Double agent

The emergence yesterday of my 'real self' on Twitter (@stevewheeler) caused some confusion and consternation for some tweeps. It came about because of my question about whether people were called by their own names or by their Twitter names (if these were different). I was interested in whether people could separate out one's own personal identity from the digital identity we assume when we are engaged in online discussions.

The appearance of the 'second account' may have caused some confusion, and perhaps some are questioning my sanity, but in truth, I admit that I have already had four Twitter accounts for some time now. Not all have been active, and some are used only occasionally. There is method in my 'madness' though. You see, one of my great research interests is digital identity, and I'm especially interested in how we manage our online presence and engagement. Twitter is one of several tools I use to explore this concept. I have blogged previously on the topic here: (Identity in a digital age), and have also discussed our ability to manage multiple identities online (hence the multiple accounts), and I even blogged as recently as yesterday to tell the story behind the avatar image and name of @timbuckteeth (He's only me). Because I am interested in digital identity, I made a decision as soon as I subscribed to Twitter to explore. I decided I would like to experiment with the tool to see what the boundaries were in terms of online presence and identity, and also anonymity.

So I created an account with the contrived name of @timbuckteeth and an incognito profile picture to accompany it. Initially I had the idea that it should be an anonymous account, but it turned out to be something quite different, and it seems it has developed independently to my own actions. I have been experimenting since December 2007 with the @timbuckteeth account. I did create a second account @stevewheeler with my real picture a short while later, but it was a 'sleeper agent', ready to be activated at an appropriate point in time. Then, writing as @timbuckteeth I began to explore Twitter, and to experiment with all the possibilities. The person behind @timbuckteeth could not remain anonymous forever, so I gave up the pretense. Eventually @timbuckteeth became synonymous with my own professional and personal life online, and I think most people who know me, or follow my work, now combine the two identities into one - as you will see in a moment. There were of course one or two exceptions:




In four years of continuous use, the account of @timbuckteeth has enabled me to send out more than 32,000 tweets, has appeared on almost 1000 user choice lists, has followed in excess of 1,300 people, and has attracted a following of almost 10,000 Twitter friends. Notice I am not referring to them as 'my followers' - rather, I like to think that they follow the brand that is @timbuckteeth. Yesterday, after posting the 'He's only me' post, I posted out a question on Twitter:


Within seconds I received back a few interesting responses and some words of advice from some of those who follow the @timbuckteeth account and were concerned I might ditch it, or who were interested in seeing what would happen next:



Bearing Don Taylor's comments in mind, I then activated the @stevewheeler account to see what would happen next. What was the deal with 'name recognition'? The first interesting thing I noticed was that some of the hundred or so people who have followed this account in the last 24 hours are people I know, but who have never previously followed my @timbuckteeth account. Were they people who did not know I was behind the @timbuckteeth account? The sudden appearance of the 'real me' account yesterday also provoked some interesting comments from several old Twitter friends. Some expressed concern, while others advised me not to keep two accounts. Some even suggested (probably tongue in cheek) that @timbuckteeth was the real me, and that @stevewheeler was actually an imposter.




Notice that the last tweet refers to me as 'Tim', a name some people (including one or two of my students) have also called me in real life. It intrigues me to think that in this instance, and probably in many others too, people seem to become so habituated in engaging with your digital self (no matter how false or contrived it may be) that they eventually have difficulty separating it out from the 'real you'. I plan to write more on this episode, and about what I have learnt from my experiment so far, in my next blog post. Your comments, as ever, are most welcome.

Tomorrow: Double or quits

Image source


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Double agent by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Comments

Brad said…
Interesting. I often wonder if I were to start another twitter account what name I would devise. I have to admit I always say "Tim BuckTeeth" as someone said in the last post.
Pete P said…
I think many people have multiple twitter accounts and social networks have moved in this direction to accommodate our different interests and social interactions. Google+ uses circles and Facebook allows you to group your friends with different privileges.
Lance Armstrong uses Juan_Pelota (translates as one ball) as a second twitter account.
I think if I used my teacher twitter account @ppotter to tweet my swim training not a lot of people would be interested. So therefor I have 2 twitter accounts with quite different purposes.
Harry
Lesley said…
Duuuuhhhh...never even thought of following @stevewheeler. Now sorted, just in case I miss something :-)
James Hobson said…
Steve,
I've been exploring online communication for myself this year, as an extension of my online studies (and a little inspiration from an influential speaker). I hadn't really thought of my online presence as a separate identity, but I have noticed an effect on the way I communicate, both online and offline.
In the online environment, particularly forums, I enjoy being able to pick up on a conversation and add something at a midway point, even if it's already moved on, which I can't do in a face-to-face setting. This has given me a new found sense of confidence in my ability to communicate - I tended to be a classic introvert - and I now feel a lot more confident and outgoing as a result, though I think the effect is far stronger online! I also note that people have tended to call me Jimmy, rather than James, due to my online tag being @jimmy_hob
Emma said…
One of my students referred to several interesting tweets he'd read from Tim. It was only after a few conversations I decided to find out who the inspirational Tim was :)

