Entries tagged with “digital identity”.
Did you find what you wanted?
Thu 26 Apr 2012
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. ;)
Wed 4 Apr 2012
Find your niche, they tell us, all those contemporary exhortations to success.
Do the thing you love and the money will follow!
I’ve been reading Bourdieu, thinking about his concept of distinction. Distinction is at the heart of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, or how we divide ourselves by class in contemporary culture. In his work, class distinctions go far beyond economics to other forms of capital. Symbolic capital and cultural capital – the ineffables of class captured in phrases like “high class” and “classy” - manifest in aesthetic preferences that are actually marks of taste, or belonging. They refer less to money than to status and aesthetic status markers.
They aren’t only the purview of the ruling classes, though. Every group within society has its markers, its distinctions. We think of them as our tastes, but they are – says Bourdieu – markers of our class identities, internalized and usually invisible to us. (Or they were until the hipsters started drinking Pabst, at least.)
Distinction says “I am not that. I am this.”
In Bourdieu’s work, “all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy – even language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions” (D. Schwartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p. 6).
Bourdieu is helping me understand why I shudder when I hear “find your niche.”
I am in the middle of designing the study around which I will build my dissertation.
Any act of writing, really, shapes what comes after. And while you’re not married to your dissertation, it IS a significant relationship. It’s years of your life. And a carving out of intellectual territory, particularly if your research is your own.
And so each of the small choices by which I’m gingerly shaping the direction of my Research Ethics Board proposal feel amplified, like echoes that bounce ahead into unseen territory. Most aren’t likely to cause rockslides, really, but the fact that I cannot tell the difference is ever intimidating.
I am relearning, again, the story of the blind men and the elephant.
The field of education is a strange animal. It straddles the disciplines of the academy, but it is not – at least so far as I understand it – a discipline unto itself. It is, rather, an elephant.
In the nearly twenty years since I started my Bachelors of Education program in 1993, I’ve run the full gamut of wise blind men – and women – clutching at tails and feet and ears. Some swear the entire animal corresponds to the piece they hold. Some work hard to see and appreciate the whole, except for that cancerous hunk over there, with its discourses irreconcilable to the piece they have spent their careers grooming.
It’s rather like distinction. The “I am not that” is as important as “I am this.” And all of it is tied to practices and discourses and identity.
And I, of course, am no different. All the more full of hubris, because I keep believing I’ve discovered the outline of the whole beast only to slip again in elephant shit.
But now, I must choose a part of the elephant to tie myself to, upon which to build the rest of my career.
The last time I planted my own stake firmly in the poor old elephant it was for only a Master’s thesis and really, it was neither a professional nor a public enterprise then. There was no social media and nobody much outside my committee ever read it except Dave, bless him. That it got published a few years later was a great joy to me, because publication wasn’t what grad school seemed to be about, then and there. I thought then that education was a societal enterprise best geared toward social justice and analyzed via poststructuralism and if I didn’t fully understand what all that was, well, the rest of the class were still stuck debating whether kids should wear hats in class or no.
But I am now in a faculty far more strongly aligned with the social sciences and that has opened up new doors for me into my research. And so I am a neophyte all over again, self-consciously grappling with a part of the elephant I’ve never held or named.
And all the while, the elephant itself keeps changing.
Higher ed in general is far more self-conscious and self-aware and strategic than it was fifteen years ago. The world of knowledge and cultural production has had its gatekeeping industries exposed and deconstructed; its institutions questioned.
That’s the narrative around which my dissertation and my research study are designed: I’m interested in our practices as social media subjects because I think social media and its ever-encroaching neoliberalism has changed the cultural and knowledge production industries most - or at least first – and academia, according to Bourdieu, is one of these industries. The find your niche prescription for success that permeates contemporary culture echoes strongest out here in social media, where we make ourselves in words and pictures everyday, and are taken up by others as we portray ourselves. But it is part of the academic process too: hence the meta-dilemma of this act of picking which part of the elephant to stand in. Or on. The cultural pressure shaping both is largely the same.
As I saw in my tweetstream just yesterday morning, via
@resnikoff: “Ubiquity/structure of social media mean you’re now an eccentric if you *don’t* treat your public presence like a corporate brand.”
In finalizing my research direction, I’m in effect branding myself, tattooing myself all over with identifications, with labels and signifiers.
