Digital Identities & Digital Citizenship: Houston, We Have a Problem

A couple of weeks back, I gave the closing keynote in Keene State College’s Open Education spring speaker series.

It was a rumination on Open as a set of practices and a site of identity, particularly for those of us in higher ed. I wanted to consider what it means to engage in digital scholarship – and digital leadership – from an identity perspective rather than a role perspective…especially for those of us for whom the standard higher ed roles and labels of student/staff/faculty may be only partial or precarious, aspirational rather than fully institutionalized.

Now, one of these days I will become one of those people who actually writes out their talks. Until that day, Dear Reader, all I have for you is Slideshare and my tendency to post talks as jumping-off points rather than transcriptions.

Digital identities & citizenship: Leading in the Open from Bonnie Stewart

This particular slide deck is a REAL jumping off point, though. Because I was in the middle of my talk – mouth open, mid-sentence – when an awkward realization kinda opened up in front of me.

The connection I was trying to make between digital identity and digital citizenship in the open? Has a big gaping contradiction in it.

Nothing like a lightbulb moment in the middle of a narrative in front of a room full of people.

The point of my talk was that we need to go beyond thinking about identity in the open – digital identity – and start thinking in terms of digital citizenship.

Identities never generate in a vacuum; we are mockingbirds, mimics, ornery creatures whose Becoming is always relational, even if often in reaction to what we don’t want to be. Our digital identities are no different…and unfettered individualism, as a lens, tends to do a TERRIBLE job of acknowledging the ways collaboration and cooperation make the spaces in which we Become actually liveable.

So the presentation for Keene was about going beyond ideas of individual digital identity to ideas of digital citizenship and the shared commons…while acknowledging citizenship as a flawed framework that brings up issues of borders and empire and power. It was about the fact that we can’t really talk about digital identity without talking about citizenship, because when we’re all out in the open Becoming identities together, we’re shaping the space we all inhabit.

But. If I was right on this point – and I still think I was but hey, you can take that up in the comments – it was the other side of the argument that blindsided me.

I hadn’t fully – until that moment in front of the keynote audience – thought through how digital identity, as a practice, operates counter to the collaboration and cooperation that need to be part of digital citizenship.

This is our contemporary contradiction: identity as a construct in contemporary social media spaces makes for pretty rotten social spaces.

We know this. You know this. Much as many of us appreciate and enjoy aspects of the ambient sociality and community that social network platforms deliver us – shout out to everybody who hit “like” on the photos of the Hogwarts letter we made for my son’s eleventh birthday today, because those likes are, frankly, validating whereas if I parade the letter up and down my actual street I’m just weird – we all know there are fundamental drawbacks.

We’re algorithmically manipulated. We’re surveilled. We’re encouraged to speak rather than listen. We’re stuck engaging in visibility strategies, whether we admit it or not, in order simply to be acknowledged and seen within a social or professional space.

Our digital identities do not – and at the level of technological affordances and inherent structure, cannot – create a commons that is actually a healthy pro-social space.

And yet. And yet. Here we all are.

What I realized in developing the talk for Keene was that I used to write a lot about identity, and digital identities…and I stopped.

In the early days of this blog, digital identity was the crux of the phenomenon I was trying to work out and develop a research approach to: the why and the how of making ourselves visible and public in open, online spaces. In those early days, blog comments were still alive and well and many, many people contributed – generously, chorally – to my understanding of identity in the overlapping networked publics that blogging and academic Twitter comprised, back then. I’d been blogging in narrative communities for years, and had watched how monetization and scale of visibility shaped and shifted not only people’s presentation of self, but their experience of it, in the digital context.

I wrote about six key selves of digital identity. I wrote posts with David Bowie songs as titles. I played with messy ideas like brand and cyborgs and never did write as much about theory as I’d intended when I started out and gave the blog a name. But it was mostly identity that I focused on in those first few years.

And then I more or less walked away.

On the flights home from New Hampshire, I reflected on this; on the fact that even in my dissertation, I took up identity and digital identity but balked around focusing enough on it to theorize it, to fully unpack it. Because I knew it was the wrong lens for the socio-technical scholarly sphere I was trying to explore…but I didn’t know why.

Until I finally unravelled what bothered me about it, in the middle of a talk at Keene.

Digital identity isn’t just the wrong lens for figuring out digital scholarship, or encouraging participatory engagement in learning. It’s actually the wrong lens for building towards any vision of digital citizenship that makes for a liveable, decent digital social sphere to inhabit.

You probably already knew that. But I feel like something finally fell into place…years later than it ought to have, maybe, but nonetheless.

Now the question is how do we really get past identity and build for citizenship, in environments that limit, organize, and shape our sociality in ways we often even cannot see?

