No, I am not in the midst of a real-world identity crisis, but I have been spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about my real vs. online persona. Here’s the issue — those of us who are part of the (WTF do you call this) participatory culture of web 2.0 are mostly transparent in our approach to ourselves. If we agree on the simple tenant that if you spend time writing, bookmarking, photo sharing, and other like things in the open then you classify as someone who on one level or another embraces transparency. To get this straight I am going to probably have to use more words than necessary, but that is how it goes the first time you try to articulate thoughts that are hard to grab a hold of … so try to bear with me and please let me know how you are seeing this.
Back in the day, the only way you could really know what was up with a person was either through total happenstance or via very carefully planned interactions. The example looks something like this … let’s say you are walking down the street back in the mid-80’s and you bumped into an old high school buddy you haven’t seen in years. You would probably have engaged them in some level of conversation — maybe talking about what they were up to lately, what they are doing professionally, where they are going on vacation, how big the kids are, the kinds of things they are reading, and other common questions that help you manage that individual’s identity … and obviously the same would hold true as they asked you a similar collection of questions. If it didn’t happen on the street, it would happen at a planned event where you would have to invite your friend over to catch up and re-establish the sense of connection with the individual before you.
These days, if I take that same set of questions, I can know that well before I need to run into someone … Twitter tells me what my friend is up to, their blog lets me know what they are doing professionally, their Flickr account lets me know where they went on vacation and how big the kids are, del.icio.us and Amazon tell me what they are reading, and so on. If I want to know who they’ve been dissing me for, all I have to do is check their friend list at FaceBook, LinkedIn, or any of the other social spaces they belong to. In other words, identity is being managed in a way that it never has before. BTW, this is not an indictment on face to face vs online … it is just an exploration into how all this gets managed in new ways these days.
In the original example, when I run into someone and they ask me, “what is up?” I have little time to think, little time to engineer a response, and even less time to really listen to their responses. I am spending all of the fleeting seconds working to create the answers and the identity I want to present to them. I’m not talking about massive social engineering or “fake-ness” here, I am talking about human nature and our desire to help control the perceptions people have of us.
Google and the rest of the eWorld can be viewed as a reputation engine and a place to create and manage identity in ways we couldn’t before. It is an amazing place where we can know so much about people we’ve never met and yet not really know them … the flip side holds true as well. I have several friends I know only in a single way — a way that doesn’t give me insight into the depths of their professional, personal, or other dimensions. It all makes me appreciate how hard it is to be truly transparent — how hard it is to make sure that the engineering is kept to a minimum and an individual’s ability to maintain a knowledge of who the hell they are. It is interesting and it is driving me crazy as I am trying to make sense of it all. Anyone else?