If you haven’t conducted this experiment yet, visit the MIT Personas project and type your name into the search field. What comes out is a visual representation of your digital self. As noted on the project page, “Personas shows you how the Internet sees you.”
Over the past year, we’ve been researching extensively the topic of digital identity. Not surprisingly, a lot of the theory we explore directly affects our day-to-day lives and how we interact online. As an example, I’m finding a growing “identity divide” as my various social graphs intersect (or more importantly don’t intersect) with my digital self. To put it bluntly, it’s becoming increasingly uncanny how my online persona—instead of converging—is in many ways actually diverging from the “real” me.
Why is this? One reason is that many of our most significant interactions—those with family and close friends—occur offline and are not captured as part of our digital identities. I think the bigger reason is that we’re constantly reminded that our digital identities are entities that need to be managed, so what does appear online tends to be a highly sanitized version of us. danah boyde talks extensively about the issue of digital identity. In her 2002 thesis paper “Faceted Id/entity: Managing Representation in a Digital World,” she says:
“In any given situation, an individual presents a face, which is the social presentation of one facet of their identity. I believe that an individual has a coherent sense of self, but in presenting only facets of their identity, they are perceived as fragmented. People maintain many different social facets and often associate particular facets, and therefore faces, with particular contexts.”
For knowledge workers like me, the vast majority of Internet use is work-related. In many ways, if you’re developing a professional online brand, the decision to cut out personal details is made for you. I could use Twitter and blogs to talk about how cute the baby is or to complain about how I was up all night working on a paper, but how would that contribute to my brand? Why does anyone care about what movie I saw on the weekend or who I’m cheering for in the playoffs? The general question is: What is the value of using the pubic Web as a venue to air personal issues?
I would argue not much (unless maybe if I’m a celebrity). But it does create a gap in my online identity. In a sense, it’s unfortunate that what I talk about online is of no interest to family and friends. I could develop professional distinction on the Web but few people that who are really near and dear to me would notice.
One of the models we can use to help think about this digital identity divide is the Johari Window. The image below shows a 2×2 matrix that contains different types of information about our identity – aspects that are known to us and those that known to others. Over time, more and more of the matrix comes into play as personal information is digitized and shared. Prior to social networking everyone projected a particular image within which there were characteristics of themselves that they knew about and chose to share: the Arena. There were also characteristics of which they were aware, but chose not to share: the Façade. This was changed by social networking technologies which can now uncover a whole other aspect of the self: the Blind Spot(s) – things that we don’t know about ourselves, but that are well known to others (e.g. characteristics such as habits, expressions, or even behaviors).
The true power of social networking becomes apparent in the co-operative era, during which knowledge is taken from narrow to broad base by organizations that can now link up personal information known in different contexts/realms and make it useful for their own purposes. Finally, we have the tireless machine era in which we have to imagine a world (not too far away) where machines and software will be operating 24/7/365 in the background, enabling powerful reality mining applications. Much of what is uncovered in the tireless machine era will still have been unknown to us and to others as well, but will be collected, aggregated, analyzed, monitored, and tagged by powerful, always-on systems running in the background of all Web applications. (Note: nGenera members will hear more about the Johari Window and pervasive digital identity in several forthcoming research projects).
The progression to the tireless machine era is by no means linear, and I think what we’re experiencing now are growing pains. Currently, I think the highly managed approach to most digital identities is moving more information from the Arena to the Facade, creating the divide I talk about above. The purposeful collection of personal data by companies is adding to our Blind Spots (e.g. companies can now use social network analysis and reality mining to identify behaviors and trends that we don’t perceive) but I don’t think the technology is quite good enough yet to create much that it fully Unknown.
I don’t think anyone feels comfortable with idea of always putting up a facade – most of us would like to think we “keep it real,” however I think in many ways, the Internet gives us little choice. A Net Gen take on Richard Florida’s Creative Class asks, “Why leave your personality at home? As free time blends with time on the job you want to make a statement and be comfortable at the same time.” It’s a nice thought, but it sounds unlikely for most professional environments.