I am making my niche as a scholar, just as surely as I am making my niche publicly by writing and tweeting about social media media identity.
And in making my niche, I end up not just getting stuck with one part of the elephant, but in all the conversation about the damn elephant, too: all the baggage of generations of scholarly debate.
That’s the problem with “finding your niche,” people. It mires you in everybody else’s distinction processes. Wonder why everybody’s slagging everybody else so hard these days for seemingly mundane choices? We’re not actually arguing with each other, anymore. We’re just enacting distinction. We’re shouting about our part of the elephant.
Niches, of course, are boxes. Rather like the academic disciplines, niches first coalesce areas of interest and then harden lines of communication and their underlying ideologies. If you have a niche, your interactions with the world tend to take on something of a “stay on message” party line. And especially in the social media sphere – which is generally where one is magically supposed to find one’s niche, or at least the market for it -even a purely professional niche becomes a central component of the identity around which relational interactions with others are built.
The “find your niche” mantra is a discourse that reduces a world of complexity to false simplicity. The neoliberal market assumption that there actually IS a niche for everyone makes inherent value judgements about the kinds of people and practices that matter, and it tends to elide the issue of all those who do not fit its precepts. Don’t have something of market value? Don’t want or know how to shill it? You don’t count as a “you,” then, apparently.
Or better yet, you’re arrogant for not self-promoting. Yeh. Far better to find your niche as a pompous zealot.
But then I think, hush, Bonnie. Because my reaction to that kind of extreme neoliberalism is just MY distinction processes at work.
As an educator, yes, it’s part of my role to consider the literacies and privileges and means of production that tend to be necessary for people to actually engage – successfully or no – in the cultural production processes of social media and contemporary commerce. It’s part of my role to value, recognize, and foreground things that the market is not designed to reward. And that role is part of my identity.
But the tastes in discourse and values that led me to choose that role? The ones that are largely invisible to me as anything other than the way the world *should* be?
Those are products of distinction. Just as is my preference for complexity over simplicity.
You are not that, distinction tells us. You are this. And this is good. Our tastes go unrecognized for what they are: the ways in which we construct and are constructed by the hierarchies of society in our turn. Distinction makes aesthetic and taste and identification preferences appear simply natural.
So. Here’s my hypothesis:
In my research study on social media identities and practices, I want to explore whether and how distinction, as part of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, can be applied to cultural production, too.
One of the tenets of social media identity is that we are prosumers, involved in processes of produsage. We put our own work out there, and consume and comment on that of others. Thanks to the weakening of those traditional gatekeeping industries that protected the role and status of cultural knowledge producers in academia and journalism and the arts over recent years, we have become part of the cultural production conversation. Production, in other words, is no longer so separate from consumption.
I suspect this is how the so-called culture wars have gotten so nasty over the last few years. As cultural production’s come uncoupled from the traditional gatekeeping institutions – which themselves all had roles in the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital – it has become increasingly overtly aligned: the once-naturalized taste distinctions between opera and bluegrass music, for instance, have been gradually blurred and broken down. Cultural products that once carried high class status became visibly commodified, and the ease of technological reproduction and sharing has made awareness of products that were once marginalized appear more exclusive and “authentic.” This lent them a particular sheen of symbolic capital, because their ties to any sort of economic interest were less visible.
In other words, things have gotten messy. Add in a panoptical site of identity performance and prosumption like social media, and you’ve got people’s distinction reactions bouncing up against each other All The Time.
I think our webs of alignment and values have gotten all tangled up. We can see and feel the alignments at an identity level – and react accordingly, with our “I am not that!” defenses of whatever it is we feel is threatened – but because of the way distinction operates, we can’t name them or unpack them particularly well.
We find our niches – even those of us who resent the idea for its reductionism and its misrepresentation of overt economic interests as natural and good – and we cling to our pieces of the metaphorical elephant like blind men, insisting we see the whole, and we wonder what the hell happened.
Does this make sense?
In my research, I want to explore our social media practices, our identity performances, and our alignments of distinction within this newly fragmented field of cultural production, or prosumption. And I want to consider the ways in which dominant neoliberal social media discourses like “find your niche” – which encourage strategic thinking but also naturalize and assume universal market reward without need for other systems – affect our identities and our sociality. All while I unpack my own distinction processes and biases as I go.
Now, I just need to frame this in a way that makes sense to the various keepers of the elephant.
