Participate or Perish?

I’ve been thinking a lot about institutions lately. In trying to trace a narrative line through the sturm und drang around MOOCs and all that they make visible, I’ve been digging into institutional histories, trying to understand what the hell happened in the last thirty years. Who switched the terms of the game of higher education?

I’m looking at you, market forces.

For those of us raised in the world that Stanford researchers in the 70s called ‘the New Institutionalism’ – a world where education’s entire organizational structure was understood to place it firmly “beyond the grip of market forces” (Meyer & Rowan, 2006, p. 3) – it’s all gotten rather bewildering. Many managed not to notice the stealth incursion of for-profit institutions and Pearson into the world of academia (related: the student populations these corporate entities have served, via ESL textbook empires and “the MBA you can probably get into” ads, have not been the white middle-class that still codes “default university student” in North America. Ahem. Just sayin’.). But MOOCs, with their posh ties to Harvard and Stanford and their grandiose claims of revolution, sorta blew that stealth game out of the water.

MOOCs as Enclosure
This past week alone, Coursera moved into professional development for teachers and announced a partnership with Chegg, an online textbook-rental company, to connect MOOC learners with select, limited-time access to texts from large publishers. As Audrey Watters notes, these shifts are  beginning to look like the enclosure of education against the very openness that MOOCs began from: “What was a promise for free-range, connected, open-ended learning online, MOOCs are becoming something else altogether. Locked-down. DRM’d. Publisher and profit friendly. Offered via a closed portal, not via the open Web.”

This enclosure is about profit models, not learning. And it profits few, in the end, because – as I got het up about in Inside Higher Ed last week – the societal mythology of education as value really only functions if institutionalized credentials in some way tie to social mobility and lucrative work.

That’s not the game we’re in, anymore.

But here’s the thing: MOOCs are a symptom of change in higher ed, not the source of it. We need to find ways of talking about this enclosure of openness by profit models, without conflating these forces with online ed in general or even entirely with MOOCs.

Because we will not resist the corporatization of education by standing solely for conventional institutionalized models. That horse has left the barn. But in online practices there may still be ways to protect and preserve some of the broad societal concept of the “we” that institutions were intended to enshrine.

MOOCs as Symptom: Networks + Neoliberalism
Basically, this is where we are: traditional institutional education is being encroached upon from all sides. And the big MOOCs conflate the two primary forces for change: networks and neoliberalism.

Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 11.56.02 AM

This is an ugly slide – I kinda like to call the clip art “retro” – but it’s the best illustration I have at the current moment for what I see actually happening to higher ed as we’ve known it. From one side, what George Siemens terms “the Internet happening to education,” or the networked opening of what was conventionally the closed domain of knowledge. From the other, the market incursion into the sphere of education, with its attendant ideological leanings towards the measurable and the profitable.

Last week, Dave & I went to two conferences together. We do the majority of our conference travel independently, so even getting to be at the same events was kind of exotic for us: being invited together was a treat. But blending our two separate strains of thought into a single keynote for the second conference was something we haven’t done in a couple of years, since all the MOOC stuff blew up.

We bickered about process: that’s par for the course, for us. We’ve worked together as long as we’ve known each other, and while our ideas and even perspectives tend to complement the other’s, our ways of getting there are pretty much opposite. (Sidenote: our writing on the MOOCbook has been pretty much two solitudes, enabling us to continue our lawyer-free relationship.)

But in the process of pulling together, between the two of us, three hour-long presentations to be delivered over the course of three days, on separate but intertwined topics, something converged and snapped into focus.

I’ve been looking at networks from an identities perspective for a few years now, trying to understand who we are when we’re online and what it is about this whole experience that actually matters, from an education perspective. Dave’s been wending his way through an exploration of rhizomatic learning as a way of navigating uncertainty within an era of knowledge abundance. Both of us have been thinking a lot about MOOCs and what they mean for change within higher ed. Hell, most of our household income comes from academic institutions, so the current budget crunch hits home.

But it became clear this week that our work needs to be about finding ways to use networks to push back against the neoliberal vision of the future of education. About making clear that the two do not share the same set of interests.

The conflation of the two is everywhere. Salon has an interview with Jaron Lanier today that makes the case that the Internet killed the middle class. Lanier’s arguments conflate networks with neoliberalism, making the latter invisible as a force unto itself. Sure, there are places where networked practices rely on neoliberal approaches to the world, in the sense of Foucault’s “entrepreneur of the self.” And neoliberalism often co-opts networked practices and naturalizes the perception that the two are one and the same.

But I don’t think they are. At least…I don’t think they inherently are.

Whether they become so is up to us. Particularly those of us who share the values espoused by public education. We need to build our learning and teaching networks, share our ideas and our questions and our practices and what works and doesn’t, and refuse to be enclosed.

Institutional concepts of educational practices enclose easily: that is their nature. The transition from institutional models of the classroom to a massive for-profit textbook magnate’s version of the classroom isn’t really much of a transition, except in what gets lost in terms of public values.

Networks don’t actually enclose easily. Hence the idea of “participate or perish” that Dave & I came up with the night before our keynote at #WILU2013 in Fredericton: a new academic imperative for our times.

Don’t just publish, because the institutional models are encroached upon and becoming enclosed. Participate. Make things different. Don’t wait for it to be your “job:” that’s institutional thinking. Institutional jobs won’t be there if we let the profit models gut education entirely.

Here are our slides from WILU2013, which trace some of these ideas through our own research lenses.

And here are the slides from my Spotlight Speaker session at CONNECT2013, where I focused in more detail on the participation and networking side of things: on how to go beyond institutional identities. Help yourself.

(Postscript: the “Education is Broken” Narrative as Sniff Test)
I want to return to this one in more depth…but a quick thought. The phrase “education is broken” gets thrown around a lot in the current educational climate. It is, in a sense, one of the key reasons neoliberalism and networks get conflated: it’s the area in which they agree. 

But from one perspective, the idea that education is broken is a learning claim. From the other, it’s a credentialing and business model claim.

If you’re in the process of learning to tell the difference, don’t necessarily run from anything that claims education is broken. Rather, ask what aspect of ed it frames as broken. Is it the learning? You might be looking at a network. Is it the profit model and the structure and the means of offering credential? Probably neoliberalism and enclosure at work.

You’re welcome. ;)

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?

 

“find your niche” can suck my elephant: on Bourdieu’s distinction, and social media identity

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.

 

 

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.