52 Comments Digital Identities & Digital Citizenship: Houston, We Have a Problem

  1. Alan Levine

    I’m still trying to digest your realization, re-reading it a few more times, so please write more. Or give me wee brain more time to ponder this out.

    But I am not sure you can completely split out our innate cares for the self (identity) from cares for others (citizenship). Even when we are full in the commons, there should be some feeding for the self, even the rewarding sense of doing good. Can we ever truly be 100% selfless? Can we feed both?

    If I try to unpack the problem it is the framing and pursuit of digital identity as the “profile”, how we are seen by others, and the need to be validated, to be seen, read, “liked”. This digital profile is not who we are, it maybe be some extrapolation. But we seem to care more how we are seen than showing who we are.

    I see it in retired bloggers who bemoan a lack of “audience”. I see it in writing to be seen rather than writing for writing, as my muse Pete Townsend write/sang in “Guitar and Pen”

    When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
    When you’re kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
    When the words are immobile until you sit down
    Never feel they’re worth keeping, they’re not easily found
    Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
    You must really have something
    Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
    Important to say.

    That’s what I saw when i first read your blog, that it seemed you could not not write, that what came through was a glimpse into who you are, not read counts and likes, and rankings and…

    While it appears that way I’m not venturing down the nostalgic path to 200_. There’s no going back. But that does not mean we have to stay with the way things are. When the most people have to give each other is click approval, and that’s what we crave like candy (maybe the most inane thing I see- “liking” a comment, wtf?)

    We need to say and share more to each other as affirmation than pellet clicks.

    1. bon

      we definitely need to say and share more to each other than pellet clicks. and i don’t think identity is some kind of binary opposite to citizenship or community.

      frankly, until my brain shifted in the middle of that talk, i’ve always seen – and experienced – the two mostly as nested, with identity (digital and otherwise, in this case) being the awkward, porous, fluid frame around the self that sits within the larger awkward, porous, fluid frame that is our social sphere (digital or otherwise) and how we understand it at a given moment. i see the digital versions of this nesting as somewhat different due to lack of borders and asynchronicity and lots of other affordances, but broadly parallel, as a working concept. and i can still see it. like those weird art tests where they ask you if you see young lovers or an old woman in a given picture, now that my brain HAS shifted it doesn’t mean i *don’t* still see the nesting. or that i’m making an argument that we should (can?) be selfless or subsume self to citizenship. or that the fact that we are surveilled and quantified and reduced to profiles in the operations of digital platforms actually reduces us to the limits of those things.

      but. (and i said this in slightly diff words on FB earlier, and got an interesting response) i think we ignore the ways these platforms shape our behaviours & our understandings of what it means to contribute to a commons or a social sphere – at our peril. and even if we don’t share all those risks, we need to think about differential/potential consequences for those who aren’t us. i don’t think digital identity is a profile. did you ever have a turtle? that only grew as big as its tank allowed? i think digital platforms have that kind of “tank” effect on us and i think specifically that those effects create a sphere for sociality or citizenship that is, overall, on the mean, not pro-social. in important and different ways than the f2f effects that we always already live with, and we need to pay attention to THAT. Debbie Schinker pointed out there’s always been a tension between individualism and common good that’s especially visible in the US context and i agree. but that doesn’t entirely map against or subsume the things i’m talking about b/c it’s the specifics of what it means to foster surveilled, quantified selves that get recognition only for visible presence that i’m interested in, and that’s more than individualism.

      1. Alan Levine

        Thanks Bon, I have more cracks opening in my understanding, and also see I mis-interpreted more than I understood. As some site said somewhere, “It’s complicated.”

        Yes we are turtles in a box only if we allow that to happen; yes the social platforms seem to be doing more to us than we may want to realize, and more and more to their interests than our own. The counter to that however, to me, how much we can transcend those boxes, or not give them all that power. What if it’s not possible to connect at the wide level we have enjoyed w/o giving in to the Surveillance Economy? I speculate now at wondering where those points are I might say “no” and the cost then.

        Many have given in to being boxed for the convenience and very little to offer in incentive for going to the trouble of un-boxing. I aim to hop in and out of boxes but spend as much time as possible in my front yard (or visiting yours).

        Now I want a pet turtle…

  2. Simon Ensor

    Our digital identities are no different…and unfettered individualism, as a lens, tends to do a TERRIBLE job of acknowledging the ways collaboration and cooperation make the spaces in which we Become actually liveable.

    Hmm. A doodle comment.


    Cracked Actor.

    One and the other(s)
    Not One.
    Composite Self.

    One Lens.
    Lies half truths.
    Kaleidoscope glimpses.

    Untie individualist capital.

    Unravel rationalist ideology.

