digital identity, you many-splendoured thing

…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 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.

17 Comments digital identity, you many-splendoured thing

  1. Debbie S.

    Maybe I’m missing something – and sorry if I’m immediately spiraling these comments a different direction – but I don’t understand how “digital storytelling” is any different from the storytelling I do in, say, my family’s paper scrapbooks. We don’t differentiate “pencil writing” from “word-processor writing” so why the differentiation here?

  2. Neil

    I am truly excited about sharing this space with you. I think you have a brilliant mind for this type of stuff, and I love that you can so easily go back and forth from talking about your kids to theorizing about social media.

    As someone who comes from the other side of your blog, I’m going to have to go a little slower here. I had to read this post twice to really catch some of the references. I hope you don’t mind if some of the old-timers come a long for the ride, and you won’t get too upset if we chuckle at your repeated use of the word “cyberintrastructure.” WTF! Try putting that into a poem.

  3. bon

    interesting comments. both point to the ways in which naming can get in the way. sometimes the names we try to find for these new-ish things we do out here emphasize differences from existing practice more than similarities.

    Neil…you have my full permission to laugh at “cyberinfrastructure” since i’m only using it because #ds106 told me to. :)

    and Debbie, likewise on “digital storytelling”. the prefix digital can be dodgy b/c sometimes it creates distinctions where they aren’t necessary…whereas other times it points specifically to those practices that are the domain of the internet. i like “digital identity,” for instance, b/c it speaks to the version(s) of me that circulate out here in the ether, which while an important part of my broader identity, don’t match up entirely. i see my identity and my digital identity as overlapping circles, with this new blog and cribchronicles as further overlapping circles within my digital identity.

    that said, the Reverend quotes Wikipedia in saying digital storytelling is this: “an emerging term, one that arises from a grassroots movement that uses new digital tools to help ordinary people tell their own ‘true stories’ in a compelling and emotionally engaging form. These stories usually take the form of a relatively short story (less than 8 minutes) and can involve interactivity.

    The term can also be a broader journalistic reference to the variety of emergent new forms of digital narratives (web-based stories, interactive stories, hypertexts, fan art/fiction, and narrative computer games).”

  4. bon

    oh and Neil and all other, erm, “old-timers from the other side,” i’d love to have you along for the ride.

    if i get boring droning on trying to work out postmodernism, you can go back to the other stories.

    if you end up a raging postmodern subject yourself, though…well…i’ll send flowers. :)

  5. hodgepodge

    Reading this made me feel like parts of my brain just aren’t getting used anymore. I have the very definite sense that before the kids I would have understood a lot more of it. ;)

    I’ll be back though, when I can focus on it clearly. I just wanted to say congratulations on opening up this new space for yourself and your increasingly complex thoughts about social media and identity.

  6. Alan Levine

    Hi from the other side, someone who has read but a few posts.

    I had a similar slight bristling at Gardner’s suggestion that the University provide the cyberinfrastructure, but am less sure he meant so literally. My sense is that is students enter w/o one, the university/college/organization provides the *impetus* to get one.

    Look at Jim Groom’s registered UMW students. The university is not providing it; but his class has made it a requirement for any one w/o their domain. They are paying for it on outside services. To me this provides a whole different stake in the game.

    Given the number of new parents giving infants their own domains, and other trends, its my guess more students will enter a post-secondary education with a personal digital locker, already decorated and festooned with personal bits.

    And I read Gardner’s ideas as being more rooted in the personal side than the nuts and bolts side of infrastructure (and too many people are taking even that too literally as the web host, please read the paper he references).

    And more broadly, I dont think for a moment one needs a singular named place, and I also envision.

    Never one to fancy definitions, the digital side of storytelling is aimed at leveraging the capabilities of telling stories (old fashioned and new fashioned style) using mixed media, non-linear formats, culture remixing, some of which is certainly possible in the non digital realm. To me, the true gain is I can experience many more stories than I would otherwise as they are shared (hopefully) publicly.

    A good story hinges little on the tool for sure, and yeah, in a way, it is just yet another variation of one of our oldest traditions.

