Sparked by some fantastic discussion generated by my last post, I was compelled to reflect on the notion of digital identity and digital identity development. A growing area of interest in academic literature and student affairs offices, the term can take on a very different meaning depending on what you emphasize.
Here, the process of identity development seems to occur in the digital space. The process of learning about oneself, finding yourself, and all the mess that entails is digitally captured and shared. Furthermore, your identity is captured by and somehow stored online – facets of you are bits and bytes, encoded in wires and webpages.
The emphasis here is on your identity. Who you are, what you stand for, and who you may become. The digital space may showcase and share these ever-evolving pieces of ourselves, but the self remains in the centre, with or without a stable wifi connection.
Which is right? Which came first? Why do I suddenly have an omelette craving?
The messy process of identity development. That phrase alone is already loaded with assumptions. We assume a messy (hint: I think it is), we assume it’s a process (hint: I know it is), and we define identity something to be developed rather than innate, fixed trait we are born with and must make due with as we grow chronologically and physically. By placing the term ‘digital’ in front of ‘identity development’, what changes? Does it impact what we do, or does it influence what we may become?
Interestingly, a quick search of the term “digital identity” brings up pages of results related to networks, the Internet, and webpage architecture. Consider the following:
“A digital identity is an online or networked identity adopted or claimed in cyberspace by an individual, organization or electronic device. These users may also project more than one digital identity through multiple communities. In terms of digital identity management, key areas of concern are security and privacy.” (Read more here).
While on the surface a more technical definition, there are many parallels to the digital identity we have been discussing and debating. An identity can be adopted or claimed, taken as one’s own for a moment, as a shield or over time. Claiming this identity in the still mysterious land of cyberspace, however, is a bit more daunting. As the definition says, this identity is projected through multiple communities, spaces, and places. The speed and scope of the online realm is just as fascinating as it is frightening. When before we could experiment with multiple selves in relative isolation, the internet sets up a number of concurrent experiments, some as small chemical reactions and others near catastrophic explosions, yet each rippling through multiple communities connected via the ubiquitous network cable.
The key areas of concern, security and privacy, are as much a technology issue as they are a personal challenge. In many cases, the upheaval of identity development for many students (and ourselves) is in sharp contrast to our fundamental need for stability; a secure foundation to grow and stretch from. Privacy is, of course, its own beast – as we race to hide ourselves behind passwords and privacy settings, others see privacy as isolation, not escape.
Digital identity, then, is both an expression of self in cyberspace but also, to add to the mess, an identity formed by, as well as in, the online world we inhabit. Identity can be expressed through the same mediums that shape it, and the mess of constructing an identity can travel just as fast as the (near) polished final product.
Digital identity is both a noun and a verb, an expression of a process and product forever changed by the world wide web. What we see on screen may be a piece of ourselves, authentic or in process, just as what we take from this universe may add, reshape or remove a piece of our identity puzzle. Can we have a separate digital identity, or is it another expression of our fundamental core, influenced by the medium and its ability to give us tools for identity development; validation, reinforcement, and feedback? Digital and identity, then, don’t follow each other but instead dance together – in an even more complicated, intricate dance than ever before.
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