    Now the question is how do we really get past identity and build for citizenship, in environments that limit, organize, and shape our sociality in ways we often even cannot see?

    Err we don’t.

    1. Sarah Honeychurch

      Yup. Identity is not something to get past. It is something to get over.

      Nietzschian subtext intentional.

      1. bon

        i think “kaleidoscope glimpses” should be the title of this blog, Simon. or maybe my thesis. ;)

        Cracked Actor.
        woulda been cooler.

  3. Josie Fraser

    I want to thank Alan for his comments here, as well as you of course for the post Bon.

    I’m not sure I can decouple digital identity from identity (as the field of psychological & sociopolitical positioning of the self), or citizenship from digital citizenship. Sure, they aren’t interchangeable & there are a bunch of different affordances in different spaces. I’m interested in hearing more about the ways in which you think identity is incompatible with citizenship. Your post has got me thinking about shared parts of identities, especially those which particularly benefit or are disadvantaged from ideas of citizenship? What if I see my citizenship as an important part of my identity, online or off? Are all forms of identity self centred? (If this is the objection?) I’m of course thinking particularly of mothers here, of what socially a mother is supposed to represent, and how infringements of the acceptable representations of that identity are treated.

    1. bon

      interesting, Josie. still thinking this through and trying to grasp how people relate to these various words and what you’re all bringing into the conversation. i do see my citizenship (in the digital sense, far less in the material nation-state sense) as part of my identity, and it’s not self-centeredness that’s my objection. i’m not trying to create or reify a binary here. doesn’t mean it’s not happening anyway. but it’s not what i see.

      i have always seen digital identity – and i’ll stick with the digital versions here b/c it’s the specifics i’m interested in – as part of citizenship, in the sense that ppl make up the social sphere and its norms and bring their crap and their loveliness and their biases, all. what stuck out for me suddenly while talking at Keene was NOT suddenly that the crap and biases outweighed the lovely, but that the logical end game of what platforms reward as successful digital identity performance and practice is antithetical to those platforms ever becoming more pro-social spaces at a grand scale.

      my objection is to the ongoing focus on identity as the lens that’s going to tell us something about how to make the digital a better place. media is interested in identity, likes to treat identity as a key to understanding. when i used to have stats on this blog, in the first year or so, my identity posts got WAY more hits and traction than anything else. but what hit me was that until we shift our focus past identity to the space we want to be, digital identity as shaped by these platforms we interact on will NOT go ahead and create a platform we WANT to interact on. on the whole. in the big sense.

      for me personally, i’m good here. i happen to have nice friends online. it’s mostly okay for me here. but i got here a long time ago and i’m white and educated and my class markers don’t particularly show in this space and i don’t have an esp powerful job or role and so mostly – mostly – i fly under the radar and am able to avoid many of the overtly toxic effects, not all. but i think looking at the web and sociality through a lens of identity rather than citizenship is not likely to move things – again, in the big picture – away from that toxicity.

      we cannot purify ourselves into make the web a better place for everybody. but if we focus on the place and the structures that shape it – including how digital identity operates – and how to build shared concepts of citizenship for that space or commons…seems *slightly* more promising to me. at least for these past two weeks.

      1. Josie Fraser

        Thanks for this thoughtful reply – it’s really helpful. You’ve prompted me to reread my posts on digital citizenship:
        They’re 4/5 years old now, so I don’t agree with everything I’ve written :D It’s positioned as a response to the ongoing development of citizenship education/citizenship as a discipline, and the emergence of a US definition of digital citizenship, which at the time was very much a development of e-safety concerns.

        I’m alarmed at the idea of purification :) I still think it’s very much the case that we need to look beyond ‘good behaviour’, especially within social systems where it’s common for people to try and write off active democratic behaviour in terms of ‘deviant’ identities – as the ravings of a ‘nasty woman’ or the ignorance of the ‘ungrateful poor’ for example.

        1. bon

          also alarmed at the idea of purification. that’s why – when thinking about the effects of the digital and what *we* (whoever that is) want from the digital – i think we’d be better off to focus on the commons or on citizenship or whatever other imperfect term…rather than on identity. not because identity isn’t always part of it, or that commons aren’t always made up of constellations of identities, but because if we focus on the individual the only path to better is to better the individual (or like you say, blame the individual as deviant or nasty or ungrateful), rather than grapple with the structures that shape the broader environment.

          …or that’s what i think today. :)

          1. Maha Bali

            I’m wondering if the individualism focus you refer to here is actually a broader issue with political discourse in some Western countries like the US. Such that, for example, tech sells when it purports to personalize learning, rather than recognizing the power of socially constructed learning.

            But I realize I have gone off on a tangent without addressing your main point. Which despite all comments and replies so far, isn’t 100% clear to me. But I love that u got an epiphany while keynoting!