Wed 29 Feb 2012
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.
Fri 27 Jan 2012
This week, Sebastian Thrun, one of the adjunct professors who taught Stanford’s open online Artificial Intelligence course this past fall, announced that he will be offering a new open course starting in February. It’ll be free, and it’ll be online. It also won’t have any university affiliation.
The announcement led to a flurry of discussion about the future of higher education and of brand and its role in the brave new world of learning, 2012-style.
Audrey Watters wrote a piece for Inside Higher Education about college credentials, wondering whether students will choose to follow a star professor’s individual brand “outside the walls of the university.” In the same publication, on the same day, Steve Kolowich said Thrun’s new startup, KnowLabs, would “put the importance of the institutional brand to the test.”
Both stories suggest that KnowLabs is a test case for the power of the personal brand to lead learning initiatives.
(Truth is, that’s already been shown. In terms of scale, sure, the Stanford/KnowLabs case is a far more massive proof of concept than the Massive Open Online courses like #change11 or the many MOOCs that have preceded it. But the truth is, George Siemens and Stephen Downes and others de-coupled their MOOCs from formal accredited offerings a few years back, and have already shown that thousands of people are, in fact, quite willing to follow the brand of an individual facilitator beyond the walls of academia.)
But this is NOT a personal brand versus institutional brand game. It’s something new: it’s about brand as a way to be part of an entirely different game of learning.
Academic institutions have been the primary keepers of knowledge in Western society for centuries: as such, they’ve also played a central role in according individuals the status of “knower” within our culture.
As I commented on Watters’ article, Thrun’s personal brand is still built on and in the institutional brand system, the one by which big universities like Stanford hold claim to particular standards of knowledge and status. Thrun’s association with them credentializes him as a professor. His personal brand is built in part on his institutional affiliations. Of course people will follow him, Pied-Piper-like, outside the walls of the university: he’s been vetted and found good enough for Stanford. Why wouldn’t he be good enough to teach little old me for free?
(Well, so long as I don’t want or need formal credit for the experience of learning with him. More on that in a minute).
Thrun’s street cred is also based in his history with Google. In this, he follows the long-trodden path of business and industry “experts” who are in effect accredited as knowers by their own success: their reputation grants them recognition in the eyes of those who value their knowledge, whether or not it has been stamped by a formal institution.
It is this issue of accreditation that seems to fester and bubble at the heart of most of the conversation around open online learning initiatives, large or small. The stamp – or brand – of formalized learning still represents to many minds the be-all and end-all of education: it’s raison d’etre. But this vision of brand is an outdated game.
The institutional model of knowledge and knowers that dominated pre-digital society rested on the philosophical assumption that courses exist to credential students and move them through an organized and predetermined structure. This is the business model of the modern university, sure, and predates it to the extent that credentialism of knowledge has held industry status in our culture.
This model, however, is not about learning. It encourages us to view learning through the lens of retention and completion rates; from a perspective of credits bestowed. These lenses are hugely important for contemporary academic institutions, but what they tell us is more about the success of the institution than the success of the learner on his or her own terms. And that’s an increasingly critical distinction.
Open online courses come at the idea of learning not from a “what is taught” perspective of value, but a “what is accessed” perspective of value. They don’t necessarily claim to assure anything is learned: they don’t tend to offer credentials, beyond (in some cases) a minimal badge acknowledging that participation occurred. But their goal is NOT to be externalizable measures of what information a person has mastered. Their goal is to offer people the chance to access, in an organized fashion, information and ideas, and to participate in the learning experience around that information or those ideas. They follow the participatory model of learning, which is social and rhizomatic and based more in notions of intrinsic value than of extrinsic credentializing.
If I participate in a MOOC or in Thrun’s new course, it’s not an opportunity for me to be sanctioned by an existing institutional brand, no. But it’s an opportunity for me to develop my own interests and ideas and brand as I learn and connect and perform my knowledge in a networked environment of inquiry.
Digital networks connect people and allow for the sharing and working through of ideas. Knowledge is no longer the sole or even primary purview of institutions: it’s out there, part of what Haraway called “the integrated circuit.” And if I am out there too, I can participate in the creation and sharing of knowledge, whether or not I have any institutional affiliation. I do so by engaging, by putting ideas out there and contributing to the ideas of others: by building my reputation or brand as someone who has something of value to contribute. Brand is not necessarily the end-goal of this game: it’s simply what you build as you play.
