Who the Hell am I?

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?

8 thoughts on “Who the Hell am I?

  1. Interesting pondering indeed! Who are you (who who)?

    Ironic and true as I’ve read your stuff for a few years, listened to your voice in those PSU podcasts, but we have yet to meet. Does that mean I do know or do not know you?? Cannot really say.

    In my own experience, over the last 15 years, I have had time after time again, colleagues I knew only through the wires, and once i did meet them, there was not one time when what I “knew” from before F2F was majorly out of synch with the after. Not one was an axe murderer (I think). Online contacts have led me to meet colleagues for the first time in different stares, Iceland, new Zealand… In fact, the knowing seems to grow in leaps and bounds after; my closest friends now are ones I may only see once a year or less, but have much more contact over the net.

    I find there is some sense of complementary “knowing” between the two, not a replacement. And I like having some mystery in both quadrants to keep it interesting.

    Maybe the bits you know through the online can save you the banter of the small talk meetup; so rather than asking back and forth about kids, job, vacations, etc, we can jump right off into, “So how was that bungee jump off of the Kawarau Bridge- the video was grainy?”??

    Who are you?

  2. WHO. ARE. YOU?

    there is a gradient of opacity/transparency. Back in the day, when I started actually meeting people first via online communication, it was through a rather slim slice of the spectrum of Me. An occasionally updated blog. Some posts to listservs. Not a very comprehensive representation of myself. And yet, the people I met through those channels (Alan, first back in ’95 or so via the Director Web, then Brian back in aught-three? or so) were exactly what I expected when I eventually met them in person for the first time (minutes before going on stage together to co-present a session at a conference).

    where was I going with this?

    oh, right. Now, we’ve got so many channels that are pumping out higher fidelity snapshots of our ephemeral and intrinsic selves. Sounds pretty hoity toity, but the inane and banal Twittering, social Facebooking, near-constant IMing, and more prolific and developed blogging (along with countless other channels) are actually combining to show more of what we’re really like. Sure, it’s possible to put on a fake personna (like HRH aka Adam Curry) but it becomes harder to pull off with all of these subtly (and not-so-subtly) different representations of our Selves combining to form our online identities. I’m sure someone will do an anthropological study to compare these distributed bits of personal ephemera, and compare them to our true Selves. But it feels like it’s both closer to Me, and I’m running with the assumption that you’re closer to You, as well.

    Like Alan, some of my closest friends are interacted with primarily through this “web 2.0” internet cloud. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to see some of them semi-regularly in person (but still, far too unfrequently), and the power of this stuff is that there’s no ramp-up time when we do see each other. We don’t have to waste time with “so… whatchadewin? wheredjagofervacation?” – it’s already done. When we do get to hang out, we get to do that rather than filling gaps. Sounds impersonal, but I think it’s exactly the opposite.

    Now to go put the axe away…

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  4. I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is that, all talk of engineering aside, you manage your virtual you, where as real life just happens. Thats not to say that such management is malicious, because most of the time I dont think it is. But it is “The public relations version of you”. Its gone through the hands of the editor, the stylist and your agent before its found its way to its internet home. And while the rigors of this process will vary from person to person – its there none the less. You CHOOSE what pod-casts, pictures, blog posts, tweets, facebook updates etc etc etc you give to the world.

    The side effect that I’ve seen from that ability to choose is that something ends up being left out of the picture. Some of my friends are far from Web 2.0 savy, and thus the few technologies they do use do not touch the professional sphere of their lives. As such, I hear about those relationship spats, trouble with family, health issues, or those “nights we wish we could forget”. But since they only use these social tools for a social purpose, I find tracking their professional lives very difficult.

    On the other hand, I have friends who use these sorts of social tools for all they are worth (read professionally). I see extraordinary collaboration. I see outstanding work related ideas, and uses for these communication mediums. I see thoughts that challenge me from people I may or may not have ever met… and yet there is something missing. Because the professional side of a person is a polished side. A refined side. And intentionally or not, its a side that is careful about what its willing to reveal to the world. It has to be. Big Brother is watching

    I’m not suggesting its a good or bad thing. You wouldnt wear athletic shorts to a board meeting any more than you’ve wear a suit to your weekly poker game. But each of those (and a million other) situations are what make real you who you are. And the same way you subtly change yourself for your audience in real life, so too does the virtual you.

    Is the virtual you really transparent? Maybe, but probably no more often than yes. I guess the question in my mind isnt “who are you”. The real question is “who are you talking to”?

  5. This reminds me of a course I saw pop up somewhere at a University called something like:
    “Building your Digital Identify”
    It talked about Flickr, FaceBook, MySpace, all the web 2.0 goodness. It also gets into how to use these tools responsibly (guess what? Your potential employers are going to find you in these spaces) and how to use these tools to get noticed.

    Kind of reminds me of that course we wanted to teach:
    Innovation and creativity in IT

  6. CS — Very interesting question, “who are you talking to?” Seems sort of obvious when you lay it out that way. I will say that all of this has me thinking very differently about the way I present myself online and, subsequently, in person. I feel like I do far more professional engineering in person than I do online. There are many times when that isn’t true, but the nature of F2F life (at least in my space) revolves around creating opportunities to engage and connect with people — most of the time it means I must find common ground as I walk into a situation and shift my personality into that space — does that make sense? In other words, I find it much easier to work with people in the place they feel most comfortable.

    Online I don’t have that opportunity — I do, I suppose, but the way we arrive at that point is so much different. I will also say that I spend a great deal of time learning about people I am getting set to meet by looking into their online persona. You can find easy paths to conversation by first checking out someone’s blog, Flickr, del.icio.us, FaceBook, My Space, etc … I think these lives are coming together in very interesting ways and I am very eager to see how it begins to play out as we all become much more savvy consumers and creators of identity — both on and offline.

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