            OK so let me see if I understand this right. Your point is that digital spaces put certain parameters around identity that aren’t conducive to promoting good citizenship? And that this is something that affects certain ppl more than others and we need to be aware of this as we often ignore the ways in which eg social media platforms manage/control how we view others and represent ourselves? I am rambling trying to express what I think you’re saying. I feel like I need concrete examples of how digital identity does this. I think there are probably many. I just want to see which ones you’re thinking about so I can understand you better

  4. Autumm

    Gaaahhhh!!! Bonnie you are doing that thing again where you jump into these ideas that have been plaguing me and bring a richness and perspective that I seem to only be able to scratch the surface of… Happy to be sharing some head space with you and hope to not be too much of a bother as I wax over these thoughts a bit – I’m newer at thinking about these things with the depth that you do so forgive if I come off awkward.

    You know I changed the name of my class for the fall. It was FYS: Digital Citizenship and now it is FYS: Digital Identities, Environments, and Citizenship.

    I absolutely agree that digital identity is the wrong lense… alone.

    But it has to be one of the lenses… Right? And I want to say that it is the lens to start with… that one should know themselves first. And if knowing is obtuse, as it often is, then questioning at the very least…

    One of the quotable moments from last year’s class – meaning that the students wrote this bit down and quoted me back to me – which was an all at once strange and beautiful moment – :

    “You have to be a person first before you can be a person in an environment”

    The thing about environments is that they shape you

    bump up against you

    restrict/enable your movement

    provide for/take from you


    And once you are a person in an environment … well… no man is an island (ah the mixing of metaphors)

    Those other identities, they too are shaping you, bumping up against you, restricting and enabling you, providing and… yep… taking from you

    So yes, we end up with others trying to harvest our identities for profit. Surveilling, watching, microtargeting. Often… okay almost always… the nature of the environment enables and encourages this. The image in my mind here is not of 1’s and 0’s but of the hunter finding a better vantage point in which to stalk its prey.

    *you say it’s a livin’; we all gotta eat*

    But is is all so damn complex is the thing.

    What is the alternative?

    To just not be?


    We have to be. Well, I like to think so anyway…

    And if we are going to be – be it online or in the flesh – I think identity work has an important place but I agree that by itself it can not carry the load to make this bigger thing clear.

    As for your last question… I’ll give it a whirl… but again I’m still putting much of this together myself.

    Well, I think… We have to study the complexities to get smarter about the ways we can be taken advantage of. We have to find ways to see what is hidden from us. We have to advertise (and I don’t use that word lightly) and educate about those insights as we find them. But we also have to realize that not everyone is a hunter and we have to fight for the ability to create an environment that is not only about what we can take from one another.

    1. bon

      thank you for all this thinking out loud, Autumm…processing so much as a result of starting this conversation.

      i will say one more time, tho, i’m not talking about ditching identity – we can’t – but ditching the dominant (often almost fetishizing, at media level, focus on identity) for a focus on the collective, on what you call “an environment that is not only about what we can take from one another.” i like that.

  5. Simon

    As is the wonder and power of the web I stumbled across this as I was playing twitter feed catchup whilst I wait for my son to finish his ballet class – so bear with me as this may be garbled, but hopefully a useful, personal perspective.

    Firstly Bonnie, thanks for the post. As Alan indicated it’s making me write and think on the fly as I am processing the complexities of digital identity (identities) and citizenship & their inter or counter relationships, so I apologise for the stream of consciousness.

    Initially my response was to consider that in digital “spaces” I may have multiple identities, some of these are the “real me”, some of them are “selective me” and some might be “anonymous me”. My digital identity in this sense is not singular, it is complex and is in fact multifaceted.

    Therefore I wonder to what extent my “citizenship” is also multifaceted? Am I a citizen of one digital space? (the web) or am I a citizen of multiple spaces and my citizenships are also as complex as my identities?

    I guess one way to consider identity & citizenship is to align it to the physical environments we live in.
    I become a “citizen” of a country by birth right or by legal right, and whilst Twitter may not have physical boundaries it does have digital boundaries. I became a legal citizen of Twitter by sign up – and although I chose to use my “real” identity I could have chosen not to.

    What if we considered “citizenship” as the legal status of our membership of a physical or digital space? Within this space we have laws (rules) by which we should be “good” citizens and these shape what we do and don’t do.

    However, “identities” are personas that we create or emerge within these spaces and these identities are how others see me.

    This moves me on to the work of David White @daveowhite with regards to Visitors and Residents. In spaces where I am a “citizen” I may consider my identity to be a “resident” of that space, contributing to it, sharing and engaging more deeply with the community.