    Theory on!

  7. bon

    Alan, good points. i think i was unfair in narrowing down Gardner’s admittedly complex proposition into “a server”…b/c i realize he doesn’t mean merely tools, but rather the tools and all the network connections – and i’m assuming, the presence, the reach, all those things that come with being involved in a community.

    i think those are incredibly valuable things, and i take that part of the article’s propositions at face value. i don’t think what he’s suggesting isn’t good.

    but i still think it’s problematic, b/c it’s educentric. Gardner says “the real IT revolution in teaching & learning won’t happen until each student builds a personal cyberinfrastructure.” first, just as we’ve never managed to build an ed model wherein EACH student actually writes something truly deep and fabulous, neither do we seem likely to get each student really engaged in this process. but thinking of the process as the domain of students is the problem for me.

    i don’t think teaching and learning will ever fully make use of the capacity of the digital until we STOP thinking of them as the domain of education and students. the real IT revolution in education, as i see it, lies in its potential to undermine the very institutional model he’s talking about as part of the solution.

  8. bon

    …oh and Hannah, this was kinda me jumping into an already existing conversation with the #ds106 course, so not really fair to judge yourself: i’m writing about a paper i read, and in the context of discussions that go on in my house all the time.

    whereas i will be starting writing on Judith Butler straight from scratch. so you’ll be able to follow along and decide whether your gender identity is purely the construction of normative social forces. big fun! bring popcorn!

  9. maryakem


    I am a little torn. a little excited about the extension on the domicile. I was for so long deep in the envy of folks like you (who unlike me) could knit up the ‘whole self’in one space.

    But there is a logical change I think with the indexing capabilities of twitter to bring out the destiny of chaptering.

    As I continue to debate the need for what sort of digital space for children ages 5 to 16 I blend a lot from our shared experiences of connectedness, identity and privacy ‘over here’. Give us more! I’ll be making good use of it right quick.

    I really like the new carpeting! When are you putting the baseboards in…? Oh dont’ bother. Nice blog theory-person

    ps.. I think women uni-blog best… it was a real cribchron boom… but I’ll adjust..

  10. mo-wo

    As I attempt to write the last 2 dozen posts of my first blog I am challenged by what this it telling me. That blog began as a place to unwind a splintered self but its very title…

    It’s great that the technology has caught up with us enough to feed our digital sprawl. Now if I science could just cough up the universal time expander I require.

    Your making my head think too much. As usual, damn you.

  11. Jim

    Funny enough my blogging start back in 2004 with the birth of captain Miles—Antonella (my special lady friend) is from Italy and her family are still all there, so we used a blog as an easy way to share photos, videos, etc. It is also where I started mashing up 50s instructional videos with my kids home videos, a true panic.

    Anyway, this process actually led me in to edtech through financial difficulty, a general fleeing from my Ph.D., as well as an escape from NY (great film, not such a great real life move). So the whole idea of coming into edtech through a more personalized idea of this space was also the case for me, and what’s more, the whole domain of one’s own is based in that ery idea, rather than opposed to it. And there are two parts to the history in my mind at least.

    The first is a comment Brian Lamb left on my blog paraphrasing something George Siemens had said. here it is:

    I’m reminded of something George Siemens said at a symposium on distributed tool strategies: that schools should be in the business of managing data flows rather than in supporting an end to end user experience. We can only dream what might result if the energy going into the campus-wide LMS’s would go into creating flexible and easy to use “syndication buses” or to addressing pragmatic instructor challenges to using the “small pieces” approach — things like student management tools, grade books etc. And what about providing the service of institutional archiving and data backups to mitigate the risks of using third party tools?

    This idea of the syndication bus for me was the model schools should be thinking about because it gets us away from schools provides servers, but rather syndicating an individual’s work intelligently. And it would allow for students, faculty, etc. to come in with an online identity and through tags or a new subdomain like you have here syndicate out the relevant pieces. It makes total sense to me, and it is a model I think that ds106 provides a fascinating look into in terms of architecture, much like Downes’s gRSShopper.

