty. Everything in your world looks sanitized and inspirational.

Your tagline is “organize and share things you love.” You don’t really mean our sticky kids, though, or the gritty streets of NYC on a February Tuesday. That’s for Flickr and Instagram.

You’re about our aspirations. Your purpose is to make us look like designers of our digital lives: clean, controlled, concise. Maybe quirky, just a little.

“Find your niche,” advises our culture’s contemporary mantra for success: “Me, Inc.” The age of Neoliberalism.

Your niche and passion, Pinterest, is our deep desire for escape from our cluttered excess. We are busy and overloaded, most of us. We’d like to run away and live online, in miniature white screen frames stark and orderly as zen paintings. With witty aphorisms. And tiny, perfect servings of food porn. Your niche is our escapism.

And so you’re booming, Pinterest. Last night, Mashable released a chart showing your rapid rise in user engagement numbers over recent months. You’re, without a doubt, the flavour of the week.

And you look and taste great. Hey, I enjoy a decontextualized serving of digital heart-shaped creme brulee (almost) as much as the next person.

But there’s something terribly Stepford Wives about the whole practice.

We Are What We Share
Sure, it’s just a hobby, a pastime. But you make me nervous, Pinterest. Because when I run away and live online in your world, as opposed to on my blog or on Twitter or even Facebook, I’m crossing into a model of digital identity that’s very shiny, but also scary.

It’s “Me, Inc.” without the, um, “me.”

(No, this isn’t about copyright, Pinterest.  Yes, that’s what everybody’s on about these days, and it appears with good reason: you look to be a bit of a copyright nightmare, with Kafkaesque Terms of Service. According to this lawyer, you have apparently reserved the right to prosecute users for the very copyright violations the Pinterest platform seems designed to support.)

But. My issue isn’t the copyright practices you implicitly encourage.

It’s the identity practices.

Using social media shapes who we are, and how we see ourselves. Social media relies on identity: on handles or names or pseudonyms that represent us and our contributions to the rest of our networks. Pinterest is the same: when I sign up, I get an account, under a name of my choosing. People can see what I share. Being “re-pinned” means what I’m sharing is stuff people want to see.

To our networks, we are what we share.

And on Pinterest, that stuff? Isn’t usually mine. And isn’t encouraged to BE mine.

“Me Inc.” Without the Me
See, the difference between Pinterest and most of the major social media platforms that have come before is that Pinterest is set up to encourage us building identity and reputation primarily on the basis of other people’s content.

On Pinterest, sharing your own work goes against the explicit etiquette of the site. Rule #3: “Avoid Self-Promotion.” Sure, “If there’s a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.”

I can see the collective exhale, here. No wonder Pinterest looks kinda like an Ikea catalogue for every facet of human life. Its express purpose is to free us from the awkwardness of self-expression and keep us safely in the realm of the pre-chewed, the market-filtered.

Admittedly, self-promotion on most online platforms gets tiresome. Hey, look at what I did! What I wrote! What I dug out from my back teeth and photographed in extreme closeup!

On Pinterest, I’d just share pictures of somebody else’s perfect teeth. Whitened. Without the accompanying stories of orthodontistry or the person’s flossing regimen. Probably not even his or her whole face.

Pinterest is exactly what it claims to be: the digital equivalent of the corkboard I had in my bedroom when I was thirteen. I had me some Bono, some Annie Lennox, a dented centrefold of Thriller. I once tore a page out of a hair salon magazine for a grainy shot of the dude who played Robert Scorpio on General Hospital. I may also have clipped the Volkswagen microbus ad out of chapter six of my geometry text. (Sorry, Mr. Murnaghan.)

These things weren’t me. They were who I wanted to be, in a sense, but in the dream realm. My cutout of Robert Scorpio didn’t actually further my path to becoming a soap opera spy, in any sense. My purloined VW image didn’t actually buy me a car. It was just an early form of brand affinity, a way of performing identity and belonging.

That’s the problem, Pinterest. You’re a grownup version of dress-up, of playing cotton-candy princesses. It’s fun. Play is healthy. But when we build broadly networked aspects of our public selves based largely on these tickle-trunk identities? Especially with stuff that we’ve lifted finders-keepers-style from other people’s equally aspirational magpie nests? We may eventually find ourselves with the identity equivalent of tooth decay.