    As a visitor I may not consider myself a citizen of that space (although legally I may be) and my identity may be less prominent and perhaps more guarded?

    I’m not sure I’ve contributed to bringing much clarity to the conversation, but it does highlight the complexities of using pre-existing terminology and our associated relationships with those terms.

    1. Maha Bali

      Ooh I like this merging of visitor/resident work of Lanclos/White with digital citizenship work. Which spaces do we trust enough to be citizens in them and which spaces are dangerous to practice citizenship, f or certain individuals or populations

    2. bon

      Simon, your points and caveats are *exactly* why i’ve always been uncomfortable with the frame of citizenship for our digital commons…yet i don’t have a better one. i don’t think my nation-state citizenship and my digital citizenship align well…though my contributions to my community at a local level and my recognition that i impact that community and others in it for good or bad may be a better parallel?

      my work is very much about the facets of self in different digital spaces and when i’m thinking about the commons i’m not thinking in terms of any one platform per se, for sure…but more across those spaces where we *are* resident. to some extent, i’ve chosen NOT to be resident in some spaces (*cough* Reddit *cough*) because the terms of citizenship there aren’t (in some corners more than others) welcoming for my identity.

      but. but. there’s more here, isn’t there?

      1. Alan Levine

        Perhaps the trap is this idea of “an identity” because it’s a moving target continuously through time and context, though I do like how V&R sets up maps for different contexts.

        Still it seems like always trying to paint it as a static map, which seems to trying to wrap your arms around jello.

        I go back often to this description of identity by a student as a continually morphing changing opening/closing circle (she never said the word, but I think of iris, like the opening in our eye or a camera’s aperture)

        Yet we use words that make it sound like a singular entity.

        1. Simon Thomson


          Picking up on your point about “identity” being the trap. What about if we just referred to it as presence?

          In fact what about if we forget about citizenship & identity and think more about participation & presence?

          Our presence in (digital) spaces is intertwined with our participation. I have a presence in many online spaces, but my participation varies (depending on a range of factors).

          Then as I’m writing this I just thought perhaps that “persona” might also be an alternative term to identity. I quite like the idea that personas can be multiple (depending on the space & community).

          Bon, I wonder if persona, presence & participation are terms which might sit better in our digital commons?

    3. Simon Ensor

      How am I a citizen of Twitter?
      If I take my kids to Sleeping Beauty’s castle am I citizen of Disneyland?

      1. bon

        ooh. this combined with something Josie said on Twitter sparked another couple of wheels turning.

        IMO, you are totally a citizen of Twitter. you’re relatively resident there, in the White/LeCornu/Lanclos sense of that term, but moreso, your presence there (to use the other Simon’s suggestion of a term) impacts me and my experiences. we inhabit a shared sphere.

        Josie pointed out that inhabiting a space (online) may be different from being a citizen. that citizenship may require active participation. i think there’s something interesting there to unpack…i haven’t yet. maybe partly b/c my experience of citizenship has been that it’s a conferred thing largely based on inhabitance rather than the actual responsibilities to the larger whatever that we pay lip service to.

        BUT. here’s where your Disneyland thing made me think. i’m saying you being on Twitter is not so different from Disneyland even if you spend less time in Disneyland in the sense that if/when we cross paths there and your presence impacts my experience – for good or ill – you shape my sense of what it is to be there and what that place IS.

        i think i see digital citizenship as always local and contingent, rather than in globalized terms. maybe that’s what’s missing in terms of clarity in my original thinking – i’m thinking of citizenship in terms of how do *we* as a large constellation or collective think about the commons in ways that hopefully boil down to decent localized experiences, across different social corners?

        1. Simon

          I think this conversation strengthens my own feelings that “presence” is a term we should be using more. After all it’s our varying levels of presence in spaces (physical and digital) which determines how others “see” us and how we feel about those spaces.

          I am still leaning towards “persona” instead of identity. The more I think about it, I’ve come to see “identity” as a more fixed/formal term (I’m thinking National Identity Cards etc) and almost detached from me as a person?!

          But, I also wonder if multiple personas come together to give me an “identity”? Still some thoughts to process here for me.

          1. bon

            i like presence. while the existing body of work on presence, esp in online learning (ie Garrison, Anderson & Archer), doesn’t map exactly with some of the concepts we’re throwing around here, neither does citizenship.

            i’m less okay with persona. i’m trying to remember the last time i circled around this distinction (i end up throwing my hands up somewhere in any conversation about definitions, which is a shortcoming)…but my sense is that while i dislike words like “authentic” in relation to identity, persona strays too far from that for ppl to use comfortably. i think it works for talking about specific facets of identity or lenses or avatars, but not for the experience of being in a given space or sphere. so yes, to multiple personas working together perhaps to form an identity…probably in any context, f2f or online…but i still can’t buy into persona for broad analysis of being.