This is the networked reputation model for participatory learning. It’s social. It’s informal. It’s learner-centered and it’s not going away.
MOOC participation, then, isn’t about following a star facilitator’s brand outside the walls of academia. It’s about developing one’s own brand and reputation as a learner and knower, irrespective of those walls.
Now, Some of us straddle the two worlds. Some aren’t interested in formal, traditional models of higher education at all. And some need formalized credentials but also want access to contemporary up-to-the-minute expertise and participation that traditional academia simply cannot and does not provide. Sometimes, many of us require levels of vetting for particular pieces of knowledge that the informal peer processes of networked branding and open learning can’t offer.
Sometimes, Sebastian Thrun attested, going social in learning makes it hard to go back to the formal model.
Both types of learning have their place. But the open online courses simply don’t exist to do the things traditional courses do. Considering them on those terms is like judging a basketball team for playing bad soccer. Different game. Shared audience in terms of the sports market pie? Sure. But there’s more than one game in town in terms of higher education now.
And while MOOCs may be an example of personal brand driving people beyond the walls of institutional academic brands, this isn’t just about the individual brands of facilitators. It’s about the participants, and what they have to gain.
(I was tickled to see Steve Kolowich call the Stanford AI course a MOOC. Dave was part of the coining of the term, and while it was obvious to most in the networks of educational technologies this fall that the much-talked-about Stanford initiative was, in fact, a MOOC, the word wasn’t a familiar one to the New York Times et al. It’s an awkward term, sure. But most neologisms are: I still haven’t heard a simple alternative arise to conceptualize these large-scale, networked offerings, and so I’m kinda rooting for it. MOOC MOOC. MOOC.)
Fri 18 Feb 2011
It’s just me.
A person isn’t a brand.
If “online” is just another place to manage identity, why does digital identity deserve special treatment?
Thanks – big thanks – to all of you who gave me input on digital identity and how you think of it and name it. The paraphrased quotes from the last post’s comments all helped me dig deeper into the specifics of what I’m aiming to explore with this dissertation-in-the-making. I both agree and disagree with each: the conversation hones my thinking and my writing, and I am grateful.
Here’s what I think: the specific kind of cyborg identity that interests me is new. People have, arguably, depended on technologies to construct and perform identity for thousands of years: the wheel created social structures that shaped who people were and how they saw themselves, and writing – to Socrates’ chagrin – enabled a persistence of self over time that has deeply shaped our notion of what it is to be human.
But what I call – for now, at least – the branded cyborg is a particular hybrid of human and social media platform that creates a circulation of identity different from previous incarnations or understandings of self. It is a reputational identity with tangible, visible, measurable attributes, and the economy in which it operates makes demands on the entity who generates it.
In this sense, I think the branded cyborg – for those of us who are one – is us and reaches beyond us, at the same time. It is identity in the public domain. And I think how it operates matters.
That’s why I think digital identity deserves special focus, even if it is perceived by social media users as a simple extension of themselves. Operations of power and interaction are not actually the same online as they are in so-called “real life,” no matter whether we try to conduct ourselves the same or no. The speed of connections, the flattening (to an extent) of hierarchical relations, the reputational and corporate economic aspects of social media, and the ways in which power circulates and allows for different performances and different recognition of performances all change the subject positions that the environment creates and privileges.
Donna Haraway first wrote her particular version of the cyborg into being in 1985: a creature without origin and without innocence, resolutely committed to “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.” A couple of years ago, in response to the irritatingly popular mythology of the digital native, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek cyborg momifesto, on the cyborg nature of mommybloggers. We perform aspects of self for each other, intimately, but accept that the whole is seldom represented. We often parody notions of what motherhood should be in an effort to resist the discourses that frame our identities. We are hybrids of human and technology just as surely as our children are touted to be.
My ‘we’ has expanded since then, but I still find the figure of the cyborg valuable as a representation of the particular kind of digital identity I want to explore. In my dissertation, I’ll revision Haraway’s late 20th century version of the cyborg as a 21st century digital subject; an entity of social media.
