Who we are

Who are you? How do you let other people know who you are? Are you the same person online as you are in real life? Can you separate your professional identity from your personal identity?

These important questions have been raised several times in the last few weeks at events I have attended. The concept of identity (personal and professional) is a complex one. There always seems to be a discussion about questions around identity on popular social media channels. Twitter can be a particularly powerful forum for such dialogue, as it proved once again today.  I tweeted several questions around this discussion and report some of the responses and conversations here.

Firstly, I asked if professional identity can be separated from personal identity. One response was from David Hopkins at Leicester University who thought it was possible, but said: 'adding a personal touch, you become a personality where background and experience can enhance professional impact' - so perhaps it may be useful if the 'two identities' can inform each other. Guido Gautsch, a teacher in Melbourne agreed, but argued that it was probably not possible to separate them on open social media platforms such as Twitter. Jon Kruithof over at McMaster University also concurred, but with the caveat that it depends on what you share and the groups you share with. 'The more you share, the less likely you will keep them separated' he remarked, invoking the idea of PLNs (personal learning networks). At Reading University, Pat Parslow thought that separation had to occur, and saw a social dimension, asking whether PLNs were 'built, uncovered, grown or nurtured?' I suggested that it was all four, depending on who we are and what weight we place on our PLNs. Many professionals manage two separate accounts to try to differentiate between their professional and personal or less formal personae. Some such as Jane Davis said they thought it was a good idea to do this to maintain salience and focus on context specific roles, but others such as Martin King saw problems suggesting that 'just as identity is complex, so is trying to divide it'.

Secondly, the common consensus is that personal identity is a more or less constant concept, but that elements of it can change depending on context. So 'we are who we are', each of us unique individuals, but it seems that context and other variables can change it at least temporarily, creating a kind of fluid identity that switches between contexts. This is very much aligned to Erving Goffman's drama model in which he suggested that we adopt front stage and back stage roles depending on where we find ourselves located across the formal-informal spectrum of our daily activities. This continuum of identities was an idea that UK radiotherapy lecturer David Eddy also argued for.

Identity in online environments tends to be even more difficult to express for some. When asked how online identity might be defined, Aaron Davis, a teacher in Melbourne said his identity was 'complicated, contradictory and complex. Ever evolving, yet also staying the same.'  An interesting response came from Rev Sally Jones, a priest in the UK who said that it was 'me, but 10% better', to which I asked whether she found some added value through the affordances of the tool she used. She replied that she used social media for work and it gave her the chance to 'think things through properly before acting'. It is often this kind of 'reflection time' that prevents us from saying what we think immediately, and enables us to better represent ourselves and our ideas in a more considered way. This could be seen as a kind of identity regulation through asynchronous filtering.

Jose Picardo, an assistant principal at a school in England said that his identity was 'managed, if I don't manage it someone else will' acknowledging the potential of outside social influences to impact negatively upon one's online identity and reputation. Finally, Helen Blunden, another teacher from Melbourne revealed how complex she thought her online identity could be when she said it was 'Same but different". Online, mindful but more expressive; cautious but also creative; guarded yet open and sharing. Confused.

There were several other responses more or less saying similar things to those above, and I would like to thank all those who took part in this speed chat on Twitter. Identity is a very complex issue, compounded by the fact that we are increasingly projecting ourselves over the Web through social media. It's a discussion that will no doubt continue for a long time. What are your views?

Photo by Adrian Clark

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Who we are by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Ben Mayfield said…
I too believe that Identity is a complex issue. I am currently attending the University of South Alabama for secondary education. I realize that as an educator you must separate you personal and professional identity to a certain extent. In a highschool classroom setting your students have to understand that you are in control which is where your professional identity comes into play, but while teaching your lessons you ca allow your personal identity to complement your professional identity. I believe that ones personal and professional identity should not separated but intermingled and allowed to complement each other. After all when asked the question of who we are, we always take into account both our personal and professional identities before describing who we are as a person.
Norman Lamont said…
I agonised for a while about whether to keep separate blogs about my professional work in e-learning, humorous writing about business, my music and my interest in mindfulness, thinking on one hand that few who approached one of them would have an interest in the others. In the end I decided to keep them all in one place with a consistent brand, with the exception of mindfulness where I'm working out as I go what I want to write about. I still link to those articles from my main blog http://www.normanlamont.com . Basically I decided managing my online identity was more work than I wanted to do, unlikely to have any benefit and more likely to make me withdraw from blogging altogether.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Ben. I guess the question is not whether our identities (professional and personal) can be separated, but whether they should be when we are online and in a highly public space. This is why some professionals have two or more separate accounts, and possibly two or more cell phones!
Steve Wheeler said…
It's a choice we all have to make Norman. I decided years ago not to separate my Twitter account into personal/private - I am both, and you're right - for some of us it does seem like too much work. But I also have several Twitter accounts that represent the antithesis to my @timbuckteeth account. @stevewheeler for example is always arguing with him! #multiple #personality - Go figure :)
Steve McCarty said…
Fluid identity means that we continue to change willy-nilly or, better, evolve. Identity is first of all what individuals identify with, which is prone to misperception and deception, so I think we can boldly do without it. In process of being ourselves, we would only be divided by reifying it. That being said, self-awareness ought to be as natural as a tree reflecting on water. That's what we do, what we are, as humans who awakened from the undifferentiated, inchoate energy of primeval instinct. At the same time it is vital to be aware which direction our lives are moving, that is, influenced from without - roles we play in response to the given environment - or from within - authentic identity, but which is actually an imperceptible flow of life itself.

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