  6. Megan

    I’m working with the idea of an aesthetic citizenship (hickey-Moody) in artschool, different kinds of recognising for different worldings (Manning)

  7. Pearson (no relation)

    Okay, I finally read through the thing without cussing.

    Having the conversation with the Virtually Connecting people on Friday night helped. It occurred to me then that the story of the past year and odd change for me has been a transition of one where I want to speak consistently to one where I’m much more inclined to listen. It’s paralleled much of my rising frustration with Facebook in particular – the people who retain currency in that medium are the ones who continually speak and ensure their voices are heard, rather than listening and quietly engaging in conversation.

    The algorithm demands content, and listening isn’t content.

    I’ve had many opportunities this year to just listen, and to amplify others’ voices. I’m super grateful for them. I need to be more deliberate about seeking out these opportunities in my teaching practice, particularly what I’m expecting (course assignment pending) will be my online teaching practice next year. After all, I can talk about my own identity all I want, but I have students who are still developing THEIR identities, and that’s where my attention needs to be.

    Thanks for making me think, Bonnie – and to all of you who share in this conversation as well.


    1. bon

      dammit. :)

      thank you for your listening. and for signalling your listening, and your frustration.

      the conversation overall has left me more puzzled in some ways but a little less lonely in my frustration…

  8. Stephen Downes

    I’ll revisit this, but right now I see you as running smack-dab into ‘groups vs networks’, and opting for groups.

    I think one essential point you’ve made here is correct: they’re contradictories. You can’t base identity in a group and in autonomy at the same time.

    1. bon

      huh. i don’t think of this as groups vs networks, Stephen. if i were to use that lens, i’d say what i’m expressing falls closest to your 2007 point about networks as the middle way between individual and group (i’ve liked this post a lot for years:

      i don’t think the digital ‘commons’ or social sphere or whatever term we want to use for the collective aggregate of the spaces we create through networked presence and contributions is EVER going to be a group, nor should it be. your terms for groups are unity, coordination, closed, distributive (trickle down)…i think there have been efforts to impose these on corners or pockets of digital practice, often most successfully via monetization, but the digital spaces i’m interested in here, above, are still those that retain a modicum of the diversity, autonomy, openness and connective/distributed capacity you talked about in 2007.

      but where, again your words for networks include “cooperation, exchange, and mutual value,” i don’t see current forces shaping digital identity within networks leading us towards a sociality where these particular terms have primacy. that doesn’t mean cooperation and exchange and mutual value can’t happen – i’m experiencing a ton of it here in these comments as people try to push and pull and work this out with me – but my personal network and sphere are deeply embedded in an ethos (and practices and platforms) that are not so much the current direction of things.

      i’m interested in what makes networks liveable, not as a group but as a constellation of distributed, emergent, relationships and norms and patterns and practices between identities. but what i’ve tried to lay out here is that focusing overmuch on the identities rather than the relationships – especially the relationships in the cumulative, at scale level – is a mistake. i’m looking for a sociological, structural lens on networked interaction.

  9. Jon Udell

    I guess at some point we will just have books, humanities, identity, citizenship, etc. Things, and communication about things, that were formerly never digitally mediated, then partly so, will be more completely so, and we’ll no longer need to call attention to their digital nature. At that point what, if anything, will be fundamentally different about the things and the communication? I used to think the answers were obvious, now I’m not so sure. The village was both a surveillance state and a stage for every kind of personal performance, wasn’t it?

    1. bon

      i still kinda live in the village – or one of them – and yes. surveillance of the most constraining kind – the kind where you internalize the panopticon as part of your identity. i talked about that, using the frame of the internet as the world’s biggest small town, years back: i always figured part of what made networks so comfortable for me was having grown up in – and then left, and then returned to – a place as parochial as PEI.

      but post-digital? i’ve been hoping for years we’d get there. yet the affordances are different and i think that still matters. it may not, down the road…but there are personal performances and relational interactions that are far more possible here online than they ever were in the village, and things that are harder to say here without consequences that many deem too high.

      i think what concerns me in those differences isn’t even entirely what gets said, but what goes beyond saying. the way in which, in networks, you can’t be seen unless you signal. i cannot address you and your thoughts unless you comment. i cannot see your face in front of me and infer your reaction. i don’t even know you were here unless you comment…which these days, when comments are like rare gold, means i often don’t know whether anyone is listening.

      i think if we manage to survive as a species and digital forms of communications and interactions continue to be part of our sociality and identity and prospects in the world, we’ll absorb the premises of the digital more deeply until we feel post-digital, but i’m still not sure if that won’t really just mean we’ve become actually finally digital, rather than print identities playing in a space we don’t understand.