Now, I don’t think everyone online is a cyborg, or at least not a branded cyborg, not really. It depends on what we DO online. Those of us who live “in the open,” to an extent, who engage in the creation/consumption sharing cycle of the produsage economy and who put our own work out there to our networks and actively try to grow audience for those networks under a particular name (or names) that represent us? WE’RE branding. If you have a Facebook account and the rest of your online activity is mostly surfing, maybe you’re not branding. It’s about level of engagement in that reputational, rhizomatic economy. It’s about sharing, putting aspects of self out there, seeking recognition and being open to new connections in the network. It’s about reciprocity, as well: sharing the work of others, leaving comments, participating in the circulation.
So the digital identities of cyborgs are multi-faceted representations, contributed to and amplified by others as part of the etiquette of social media. Cyborg subjects involved in social media produsage networks ‘create content’ such blog posts, tweets, video work, slideshows, or comments attached to a particular digital identity that circulates in the open, building social – and potential financial – capital for its creators in the process. Traditional media appearances or in the online work of others will sometimes factor into a person’s digital identity: the traces that register with Google as a part of our digital identity are not always fully under our control. However, as Google’s page rank works on scale of views, longterm commitment to a particular digital profile or identity means that sites or accounts managed by the user will usually end up outranking random facets of identity originating with other subjects. The identity can encompass many platforms: depth and frequency of use lend gravitas, as do statistical data like blog pageviews and public rankings like Klout.
For Judith Butler, we are called into being as subjects by the operations of power and discourse, and our agency is concommitant with our subjectivity. What does this mean for digital identity? Cyborg digital identities are the product of already-formed subjects: the traces of us that circulate online are deployed in that environment by subjects always already navigating discourse and power. The digital identity may be constructed the same, psychically and discursively, but operates in a different environment. It is the agency of the digital subject – and whether the digital environment offers alternative opportunities for agency not previously available to the subject in embodied form – that interests me.
As an educator, I’m also interested in whether these potentially new digital subjectivities and their agency then impact the embodied subject and his or her expectations. In other words, what does it mean to teach a branded cyborg in an educational system premised on very different subject roles and agentive constructions than are available here online?
This is why I don’t believe that your online identity is simply ‘you.’ When a subject chooses to engage in the produsage economy, creating and sharing content and contributing to the consumption of others’ content as a means of connecting and building visibility and reputation, a cyborg digital identity comes into being. This digital identity, I will argue, cannot be identical to the subjectivity of the embodied person creating the content, even if the person intends it to be. The digital identity will almost invariably end up being recognized and interacted with differently than the embodied person, because the medium allows for and privileges different types of engagement. Few people, even if they write for a living, walk into an office in the morning and are told outright what a wonderful writer they are. Few students can walk into schools, even with the most well-intentioned teachers, and say Hey! This really amazing/terrible/striking thing came across my radar last night and I’d like to take this morning to respond to and share it creatively. Not everyday. And I’m not sure school should be about that every day, though I’m not sure it shouldn’t. But most students learn from their earliest years that schooling means a set of power relations that tend to preclude and sanction statements like that. They learn a different subject position, one with a very different sort of agency than they will encounter online, as cyborgs.
In this context, then, new forms of agency and specifically digital subjectivity are indeed jointly called into being. The discourses and power relations that create the specific subjugation that calls each individual into cyborg identity would, I assume, be individual: I will want to explore Butler’s work on desire and on giving account of oneself in order to consider the myriad of ways this may operate. Certainly, in my own experience, it was subjugation to and representation by a discourse of motherhood that I felt excluded my experience of loss and attachment that led me to try to narrate my own story online, visibly: in creating cribchronicles, I created my own agency to speak a counter-discourse.
This all sounds delightfully, misleadingly emancipatory. I don’t mean it to. I see change as carrying good and bad, cultural gain and cultural loss: I want to explore both. Social media is neither saviour nor sin, in my mind. And lots of people, I’m sure, go online mostly for the porn.
My read of both Haraway’s original cyborg and Butler’s notions of subjectivity and performativity is that the messiness is okay; that clean trajectories are to be mistrusted, interrogated, that porn – and all the aspects of humanity that it stands for – are part of the package I’ve taken on here, in looking to study identity in this public domain of the digital.
My hope, really, is that in exploring what it means to be a branded cyborg I will stumble and grope my way to a more complex understanding of what it means to be human, here and now.
Fri 11 Feb 2011
We passed upon the stair, we spoke in was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend
- David Bowie, The Man Who Sold The World, 1970
(Of course Bowie makes me think about identity.)
I need a word.
