Reconciling identity and place

I have been trying to separate and then reconcile ideas of identity and place online – this post is an attempt to explain where I have got to.

I sometimes describe the social web as digital wrapper around our physical world. I imagine it in my head as something like a spun-sugar cage of chaotic networked strands made up of people and content that connect and divide around the location. Its alive and pulsing with energy at the same time as being timeless and static as it contains older strands of content and conversation. We are connected to the past through those older strands – to previous versions of ourselves – in a way that we never had to contend with when our ephemera was left behind and we could edit our legacy in the world more effectively. Both places and people need to come to terms with the transparency of having the past on show.

The more connections between that digital wrapper and physical world the more complete the fit between the two environments. Sherry Turkle in her latest book (Alone Together) talks about us being ‘tethered’ to this virtual world with it pulling you between the place where you are the location of the people you are connected to. She talks of the difference in travel now that you can connect seamlessly to the location and people that you have left behind and what the loss of unconnected time for thinking might mean for us in the future. She mourns the loss of private space where we reflect rather than connect.

Your identity online becomes less malleable as you make more connections to your physical self, your musings about your village become more real when you actually name where it is. Its not just online / offline connections that reduce the malleability of self – the more you connect instances of yourself online the more your online identity solidifies.

You start to realise that you are connected to more than one place – both online and offline – and that you need to make sense of who you are in a networked and connected way because if you write yourself into being online then you need to reconcile this across the connected content that reflects this identity. Your bits of self that have been scattered across the social web start to connect themselves together and you start to realise that where you live online reflects who you are and that your presence in that online location changes it.

Turning this around is to consider the fact that where you put content online effects that place as well as your identity – you are writing them both into being. A digital location is like a concert hall without music if it doesn’t have content – empty and a bit pointless. An empty social website is as forlorn as a restaurant with no diners.

In the physical world we make location choices based on many different factors – proximity being a major one – online we use different criteria. I’m not sure that we yet understand what those criteria are but to do so we need to think more carefully about who we are and where we are online.

This all comes sharply into focus for me when I make decisions about where to place blog content – usually its a choice between here, CuriousCatherine, and the blog over at Public-i. I am more conscious than most of the act of identity creation online but I do find it difficult to create content anywhere other than here – because this is the place which I think as the centre of my online identity (BTW I am very aware of how pretentious this sounds – I am just hoping that if you have read this far then you are genuinely interested and perhaps have similar dilemmas!!). Despite it being important to me both personally and professionally that we get traffic over at the Public-i blog and that people realise that we are doing some really interesting stuff – in many ways the more practical companion stuff to what I write about here – I still prefer to post here.

I am not the only person that feels like this – I have spoken to a few other bloggers who write in multiple places who have a similar tug to post in the place they consider to be ‘home’ online. Its one of the ways, I think, that bloggers differ from journalists who start writing with the assumption that their output will be placed on someone else’s site as a matter of course.

It shouldn’t be a surprise – one of our criteria in choosing where to place content online is the effect that the location has on your reputation. In the same way that hotmail addresses are now rather retro and there is something slightly gauche about not having switched from googlemail to gmail accounts we consider the context before we place content. It is intriguing to consider how conscious and thought through this decision is. Both Turkle and Boyd talk about the painstaking process of social networking profile creation for teens and they have an awareness of what it means to ‘be’ in different spaces that we can relate to. We all know that you behave differently within LinkedIn to within Facebook – and people seem to adapt to this idea of different cultures online very quickly.

Winston Churchill said “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” – this happens in more literal way online as we create the sense and nature of an online place with the words and pictures that also form part of our digital identity. We cannot separate ideas of place and identity from each other because they are so interdependent.

Few people who are active online would claim that it is an easy thing to keep your online persona separate from your offline one. It is also hard work to create a persona artefact that does not in some way reflect who you are – even though the cost of this fact is an inability to control the levels of intimacy in your life (Turkle again. All you can really do is to take personal responsibility for your privacy.

With this knowledge however comes the realisation that the location of this content – its context – becomes even more important. You cannot control your audience through separation of identities online and so you have to manage their interpretation of your content by placing it appropriately.

Coming back to the blog post dilemma – carefully crafted posts are part of your ‘identity capital’ and it feels hard to post that in places which do not feel core to your sense of self. Its also hard to post somewhere where you feel the reader is less likely to make the correct assessment of your intent and what the content means to you. Its about context and you need to place content in the place where you feel the context explains best what that content means to who you are.

If we look at this with respect to my core theme of civic spaces this connection between identity and place speaks to a need to enable people to create that sense of democratic identity that I have spoken about before so that the context of posting within these spaces is understood by the audience. Identity is intrinsic to any civic discourse that will resolve into decision making and the difficulties of creating separation between your different instances of self online and the need for civic spaces to be able to identify whether or not you are a citizen means that need to consider this issue of identity carefully.

We need to create spaces that encourage people to act like citizens, and we also need to allow these spaces to be shaped by the citizens who populate them. Its another reason why its important not to think of civic spaces as government platforms – and a further reason why we don’t want to think of civic conversations going on within primarily commercial spaces such as Facebook.

We hope to create real world communities which are supportive and cooperative. If we go back to my initial picture of that digital wrapper I am talking about consciously creating a civic element to it and so ensuring that there is a civic space online to surround the physical space we live in.

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