  10. Catherine Cronin

    Thanks Bonnie – your post and the comments above are wonderfully thought-provoking. Thanks to all. The Six Selves of Digital Identity, circa 2012 – you were a rock star to my students when you joined our Twitter chat after we read that post :) As for how digital identity fits into ‘where we are now’, I think you’re not the only one whose ideas have been evolving (but perhaps alone in doing it mid-keynote ;) ). My focus has shifted somewhat also. Over almost-4 years of PhD research, my focus has changed from studying creating/negotiating digital identities in open online spaces to exploring meaning-making and decision-making around openness and privacy in a culture that is increasingly networked, participatory, and unequal. Digital identity is there, but as you say – not the primary lens.

    I want to make sure I understand your argument, however. As ‘users’ of various platforms we are ‘allowed’ certain modes of expression -always limited- for a price (personal/usage data, personal/professional risk, etc.). Platforms are designed specifically so that users will tend to move towards the warmth of the porch light (i.e. clicks, metrics, etc.). And those actions, on a large scale, threaten the broader aims of building society and community. Is that it? You talk about two ways to see the issue, and you’ve flipped your focus (from digital identity towards digital citizenship). I still see both/and…

    While platforms may push us in this direction, all I know who are focusing on digital identity/digital citizenship (including everyone who commented above) are pulling in the opposite direction to this – i.e. working with students/faculty/others to understand key issues (social media ecosystems, data ownership, surveillance capitalism, private/public) and focusing on claiming a voice, building community, contributing, and challenging inequality. Do you feel that the larger focus on Digital Identity (i.e. not mediated by those doing the work I’ve just described) fails us, ultimately? If so, I can see that point pretty well. But, Digital Citizenship is not the boat I’d like to put everything in either. I love and admire all of the work in this area – but it’s problematic in some important ways (speaking as a someone in a 4-person family where we variously have citizenship in 3 different countries). Citizenship means rights and responsibilities, yes – but also borders, difference, exclusion. So… maybe we are all wrestling with this in a longer struggle which might yet land on a different concept/theory altogether? Seems we’re doing plenty of struggling with language these days. Ever the optimist, I think this means we’re close to the heart of things. Thanks so much (& sorry for long comment).

    1. bon

      never be sorry for a long comment, Catherine. i think you’ve said most of it better than me, frankly – this was my first effort to stumble towards these ideas.

      i love the “warmth of the porch light” as a turn of phrase, and yes, exactly that.

      i still think there’s always and/both – i have no problem with us being identities and any society or social sphere is made up of a mass collection of them – my issue is with the broad societal focus on identity, which i think will INEVITABLY fail us. digital identities, constrained by platforms and porch lights, are not constructed to make for a positive social sphere. at least in the ways that are in our control.

      (i couldn’t respond to Maha above b/c my threading eventually makes things unreadable if you go too far down but Maha – in terms of specifics, i think of it in terms of how i cannot show you i’m listening without doing things that actively engage in virtue signalling and identity signalling at the same time.

      i suspect this maps to an extent with the stuff Mike Caulfield has been saying about the garden and the stream. i need to go re-read that.

      and i don’t think citizenship is the answer either…see the Slideshare above for exactly that commentary on borders, exclusion, even empire…but i think it’s the direction we need to look in only because it forces us to look at the collective, the commons. probably a new concept is needed. and yes, maybe we are all getting close as we stumble together.

      1. Simon Ensor

        “Digital Citizenship” Sounds to me like a throwback to

        “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

        A declaration of independence of Cyberspace.

        John Perry Barlow, Davos 1996

        Or stuff related to “digital safety” discourses.

        For me “digital citizenship” remains and will remain in all probability stillborn.

        However, there are those sort of idea(l)s of what the Internet might have been/might be(come) which could constitute a germ of value worth nurturing.

        I can’t see how you can deal adequately with globalised capital/corporations/colonisation/exploitation/oppression solely as a national citizen.

        From à French perspective the battle between explicitly racist nationalism and implicit/complicit racist globalism is being played out electorally.

        Sounds like there is a need to go beyond digital/national/global/individual/Identity/citizenship

        to (he stumbles) … a we drawn widely.

    2. monika

      ‘Seems we’re doing plenty of struggling with language these days… So… maybe we are all wrestling with this in a longer struggle which might yet land on a different concept/theory altogether?’

      i’m thinking there’s much in store in regard to tech capabilities (that we’re currently missing.. not yet grokking) that facilitate ie: idiosyncratic jargon..

  11. Kate Bowles

    The limiting ideal of citizenship is a difficult metaphor in these times. I have an instinct to flinch from it because I see it far more often used as a tool to govern coercively — to govern both those who have it, and those who don’t. And I saw Bon that you dealt with this head on in your slides.

