Digital Identity

Digital identity is an interesting and complex (some say nebulous) concept and field of research. Recently, I have been digging a little bit deeper into current theory and research related to digital identities taking int account that the challenge of researching digital identities already starts with defining (digital) identity. Surely this can be and has been done from a number of different perspectives, including psychology, sociology, linguistics, media studies and many more.

Here I would just like to start with some of my favourite, thought-provoking conceptualisations of identity:

  • Social identity is not a fixed possession, but a social process, in which the individual and the social are inextricably related (Jenkins, 1996)
  • Patchwork-identities and identity construction as a dynamic and interactive process of patchworking of different identity components (Keupp, 1999)
  • Changing nature of identity (fluid identity), self-identity including self-reflexivity and creating biographical narratives (project of the self) as an inescapable issue in post-traditional societies (Giddens, 2002)
  • Collective identities as resistance identities, the identity-based social mobilisation in the network society and identities as reflexive achievement in post-traditional societies (Castells, 2006)
  • Identities in “liquid modernity” are negotiated, formed and reformed (Bauman, 2007)

And now I will add some of my favourite conceptualisations of digital identity:

  • Using virtual spaces to construct identity as multiple yet coherent notions with the identity on the computer as sum of the sum of distributed presence (Turkle, 1995)
  • The tripartite play of identities in context of video games: multiple real-life identities, virtual identities and projective identities (as a fusion between game-players and their avatars), as well as  the idea that learning involves taking on and playing with identities (Gee, 2003)
  • Digital identities as data that uniquely describes a person as subject or any other entity, which also includes information about the relationship of the subject to other subjects or entities (Windley, 2005)
  • Identity expression in digital media as part of community involvement, which in itself provides strong incentives for creative expression and active participation in terms of “participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2006)
  • Constructing digital identities as empowerment and personal growth through online self-expression by means of self-publishing, self-reflection, self-documentation (Stern, 2008)
  • Compulsory individuality and regulation of self-expression through consumer culture, exploring the relationship between the structured of consumerism and the agency in terms of the capacity to think and act freely (Willett, 2008)
  • Representations of digital identity as a constant process of negotiation and self-presentation (Boyd, 2004)
  • Digital identity narratives as stories we tell digitally about ourselves to the world linking digital identity to digital storytelling (Koosel, 2011)

Many times it is pretty hard to identify the relevant publications or initiatives as the concept of digital identity is often not explicitly referred to as “digital identity”, but for example as “self-presentations” , “personal brands”, “digital narratives” or “digital traces”.

As these are all different descriptions or different forms of digital identity, I have created a stack on Delicious dedicated to curating web resources related to (digital) identity that I find inspiring. I am aware there are probably many more good publications and examples out there and it would be great to hear from you about related research and practice!

6 thoughts on “Digital Identity

    • Hi Catherin, thank you for your comment and the link to your blog. I have just added it to the Delicious stack! Great to get to know your work and to find out you work at NUI Galway. I was there two years ago I think – what a nice campus! Please say hi to @sharonlflynn Best, Ilona

  1. Hi Ilona — we’ll talk on this anyway, but just to give a public lead — I think it would be helpful to start from the “why” of (digital) identity. The technical people often have a very clear “why” — e.g. to secure information so that other people can only see what is permitted by the owner.

    Can we start from the position that digital identity is a digital representation of a broader identity, and that there are essentially two groups of questions: first about identity itself; and second, about how digital identity reflects the broader concept. The fact of being digital certainly increases the scope of the use of representations of identity, but I’m not sure that it brings much that is essentially and completely new. People’s clothes, hairstyles, and other adornments have been linked to identity for ages, and are public displays in a way not completely different from digital representations.

    This is intended as both an explanation of the nebulousness and multiplicity of viewpoints, and a contribution to starting to root ourselves.

    • Hi Simon, thanks for this public comment. I agree that the “why” question is important, also from a pedagogy perspective. It is may be sometimes necessary to delineate digital identity as we discuss it here from the more technical concepts of authentication (as in Open ID). It seems to me however that the different disciplines/thoughts that underpin “digital identity”, such as 1. psycho-sociological vs. 2. technical-engineering, manage to coexist and different communities use the phrase “digital identity” to communicate different things. Is there a clash? Do we need different labels? Or can we accept the coexistance? I am thinking about words like “mobile”, which may be used to describe so many different things. Based on the context we can make sense of what is meant by “mobile”. Just as we discuss digital identity here, we can assume people can recognise the field in which this discussion is embedded.

      I would like to extend the question of “why” by also asking the “how” question, which is interesting from a research perspective, e.g. how people construct, develop and modify their digital identities over time?

      Now let me ponder a little bit about the proposed notion “digital identity is a digital representation of a broader identity”.

      We would need to clarify first what is meant by “broader identity” – and this is how we come to the question of what identity is in first place. Just to name a few possible interpretations: Does the “broader identity” relate to the real-life identity of a person in sense of some unique features of this person which are congruently represented in digital media? Or does “broader identity” refer to the identification with a social group (e.g. ethnic group) or even with multiple social groups (e.g. ethnic and language group) or even with specific attributes that this person may share with a number of different groups (e.g. ethnicity, gender, generation etc.). Or does it mean all that and much more?

      It may be the case that sometimes “digital identity is a digital representation of a broader identity”, such as when I am creating an about in my blog. However I am also thinking about designing completely new identities in virtual worlds, such as Second Life just to name an example, where it may sometimes not be so clear whether such identities represent some existing identities or are constructed anew. In such cases digital identities may represent some hidden aspects of an identity (hidden from external perception or even hidden from an inherently internal self-awareness). They may be also purposefully designed to hide some aspects of identities, such as gender or age. I think there may be cases when digital identities do not represent but are constructed.

      This is actually an interesting question – can we assume that digital identities represent some other identities (in the sense that they stand for, mirror, copy, reproduce real-life or broader identities) or can we think of digital identities as something constructed from different bits & pieces into something new that was not there before in that form in the process of digital media use?

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