A year or so ago, long before I started this theoryblog lean-to on the side of ye olde cribchronicles, I started groping my way towards exploring something, trying to capture something I’d never heard named. I assumed it had been named, somewhere, probably a few times over, but was both amorphous enough and fast-moving enough to have refused reification, mass currency under a single title.
I called it brand, half tongue-in-cheek. I’ve always found brand a vulgar word, flagrant and blatant in its commercial intent. The online universe – especially in the education and narrative blog circles I run in – is not always so open about its own embeddedness in the capital exchange process. I chose the word to provoke, to try to force that conversation.
But mostly I chose it to keep me honest.
It forced me to look at my commercially lilywhite self and own that I am as embroiled and invested in online circulations of capital and power as the trashiest review pimp out there. Because you cannot use social media and not be embroiled. As you connect and share and have your work recognized by others, your social capital is amplified. As your social capital is amplified, your capacity to leverage it increases, often exponentially. You don’t have to: the monetization of the sphere is not obligatory. But ignoring it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.
I wrote three posts in quick succession on the subject. In the last one, I said it like this:
be it beauty or ideas or humour, it matters not. if you put it out there and it
works, it builds reputation. reputation can be leveraged, sometimes into capital,
sometimes into opportunity, sometimes simply into connection. we all have our
eyes on a prize; we are none of us pure, without want.
branding is what is read on to you, how you are perceived, what you signify in
the eyes of everybody else. it is not you, but a version of you. it is an act, and a
group act, one that does not exist without a network of some sort to reflect and
amplify it. it is ephemeral, a wisp on the wind. it is not about content or truth.
it is about image and perceived capacity.
(own it, cribchronicles.com, June 8th, 2010)
I think of all of us out here using social media in our myriad of ways as branded selves, branded cyborgs whose online and offline lives blur. Within the walls of the academy, where the branded cyborg is my dissertation topic, I tend to use the words digital identity or digital subjectivity to describe the idea, depending on which discipline I’m addressing. I see them all tied together in Butler’s idea of the performative: that subjectivities are created by the constant and ongoing citation of the (gendered) societal norms that circulate in discourse. What makes me different from you is how I perform myself – online or off – in relation to those norms.
And what makes me a branded cyborg is that the circulations in which I reference and identify myself include the spheres of social media and concommittant capital. And some version of me – my brand, or my digital identity – continues on performing me in circulation even when I’m not there. Ahem. That’s all. But that’s not an easy thing to explain.
It’s hard to name a social aggregate, an “it” in circulation. As Bruno LaTour puts it in Reassembling the Social, “…Social aggregates are not the object of an ostensive definition – like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger – but only of a performative definition. They are made by the various ways and manners in which they are said to exist” (p. 34). The performative definition of a group draws attention to the means necessary to keep it up, and also to the contributions made by the fact of it being studied or analyzed.
Goody. I need a word to cover the performative definition of performativity in the world of social media.
Amber Case (here at TEDWomen) is a cyborg anthroplogist, which basically means she studies human life as a product of humans and technologies, or objects. She calls the ephemeral us-ness that others interact with online our “second self.”
I’m wary of this term. The idea of a second self ignores the fact that the identity distinctions between online and offline life are increasingly minimal and blurred and often meaningless: tomorrow, for instance, I’ll travel to another province to hang out with a bunch of bloggers, word made flesh. The transition from screen narratives and flurries of Twitter conversation to clinking glasses will not be particularly jarring: in fact, because the group of us interact far more regularly than most of us do with friends we know only in the flesh, the awkward stage of polite catching up will be largely bypassed. We are intimate, because we are regularly online together. Are you listening, Sherry Turkle?
Nathan Jurgenson of cyborgology – who adeptly critiques the binary implicated in the second self idea here – calls it a Profile, an aggregate sum of all the data out there about you. I think we’re on the same page conceptually. There’s something fluid about the word: its connotations are less laden than that of brand, or identity. Yet to me it suggests something flat, surface-like, easily tied up. Does it allow for complex performances of digital identity? Does it represent who we are when we’re not there?
I need to talk this out. Last time I asked – when I asked who you think you are online – I got an extraordinary collection of responses and discussion. This is part two, the simpler question, really: what would you call this you I know out here, your online doppelganger, your disembodied you? Profile, brand, second self, digital identity…what works?
Thu 27 Jan 2011
Who do you think you are?