    But there’s also an assumption in digital citizenship that positions the citizen as good: of good intent, good character, likely to do good etc. etc. And the citizen is always framed by the operations of government. Citizens belong, they/we pay dues, they/we fall in line.

    So the dissident citizen seems useful to think about. What is dissident digital citizenship? Is this at least partly about choosing what kind of citizenship we care to practice, in what kinds of contexts?

    (misgivings about citizenship entirely the fault of the current Australian government who are proposing a new Australian citizenship test that is so soul-suckingly racist it’s hard to know where to start. #australianvalues)

    1. bon

      Kate, your point about dissident citizenship made me think of this, that i found on Twitter this morning – – esp the phrase “disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s (sic) original virtue.”

      i think i’m interested in the good in digital citizenship more in the common good sense than in the “good in the eyes of government” sense, though of course the trick the digital plays on us is we can’t always see how we’re governed. and dominant social norms can become a governing force that we internalize at the level of identity…so falling in line may look to us like we’re just doing what comes naturally! so…again…we better start talking about what the common good looks like.

      i have been thinking that queer identity has been, in my experience, one of the few identity lenses that does not stop at the individual but looks towards the commons, recognizes structure. then Lee Skallerup Bessette posted this this morning on my FB and Laurie Penny said it way better than me:

      my key takeaway from all of this is “we don’t make a better society just by making ourselves better.” now i need to write the next piece. ;)

    2. Vanessa Vaile

      oooh…dissident digital citizenship…yes! I’m snagging that one for my personal use.

      I’ve been “reframing” myself as a guerrilla informationist since I don’t belong anywhere in particular but pop in and out of very different digital and meat spaces that connect at unexpected times and in even more unexpected ways.

  12. Alan Levine

    Bon’s title refers (I think profoundly) to Digital Identities (plural) yet a lot of our language is about Digital Identity as if it was a singular entity.

    Yet how complex is the question we wrestle with all our lives, “Who am I?” that no one would want (I hope) a singular definition.

    1. Kate Bowles

      I’m interested in this idea of multiple selves because I have dual citizenship and I often wonder what that means.

      I’m was also thinking about Woolf’s famous quote, which was circulating on feminist postcards in the 1970s: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”

      So then I looked it up, and was interested to see there’s a sentence missing from the postcard: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”

      This question of not wanting a country, not wanting citizenship, for me has to do with having two very difficult citizenships. British citizenship, let’s face it, the difficulties are plain. But Australian citizenship: the gift of belonging that was originally taken by force.

      I’m really interested in this conversation, I’m just not yet ready to say that this metaphor sits right with me.

      1. Simon Thomson


        I think this aligns with my earlier comment about citizenship being more about a legal belonging? That can be either by birth (with associated registration of the birth in a country or by application (again by virtue of formal registration).

        So perhaps it’s difficult to not see digital citizenship as our “legal belonging” to a space? Click those terms & conditions & there you are, citizenship is granted.

        However, as you indicate citizenship doesn’t necessarily mean belonging & doesn’t give a sense of involvement.

        I wonder if digital belonging is a better term? In pursuit of any kind of reference for this term I can across this lovely statement regarding a Digital Belinging Event which explores: “Connecting communities online, offline and everything in between …”


  13. Pingback: DigCiz A Journey | 1DR What Else?

  14. Matt Maldre

    Your post here has clarified some issues I’ve had in my creative life for the past few years. I’ve found the quantity of my creative output decreasing more and more lately. I consume way too much, and create way too little. Whenever I have a new project and I create a new online account on, Twitter, Medium, or a Facebook Page, I get more concerned about how that profile looks. In other words, the identity that it portrays. Which is completely silly, because I’m not doing the very thing that needs to be done–create content.

    And then once this identity (or brand) is established, I’ll absorb myself in consuming. Today’s online services are designed such that we consume and consume, and there is no stop to consuming. On Facebook, there is an endless scroll–“Sure! I’ll click and read more.”

    Liking content makes it way to easy to simply click a button instead of leaving a comment. These services put people in a box and confine them to view more and bring more ad dollars.

    So back to how your post clarified some issues in my creative life. I’ve absorbed myself into these screens/boxes way too much, and not enough in the real space of simply creating.

    (on a side-note, I discovered your blog by visiting Jon Udell’s tool that collects together recent annotations made to a webpage on Hypothesis. Your post, “Six Key Selves of Networked Publics” had a bunch of recent annotations.)

  15. Pingback: Read Write Respond #016 – Read Write Collect

  16. Pingback: Friendship, Intimacy, Community, Swimming, and Twitter – readywriting

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *