Monday, March 17, 2008

My Blog, My Self: Understanding Online Identity

So you are a budding musician with two cats, a Vespa, a college degree in computer science and thing for extreme frisbee on the weekends in the park -- that's not what your MySpace says.

According to MySpace, you are the recently-single drummer for a band called The Death Tulip who likes to "rrrrrOCK!", collects psychedelic 60's concert posters, rides a "hog," and maintains an athletic build through rigorous weekend activity ("about which one need not elaborate"). On Facebook, one learns that you are the founder of the Phoebe Cates's Bikini fan club, are "friends" with over 400 people from your school, are an Atheist, and have recently graduated to the Pioneer level of Oregon Trail status. One might also speculate by your decision to include both men and women under preferences that you are bisexual (although this was not really your intention). On your online company profile for the software-related magazine to which you contribute, they have you listed as a "quiet guy whose true personality comes through in the many ARG's he plays." Oh, and you just tweeted that you "think Hilary(sic) is a racist."

So, who are you really?

Well, you are someone I just made up, if we are to be fair. But the figurative you reflects the increasingly common issue of cultivating one's online identity -- and maintaining it.

Upside of creating multiple online profiles: One can, as blogger sweetheart Dana Boyd says, "write oneself into being." In other words: go wild! Be who you want to be! You can be the quiet journalist AND the hog-riding athletic drummer of a supposedly kick-ass band! 

Downside of creating multiple online profiles: There is a reason that people take medication for schizophrenia. One finds plenty of challenges managing a single identity (as we do when we enter this world) -- managing two or three or more identities (especially if you throw in the ones created by other people about you) is understandably stressful. What does my intended audience need to know about me? What do I want them to know about me? Who am I to these people? v. Who am I to these people?

Deciding how to represent oneself in different areas of our online life is only half the battle. The other half is about controlling these potentially disparate representations. People like Fred Stutzman and his colleagues at ClaimID are attempting to address this issue.

ClaimId addresses what Stutzman calls the "Google Problem" -- the (at time, unfortunate) results of someone plugging your name into a Google search. You may not be ashamed of your first website or online high school science project, but when they pop up as the number two and three entries in a search for your name, it becomes somewhat problematic if you are trying to impress potential employers (or dates?). Those sites represent the yous of a past era and there is no reason for them to receive the attention they would in such an important slot in your ego roll.

Stutzman refers to claimID as an "activist tool". It allows you to regain control of your online identity by creating identity awareness. " The site allows you to group your blog, website, news articles about you, and any other relevant sites that might otherwise be over looked in a Google search, into one place. "With claimID, you can put your best face forward and let people see the identity you with to present," the claimID site reads.

The final kicker about online identity is that nothing you put out there ever really goes away. The things you say about yourself, the things others say about you -- they are in there somewhere forever, especially now that organizations like the Internet Archive are busy trying to record it all (thankfully). This could be a good thing or a bad thing for you, depending on the context. Is there any way to delete unfavorable entries that keep popping up on Google searches? "Whoever figures that out will be rich," said Stutzman.

With this in mind, I might be inclined to say something like "blog at your own risk", but even the cautious blogger cannot anticipate all of his or her future publics. We might think we are beating the system or using it to our advantage by crafting different profiles -- different selves -- to match various audiences; however, we are merely just creating an interactive, multidimensional image that grows richer in ways we might not anticipate nor appreciate (not always, anyways). We must learn to cultivate this library of our selves.

No comments: