As you probably know at this point, my research involves college students and how they construct a sense of self in digital and social media spaces. In conducting this research, I’ve encountered the term “digital identity” frequently. I’ve used it, and some of my doctoral student colleague friends have written about it (including Paul Eaton, Josie Ahlquist, and Ed Cabellon). What I haven’t often found is a clear consensus on what “digital identity” means in a student affairs or college student educator context. As I’ve furthered my own research, being perfectly clear on this concept (at least how I am employing it) has become vitally important. I believe the term “digital identity” is being used too loosely and without a nuanced understanding of its meaning. In attempt to rectify this, I wanted to “think out loud” hoping it will help me clarify it. (And by all means, please add your voice in the comments below!)
The dictionary is as good a starting place as any. Since this is the 21st century, let’s go to Wikipedia. If one searches “Internet Identity” you will be presented with the following:
Internet identityFrom Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia(Redirected from Internet identity (disambiguation))
Internet identity may refer to:
The entry refers us to two posts, “online identity” and “digital identity,” as distinct concepts but ones that could possible be “merged.” The concepts, as written are clearly distinct, but certainly related. Let’s dig into “digital identity” since it’s the term I hear most frequently used in my student affairs circles:
Digital identityFrom Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Digital identity is the data that uniquely describes a person or a thing and contains information about the subject’s relationships. The social identity that an internet user establishes through digital identities in cyberspace is referred to as online identity.
A critical problem in cyberspace is knowing with whom one is interacting. Currently there are no ways to precisely determine the identity of a person in digital space. Even though there are attributes associated to a person’s digital identity, these attributes or even identities can be changed, masked or dumped and new ones created.
Digital identity is about the DATA. When one does a Google search for a name, such as Paul Gordon Brown, the results are one slice of this digital identity data. It’s also mixed in with other’s digital identity data (hence why I’ve chosen to go by my less common full name). Erik Qualman refers to this as our “digital stamp.” It includes the information we put out into cyberspace through our posts (our “digital footprint”) and the information others post about us (our “digital shadow”). To this I would add our “digital trail” which would include the information collected about our actions (such as when you buy something for a baby shower on Amazon which results in your receiving emails, ads and suggestions for other baby items).
If we are talking about “digital identity development” under this definition, then it would likely be similar to concepts of “personal branding” and “online reputation management.” It is how to represent your self online. It is taking control of what others see and find about you online. It is not psychological development, although one’s developmental level may influence one’s understanding of it. It is about taking control of (the the extent that’s possible) or influencing the data that’s out there about you. It is learning how to do this. In this case the word “development” may be misleading since it makes one think of development in a psychological sense. Perhaps “digital identity understanding” or “digital identity savviness” are more appropriate.
When I speak to audiences, particularly student audiences, this is typically my topic. It’s about understanding what’s “out there” about you online and how to work with and influence it. There is another aspect to my work, which is my research. My research involves something different. This leads us to the second definition:
Online identityFrom Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The concept of the self, and how this is influenced by emerging technologies, are a subject of research in fields such as education, psychology and sociology. The online disinhibition effect is a notable example, referring to a concept of unwise and uninhibited behavior on the Internet, arising as a result of anonymity and audience gratification.
Online identity takes on a psychological dimension. You could have multiple online identities: your avatar on World of Warcraft, your Instagram persona, and your Facebook self. This is different than digital identity described above. It’s not about the data, it’s about the persona and the self. Both are important, but there is a conceptual distinction between the two. Oversimplifying it, digital identity is much more “practical” and online identity is much more “theoretical.”
College student educators need to understand both of these concepts. There is a lot more discussion about digital identity, than online identity, however. If educators are truly to engage students, they need to understand how to help them navigate digital spaces behaviorally, but also concern themselves with how students develop online and/or in hybrid online/offline spaces. This is what my research entails, I want to know how college students, with multiple online identities, or selves, “hold it all together.” Many traditional theories of college student development all the way back to Erikson posit that development’s ultimate goal is to create a single coherent bounded sense of self. Should this be the goal? What happens when technology enables the creation of multiple selves?
The distinction between these concepts is relatively clear, but I often find them muddied in discourse. Despite this difference, out of practicality, I often still use the “digital identity” and “digital identity development” monikers when speaking about this to popular audiences. In my research, however, I have moved away from this language and more towards an understanding of the “digital self.” If college student educators aim to create transformative learning environments, they need to understand both of these concepts, particularly the latter. This is my research agenda and where I think the field needs to go next.
Photo credit to: Vancouver Film School, and thebestkeynotespeakers.com.