It’s hard not to hear that question as an interrogation, a challenge. It’s particularly hard when it’s the subtext running through everything I read. Who are we? How has the way we see ourselves changed over generations, cultural epochs? How does being online impact our sense of ourselves?
Studying identity is like peering into a mirror that reflects a thousand mirrors back: it’s dizzying. The big picture I’m trying to cobble together isn’t about me, and yet it’s my own face I see refracted out from the exploration: a disco ball of Bonnies spinning to the tune of of a lot of big theory words. It’s all heady enough without the inevitable personalization the identity lens brings. Grappling with something so big and unwieldy and…well…self-ish does make me wonder who I think am. In a hundred different ways. Which is only really culturally appropriate if one is fourteen and writing bad existential poetry.
And then there’s the motion sickness. I’m at the point in my Ph.D where the bulk of the required, pre-determined coursework is done or on hold, to an extent. I’m in the privileged position of spending many of my waking hours under my own direction, blindly groping – or so it feels – towards vague concepts that excite and intimidate me.
But the more I read, the more the concepts I started with slip from my grasp, and the ground shifts under me.
Part of me feels like this uncertainty is probably good, that my existing thought and belief structures need to be destabilized in order to allow new ideas and concepts to settle somewhere. Part of me balks at how convenient and tidy this sounds, as if I thought my thoughts eventually formed coherent, integrated entities. Ha. Suspicious notion for somebody working with the partiality and fragmentation of poststructural theory.
But then, blushing at being caught out in my wrongthought, I hear the refrain again. Who do you think you are?
Here’s the thing. I have a whole other blog to tell you who I think I am. Here, I’m going to try to tell you who I think YOU are. Or how I think identity works, at this early, slippery, juncture in the sorting process.
I have been sleeping with Judith Butler under my pillow. In book form.
I started this journey because I’m interested in the idea of digital identity, of who we are when we’re online. What it means to “talk” to people on Twitter. What it means to interact digitally, and form deep connections with people we may have never met. How writing one’s life can be different from telling it in person, because of what one is allowed to say and focus on. What it means to share our thoughts and life via RSS or tweet or status update rather than email or telephone. Why some of us @reply most of the time, using the medium almost as a party line. What kind of commitments – in terms of time and repeated engagement, in terms of pressure to be funny or interesting or smart – it takes to build and maintain a “self” online, an identity that others recognize and respond to. Whether there’s a digital identity even if nobody’s reading or following.
For Judith Butler, identity is performative. There is no essential, core self: who we are or think we are is created by discourse, what she calls “the limits of acceptable speech” (1997). Discourse is always in circulation, in every culture, though it shifts from place to place and over time, sometimes drastically with drastic events. We are all, for Butler, creatures of discourse and little more. Even the body is understood in her work not as a pre-discursive fact – though she doesn’t deny that we have bodies – but as meaningful to us in terms of language. Even before we are born these days, thanks to ultrasound, we exist within a web of language relations and assumptions that predate and utterly circumscribe our bodies. You are male. I am female. Those meanings are read onto us even before we know we exist, and shape how we come to know ourselves.
Butler disrupts the apparent simplicity of that binary and the concepts of gender and heterosexual norm that it supports by exploring histories of feminism and Foucault, challenging who we think we are by suggesting that the essentialist categories we rely on to explain ourselves have cultural and power-based historical interests propping them up.
(In a few weeks I have to give a presentation on Butler and her non-essentialist identity concepts to a room in which I will actually be the only person generally identified as straight and white. We’ll see how that goes. It’s one thing to destabilize identity when yours is usually taken up as non-problematic for others. It’s another thing to try to do so to a group of people who’ve lived the oppression our society doles out to identities that don’t measure up to the white, heterosexual discursive norm.)
It may seem strange to try to ground a study of digital identity in queer theory, with its focus on bodies that don’t even make it into the online realm. And yet the notion that we perform ourselves with each other, differently according to circumstances and the discourses that limit and frame the roles we understand ourselves to be playing, is for me an extraordinarily useful place to begin examining how and who we are online, and whether and how this who differs from the selves we get to be or play in our so-called “real” lives.
For me, I’m not sure there’s even a divide anymore. Online is one of the places I live and perform. So is the university. So is my children’s daycare, and the grocery store, and whereever else I go. So is my home, and even here my roles vary depending on who I’m interacting with. Some of these selves or performances matter more to me than others, some are more surface than others, more circumscribed by the limits of acceptable speech and by what is expected. But I’m not sure any aren’t real.