Maybe some of those @stevewheeler followers also have dual identities and have been following you all along ...
Anne Marie said…
The name and avatar may be contrived but your interactions within the account were genuine. To me digital identity is about how you interact and what you say. So to me it isn't surprising that people are confused as they thought they knew you.
Steve Wheeler said…
@Brad - I guess it's inevitable when my own name is hidden and Tim's is up front. It's a little like pseudonyms used by other people. I will always think of the actor Matthew Kelly as 'Dave' because when I first met him at university all those years ago, that is what I knew him as - it's his real name.
Steve Wheeler said…
@Pete - can see where you're coming from on this question. Different accounts for different purposes seems to be a common practice. What I'm doing is trying to test the waters around identical accounts for different audiences I guess. Thanks for your comment Harry! ;-)
Steve Wheeler said…
@Lesley - glad you're following both accounts. Wouldn't be the same without you :-)
Steve Wheeler said…
@James - I think you've hit the nail on the head. We behave differently in various contexts.
Steve Wheeler said…
Dammit @Anne-Marie. Why do I get the impression that you're trying to make me feel guilty? 'Were'? I hope my interactions are still considered to be genuine. Grrrr...

Seriously though, I doubt too many people are confused, several are following both accounts, but I'm interested in which people follow only one account and not the other. That's where some of the answers to my questions lie. See you around somewhere sometime ;-)
Steve Wheeler said…
Aww, thanks Emma. You just made my day. Hopefully Tim will continue to be an inspiration, and the 'other' account will take on a different role yet to emerge....

Thanks for the comment.
Anne Marie said…
Lol:) I still think identity is about much more than avatars and twitter handles... ;)
teachernz said…
I'm teachernz most places, but my real name is also attached. I feel I've become a brand, easily recognized by most. My online persona is just me with less swearing. ;-) My account separation is really between the communities I belong to, though these are becoming more blurred.
Dan Pontefract said…
Brand. An interesting if not explosive concept.

In a digital world, do we all require 'brand' going forward?

I have signed my emails since 1996 with "cheers, dp" at the conclusion of my words ... whether personal or professional.

Is 'dp' my email brand?

Are there other 'brands' I should be contemplating in a digital world?

Should I reserve 'brand' twitter handles for my three children? (ok, I already did)

What about domain names?

www.timbuckteeth.com is available ... so should you claim it?

Are you timbuckteeth or are you Steve Wheeler?

Am I 'trainingwreck', 'dp' or 'dan pontefract'?

Great questions double agent. Interested to hear your views.
Anonymous said…
Like others, I have a few different Twitter accounts. My 'work' account is very structured and the one with my name is full of day to day waffle. I think both reflect my personality in different ways. Then there's my third account - it's protected and is far more anonymous. I am far more outrageous and silly on that one - maybe that's the real me!!
Simon Ensor said…
Scoop.

Timbuckteeth has a father! . He is somebody's son...

I suspect that there is a child at play under cover, harking back to simpler days when identity was much more innocently complex. Shall watch Mr Benn today to remember...to learn.
While I think that your digital identity is a pretty accurate reflection of your 'real' self, it is also a carefully curated and focused identity. My professional network as a whole isn't likely interested in my 'IRL' life outside of what I do professionally in the education system.
Anonymous said…
Stimbuckwheelerteeth: I suggest you contact Niall S on the disadvantages of identity being 'blurred' by alter-egos and tweeps reactions!

I am surprised how naive most edpeeps are on the psychological implications of their twitter interactions through an assumed identity. No matter how 'real' you think your virtual personality is, it is still the role of an actor on the stage and open to a whole plethora of 'dramatic ironies - unfortunately, unlike theatre, most of them are not intended by the author and can be quite significant to others!
Steve Wheeler said…
Dear FFF - thank you so much for dropping by and posting your comment. I'm not sure what point you're trying to make here or whether it's aimed at me or other 'edutweeps'. I have been on record several times making similar points about online identity, virtual personae and the psychological implications of these kind of interactions. I am after all a psychologist, and interested in this field of research. I find it deliciously ironic that you should post this under the pseudonym of FFF. And who is Niall S? Is it you? I think we should be told :-)

Thanks again for raising a smile.

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