Because make no mistake: the way social media works, our Pinterest practices ARE shaping our digital identities.

Augmented Reality: The Blurring of Offline & Online Worlds
Social media’s promise is that of an augmented reality: one wherein physical and virtual combine to create a blurring between offline and online.

Most of us who use Facebook or Twitter already live in some version of this reality; our networks of friends live both inside and outside the computer.

By extension, so does our identity, and theirs: we know and understand each other via a combination of physical and digital interactions. To the friend on Facebook whom I haven’t actually seen in person since 1988, I am as much my photos and my status updates and whatever I share of my contemporary life as I am that girl who used to chew her pencils. I hope.

Social media bypassed the gatekeeping of mass media control, and enabled us to become creators as well as consumers.

Identity-wise, this was revolutionary. Instead of sharing who I was via brand or band allegiance, or some other externalized representation of myself, I could actually connect with people – with anybody, anywhere, so long as we happened upon each others’ networks – on the basis of my words and thoughts and images. On the basis of what I created.

I could be known for being me. Or an aspirational version of me. Instead of having a picture of a typewriter pinned to my corkboard, I could write, and build an audience, and gradually – slowly – come to see myself and be seen through that lens. “Writer” became part of my digital identity. And – thanks to the blurring between online and off – my so-called “real” identity too.

Anybody could do it. You could share your work – your words, your pictures, your witty-ish status updates – and engage with the work of others and in so doing build reputation and connections and complex linked networks. Axel Bruns called this produsage. George Ritzer – with a few minor variations – calls it prosumption.

Want to be a photographer? Social media offers access to photography platforms, photography learning opportunities, and photography communities. You can take pictures and share them, with your name attached. You can participate in the sites and networks where other people are sharing photography that appeals to you. If you want to become known there, you can gradually build a presence and an identity and – yes – a niche. If you keep sharing and are generous with your own work and that of others, you may never be Ansel Adams, but you’ll be – in a very genuine way – a photographer.

The Difference Between Curators and Creators
An internet of a billion aspiring photographers, of course, does tend to get clogged. The culture of scarcity which led to my criminal defacement of a geometry textbook back in my misspent youth no longer exists. Instead, we have abundance, or excess. And a need to curate.

Since blogging died the first of its over-reported deaths back in, what? 2007? and Facebook and Twitter began minimizing the centrality of creation and enabling the public sharing of other people’s content, the notion of “curation” has been getting attention. Curation, really, is what librarians and archivists and gallery owners do. It involves more than collection and sharing, in its original context. But increasingly, and with some apoplexy on the part of professional curators, it’s being taken up simply as what you do when you select and share a friend’s great picture, or a New York Times article you loved, or a pin of vintage Snoopy coffee cups.

Curation is as much a part of our digital identity practices as creation, today.

It’s what Pinterest operates on, entirely. But at the express expense of creation. If you search “I wrote this” in Pinterest, for example, you get a gallery of pins that are pretty easily digestible, at a glance, without much depth to click and explore. Commerce. Curation. Not much in the way of creation that could actually be tied to a person’s digital identity or fledgling reputation as a writer.

And that’s no huge deal, if Pinterest is just a sideline in our digital identity practices. But in fact, it extends trends already begun with Tumblr and even, increasingly, Facebook, where frictionless sharing of unidentified content stands in as the means by which we communicate with our networks.

Here’s the thing, identity-wise. If we drop the “creator” part of the equation, people of Teh Internets, we really go back to being consumers, and consumers alone. Because the type of curation Pinterest offers isn’t actually new at all; it just used to involve doing unspeakable things to geometry texts and hair salon magazines.

Style over Substance: Simulated Reality, not Augmented Reality
The things Pinterest enables us to share need to be more or less instantly visually communicable, either in the form of a picture or an image of words, preferably in minimal quantity. It’s well-suited to design and aphorisms. It’s not well-suited to complexity.

Life is complex. In this augmented world of constant engagement and digital self-promotion, it’s exponentially complex. It’s no wonder we want to go live in Pinterest’s perfect white kitchens and surround ourself with cute pictures of polka-dots and cupcakes.

But online practices become habits. What we see shared shapes what we understand to be shareable, to be palatable.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the practices of Pinterest suggest we’ll stop writing about the stuff stuck in our teeth, or the stories of how our teeth or our selves got broken. (Schmutzie does a beautiful job of taking this apart, this creeping process of self-presentation). We’ll default increasingly to playing dressup in decontextualized, aspirational pictures of other people’s purdy teef. Like in the magazines.

Magazines have always been simulated reality. I like magazines just fine.

But you would not know me from a magazine article about me, if such a thing existed. You might recognize me from a picture, but the meeting – the moment where the physical and the digital selves converge in the same space – would be like meeting a celebrity, a cardboard cutout, not a person with whom you share a regular, intimate interaction in daily life, even if ‘only’ online.

If we trade the produsage model of augmented reality for a simple, Stepford-wife simulated reality, we undermine the premises and promises of social media; the idea that the long tail will ultimately have something for all of us. If we gradually remove ourselves from the creation portion of the creator-curator-consumer model, we’ll end up simply shuffling mass-mediated or market-driven versions of self around Teh Internets, wondering what went wrong.

Or perhaps entirely oblivious, smiling, Stepford-style.

the augmented conference

Theorizing the Web 2011 was a wicked conference. It was also a bit of a meta-experience in augmented reality.

Maybe not textbook augmented reality, admittedly, since – as happens at geek conferences – the sheer multitude of smart phones and laptops present overpowered the wireless system and the majority of us couldn’t get online much. I was disappointed that I couldn’t tweet a few of the presentations: one of the joys of digital participation is in turning a monologue into a forum, a conversation of sorts.

But there was plenty going on, even without much digital augmentation. Put together by PJ Rey & Nathan Jurgenson, grad students who set out to run the conference they wanted to go to, TtW2011 appeared to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. The day was jam-packed with sessions on new economies and cyber-racism and cyber-support and structure/agency and the question of social media revolutions, among others. The panels hung together, mostly, and people put work & energy into their presentations. Even the final sessions, which ran through what my parent-of-preschoolers brain has come to consider “suppertime,” played to engaged audiences.

That wasn’t the augmented reality part, though. Rather, the whole trip was. I marked my five-year blogging anniversary on Monday. And the trip to DC and College Park offered what for me – as the sole practicioner of social media in an Education cohort of three on an island half-way off the side of Canada – was a heady face-to-face tour through almost all corners of the connections I’ve made and learning I’ve done over that five years. I roomed with digiwonk, and sat in as she presented the results of a mommyblogging survey I participated in almost three years ago. I got to spend the day with Neilochka, who – as promised – didn’t call bullshit on me once. (At least not so I could hear him.) I listened to danah boyd’s keynote and complimented her on her boots, after citing her extensively in one of my term papers last fall. After all these years, I spent a glorious splashy rainy afternoon with Susan before the conference formally began. Through my panel I met fellow explorers into this messy, chewy business of cyborgs and mediated lives. I even met the real-life friend & colleague of someone I spent last week debating on Twitter. Tiny world. My apparently tiny digital world, all its interconnections brought to life in one short weekend.

The conference was the augmentation, for me, the extra. Back now in my pastoral cloister on the edge of the planet, this digital sphere is the one in which I seek the majority of my daily engagement with people over the age of five. Having them come to life in front of me reminded me of nothing so much as my first foray into Second Life, except without the difficulty walking and flying. TtW2011, for me, was proof not only that augmented reality really does exist, Virginia, but that there is no hierarchy of modes within it. All is interconnected, rhizomatically interwoven, ever-shifting and ever-surprising and ever-rich.
***
As for my presentation, I am still working on the art of clarity. I managed to pack a theoretically complex, 20 page paper into 15 minutes. Sorta. Here, in the slideshare below, I manage it in 10ish. I wish it were 5.

I’ve always been a literary storyteller…if I can teach myself through practice to become an effective didactic one, then I’ll be able to become the presenter I want to be. But there will be a lot of practice – a lot of reining in my natural tendency to go on and on, musingly – between now and then. Feedback welcome, and share at will.