Do you believe in a real, authentic core self? How does the idea of performance strike you? And who are you when you’re online?
Who do you think you are?
Thu 20 Jan 2011
…And so we begin.
It is a strange thing, after almost five years of blogging, to open up this second door for ideas and conversation. Same blog, different floor. Or something like that. Another facet to living online, out in the open. It’s a conceit, maybe, but one that keeps me honest, keeps me pushing myself to explore.
For five years, almost, I have written myself, in a way, into being through the lens of the personal: my stories of childhood, motherhood, grief, community. My words have been received and reflected back and I’ve become both enmeshed in a rich community and identified with a particular form of expression. All of which, for me, has been positive, extraordinary, even.
But this past fall I began a doctoral journey that is, in a sense, a meta-exploration: I am studying the world of social media and the concept of digital identities – or really, digital subjectivities, how selves are constructed and performed and shaped by this environment. And suddenly, I want to write about that which cribchronicles.com cannot contain.
This will be my “thinking out loud” space, another window into my own digital identity.
A place from which to build another – perhaps overlapping intertwined – community, I hope. Because it is community and connections that keep me living and writing out here in the open. But not everybody wants to read about my torturous slogs through the bowels of Foucault all the time, I realize. Even if I can’t imagine why.
If you do, hey, welcome. ;)
The irreverently Reverend Jim Groom is leading a free open online course on digital storytelling right now: #ds106. I am, as usual, a bit late to the rapture. But I’m along for the ride, because digital storytelling seems to be what I do, and I’m curious about what else it can do.
#ds106 is good timing for me: a MOOC is always an opportunity to connect with people who share similar interests. This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – essentially, a free and open program of professional development wherein you decide how much you want to put in and get out of the participatory experience) focuses on establishing and exploring one’s own personal cyberinfrastructure. Or, um, sites and networks and places online in which you can, y’know, express yourself. Which seems particularly handy when one is at a crossroads in terms of one’s personal cyberinfrastructure and looking to, erm, franchise. Or just grow. With capital letters.
There’s an assumption in here that I’m struggling with, though.
For all I’m an educator and deeply interested in examing what online spaces make possible in terms of learning and being, my cyberinfrastructure and my digital identity have been highly personal from the get-go. I have only just gone back to school, but neither school nor my longterm professional career in higher ed were my entry point into the creation of a valuable learning network. That link on the sidebar that says “my other site is a story”? That’s where I began building a digital identity: a personal, uncapitalized, only semi-edited War & Peace of digital storytelling and exploration. I have a cyberinfrastructure, one I’m splitting into two this week.
Both Jim and Gardner Campbell – whose work on cyberinfrastructure is the focus of this particular week in #ds106 – are big advocates of having a domain of one’s own. I don’t disagree, in general principle, though D’Arcy Norman and others have raised some very worthwhile counterpoints.
But the big issue I want to take up – especially with Gardner’s suggestion that universities provide servers as a base for frosh, thus enabling them to build their personal empires throughout their higher education experience and then carry them on into, um, life – is that the assumption that a digital identity or a personal cyberinfrastructure or a footprint or whatEVER starts and ends with the educational cum professional experience is…limiting, no matter how well-intentioned.
People’s experience of the digital world doesn’t start and end with education. And to think of it as doing so, particularly in a time when students old and young increasingly enter higher ed with Facebook profiles and other existing cyberinfrastructures of value to them, is to force the educational potential of the digital back into the same kind of circumscribing box that the classroom has served as for years. Over here: education. Over there: your life, whatever you brung to the dance. And never the twain shall truly meet.
The potential I see in being a digital subject who lives and learns online is in the MIX. Helping people build and cultivate the networks and infrastructures they have or desire or know how to value can be just as important to helping them achieve some kind of digital agency as is the possession of their own personal domain.
Maybe I’m doing the exact opposite, here, by opening up this new door into the blog, specifically for my education work. But people form community and come to conversations with particular expectations, and I don’t think that every Facebook contact a university student went to high school with is going to be a contributing member of his or her learning cyberinfrastructure. I do think, though, that part of visioning what those infrastructures look like needs to value what people bring to the conversation at the beginning: the digital identities they come in with, no matter what form these take.