    And the second part of this, and the kind of turning point in my head was with the idea of encouraging folks to get their own name space, URL, domain whatever so that they can fluidly come in and out of school and keep the integrity of this online identity, and that’s the “A Domain of One’s Own” in many ways paying homage to Virginia Woolf’s notion of needing your own space to work, write, and think in order to start be an artist, to be equal, and to challenge the structures through which ideas of ownership and power are engendered (or even gendered when thinking through Woolf). So here is a quick point from this post:

    Moreover, the above URL [a URL] is premised upon an individual’s enrollment in a university or college, and when they leave that school this space will often disappear. A digital identity should be an online address one can have no matter where they are, a space where you can track that person as they move not only from being a freshman to a sophomore, but from an undergraduate to a graduate and beyond. An online home where they consciously integrate their professional profile through a streaming set of resources and spaces they inhabit online. To steal a concept from a recent comment by Gardner Campbell (who was quoting Doug Engelbart), an “integrated domain” flowing with traces of the work one does and the ideas they are exploring.

    And I would say the professional profile for school maybe, and perhaps it starts there–but it need not, but that is only because you choose to syndicate off the parts that are relevant to the various domains of your work, life, etc.

    In many ways this may be a limited vision, but at the same time it is a rather simple axis for thinking about a whole new technical approach to identity that universities could, and should, foster. I was excited two years ago when Boston university said they were getting rid of name space email, no more addresses (they bailed on the idea) but the replacement was simple, choose the email address you want to receive updates from, and they syndicate the mail according to what you already have, want, etc. it changes a ton of things, a simple idea, and in many ways recognizes that we all come to schools, universities, etc. with an identity that we should be able to share bits and pieces of to follow through with our work there. Because here is another point, this becomes your notebook for thinking through this course using a subdomain or tag, what if I said hey, you need to use our blogging platform? Well them, a university blogging platform is just a little bit more flexible than Bb or its ilk if it becomes a requirement. better to do as Siemens suggests, built the aggregated syndication bus, and much of that starts with a domain.

    So, that’s kinda the syndication bus idea, eduglu (if you will), etc. but at its heart it was simple syndication that gave the power to the user to decide what to share using tags (and feeding accordingly) and up to universities to provide a system to handle that easily, and that’s what UMW Blogs has been for UMW, and I am proud of it for the very reason that if a student in a class wants to use his/her own space (where ever it is, blogger, Drupal, typepad, etc.) all they need to do is share their tagged feed. Simple, a syndication bus, EDUGLU!!!!! What’s more, it is an architectural model that helped me understand some small, yet crucial points about digital identity, namely that we perform different parts of who we are in different domains, but they need not be divorced entirely. What we need is more aggregation point, more feeds, and more ways to frame the complexity of our identity and its performance fluidly within and across all institutions.

    Whew, that was a comment and a half ;)

  12. bon

    a comment and a half indeed, Jim…and it took me a coupla days to digest it and come back to say, yeh. i can see now the distinction between what you’re suggesting higher ed and what Gardner (at least to my read?) was suggesting in the article: it’s not that i think he’s wrong, but rather that the scope from which he’s viewing it is too focused on perpetuating the institutional norms of higher ed. though it might be a terrible thing to say that to him. ;)

    eduglu, huh? so is that i’m using here, trying to connect these two spaces for different performances of myself?

  13. Mike

    I recently stumbled onto your blog – and now follow you on twitter as well. I look forward to following your investigation into digital identity and your journey through your PhD program. After 30 years as a public school teacher, I have joined the ranks of academia & am also enrolled in a Ph.D.program (University of Manitoba). I too am “deeply interested in examining what online spaces make possible in terms of learning and being” and so, I will follow your thoughts (and entertaining writing) with great interest.

    1. bon

      Mike, i’m very happy to have you here and look forward to your chiming in with ideas.

      i’m interested in how different programs frame the Ph.D experience, too: who are you working with at UofM?

      1. Mike

        I am in a special cohort “Transformative Teaching, Learning & Leading”, the focus is critical theory. My advisor is Dr. Orest Cap.


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