On Identity and The Internet

This post was spurred by a discussion with @humbertomoreira and another non-twitter friend that overlapped this afternoon.

One of the things we are currently experiencing as a result of the explosion of Internet usage is at once both a deconstruction and an expansion of our conception of personal identity. And this is radically shifting our potential for human interaction – in a good way.

Deconstruction

I say deconstruction, or splintering, because we are now able to express and find meaning for various different aspects of our personalities like never before. For instance, if you are really into hollywood gossip, you can find great content on PerezHilton, and if you really like gadgets you can visit Engadget. Either on these sites or on the various social networks you participate in, you can then share and discuss content related to these interests in ways like never before.

In the past, you might have been unable to express a niche interest or curiosity due to its lack of popularity in your physical locale. However, due to the Internet and the increasing avenues through which we can express ourselves, we are able us to connect and express views with one another based on various different aspects of our personalities.

This changes the ways that people perceive us – or how our identities are represented – because people tend to associate personal identity with the things that people say or do. If you are a baseball card collector, it expresses part of who you are in some sense. Thus, as we express more stuff, our identities take different shapes in different forums.

Expansion

At the same time, the Internet also results in an expansion in the ways that we can express this personal identity through an increased number and kind of social interactions. As my parents always told me, no two people are alike.

Some people think the ability to connect on niche topics will create echo chambers, but they miss the point that individuals represent a set of complex combinations of interests, experiences and perspectives, and as we interact with an increasing number of people, we will by definition be exposed to more potential varieties of combinations.

In other words, in the “good ole” days, the “good ole” boys would connect in one club and discuss the same 5 topics. Today, the “new girls” meet in a variety of different online settings and discuss a variety of ideas based on their naturally varied interests (i.e. one day she may comment on a NYTimes article and the next day comment on a video posted on a FOAF’s blog).

These wider sets of interactions will produce more interactions and connections than the old model based on simple arithmetic.

Transparency and Openness

At the same time as the number and kinds of our interactions are increasing on forums of interaction like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, questions of transparency and openness emerge that may be difficult for people to manage.

The more that we discuss stuff online and express more parts of our personality, the more aspects of our personal identity become available for the world to see. I think of this as the modern version of “wearing your heart on your sleeve.”

2 Ways of Dealing With Transparency

Two speakers that I watched at SXSWi highlight two possible ways people try to deal with this increased transparency.

Embrace Transparency

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com
deals with this issue by embracing transparency and creating an organization that is aligned with his personal values. He interacts with people in a professional role and personal role through the same “persona” and represents himself and his company in the same way across settings. He also encourages his employees to participate on Twitter and to engage in personal discussions with the people who call Zappos with customer service issues.

This emphasis on creating a culture that promotes transparent personal identity and positive customer service interactions has reaped him huge success and personal happiness.

Managing Multiple Personas

Another speaker mentioned that she manages the challenges of transparency by creating two separate online “identities”. She uses one identity for her “professional” interactions and another for her “personal” interactions. To do this she creates multiple accounts and log-ins for her various conceptions of her social circles, and she shares some stuff in one context and other stuff in the other.

I believe that this second approach may be unsustainable, because as our online environments become more deconstructed and expansive, we will continue to have more coincidental overlaps with people we previously grouped in an unexpected bucket.

Serendipity Makes Multiple Personas Unsustainable

What I mean by this is that conceptions of “professional”, “personal”, “school-friends”, and “work-friends” will consistently be tested as we serendipitously come across people in unexpected ways as our deconstructed and expanded personalities are expressed in new ways across the Internet (and IRL for that matter).

For anyone who spends a lot of time traveling in physical or “cyber” space, you will be able to relate to the phenomenon of increased serendipity that we have collectively been experiencing over the last few years as our worlds increasingly collide in unexpected ways.

As our ability to express and connect on various different dimensions of our personalities increases, this “I didn’t know that you were X” effect will only increase in the future.

Embrace Transparency…It is Inevitable

The upshot of all of this is that I think one should embrace transparency ahead of time and be ahead of the curve in creating and maintaining your “online” persona. While doing so, I think you should also strive to be sincere and consistent because, just as in real life, juggling multiple personalities and personas can be draining and might ultimately be unsustainable.

This move – embracing authenticity and transparency – will not only increase the amount of connections and social interactions you create – which is just super-awesome, but it will also allow you to be sure people see you for who you really are rather than having an incomplete or skewed perception of you.

What Transparency Entails

The great thing about the world we are headed towards is that it implies a destruction of overly simplistic categorizations that are behind vices like racism and other bigotry.

In other words, as we interact with more people in more unexpected ways, we will realize that our old-school and overly-simplified conceptions of personal identity that drive such vices are just plain wrong.

This is why Facebook is old school and Twitter is a step, albeit an incomplete one, in the right direction.

People are a helluva lot more than what school they went to or where they happen to have been born…

And I can’t wait until a not-too-distant future when our online and IRL lives better reflect that simple human truth.

One thought on “On Identity and The Internet

  1. Humberto

    Hi David,

    This is a very interesting vision, but I see things very differently.

    I think privacy and the potential for anonymity and compartmentalization are actually some of the Internet’s greatest strengths.

    The segmentation actually increases participation and the sharing of ideas. If a corporate exec posts as MrGossip on PerezHilton and MrTechie on Gizmodo, he need not worry about being pre-judged by his other activities and interests. If he does choose to try to build a consistent identity, he can choose exactly to what degree to do it.

    If this separation capability *didn’t* exist, I think we’d get less participation overall, since people would worry about the cross-”contamination”. Luckily, all signs point to this capability not going away.

    For most people, the gains from “wearing your heart on your sleeve” are questionable at best, and it’s largely impossible to distinguish an honest “persona” from simply a well-managed one. I’m sure the Zappos CEO is a perfectly nice guy, but unless he has a camera on him 24/7, we do not know (and it shouldn’t be any of our business) if he’s got a secret handle that he uses to comment on whatever niche forum.

    Barring enormous and very improbably changes in human behavior (the disappearance of secrets, prejudice, acceptance of all beliefs, preferences, habits, political leanings, etc. etc.) I don’t see the openness scenario taking place.

    Most people still don’t want to live the “Truman Show” existence.

    As an aside, I’m surprised that you imply that Twitter is a force against the ‘ol boy’ network. Certainly in many cases it allows the finding of ‘hidden gems’, breaking news, and raw real-time commentary, but on the whole, the people with the strongest presence on the Twitter network are precisely those who have pre-existing strength and followers from other media. (as clearly visible on http://twitterholic.com/ )

    Reply

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