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What do our online personas do to our physical-world identities? As we invest more time into developing our digital selves, is something taken away from who we are? Or something added? If you’re reading this, you spend some portion of your life online, and probably maintain an online identity or two across the various social networks. How does the creation and maintenance of those identities change your physical experience of self?

I’m curious if our participation in social networks, and specifically in creating our online identities, is creating an opportunity for us to lose our agency. We seem to relish the ability to carve out of online personalities and post an unlimited amount of information about ourselves, thinking that it is in some way a declaration of our existence and importance. I wonder if it has the opposite effect. Companies are profiting off of selling the data that we so willingly produce for free, reducing us down to not much more than commodities. And we are quick to defend our personas as legitimate extensions of ourselves, engaged in meaningful interactions that take up an increasingly greater portion of our time, energy and attention. Are we drinking our own Kool-Aid?

Digital Tribes & Cybervillages

What’s driving us to develop online identities? Maybe we’ve gotten more and more disconnected from ourselves and each other; lost in the noise and experiencing a crisis of identity. We try to reclaim ourselves, assert ourselves, and declare ourselves by shaping online personas. We supplement them with information about our interests, hobbies, preferences, and favorites. We reinforce the life of the persona with photographs, quizzes, games and status updates. We send and accept friend requests to expand the size of our digital tribes and entrench ourselves into the global cybervillage.

There is a value to this. We have a mix of real friends, people pulled up from the past, and new connections. Many fall into the category of ‘weak ties,’ becoming part of your ambient awareness, monitored somewhere at the periphery of your consciousness. We form digital social bonds through our behaviors and interactions, and there’s a feeling of being part of something substantial. It seems to fulfill some basic human needs of inclusion and validation.

The act of interacting is one thing though; the fabrication and maintenance of these identities is another.

Categories and Identity-Fixing

Are you greater than the sum of your parts? Or can you be summed up by your Facebook profile? Many hours are spent in developing the online presence – from the basic information (birthday, hometown, religious views, etc) to the various preferences (activities, favorites movies, TV shows, music, books, group affiliations, etc) to the status updates. Some would say that their Facebook profile is a fairly accurate representation of their real personalities.

My question is……”Really?”

Has our technology become that advanced, or are we dumbing down and selling ourselves a little short? Are we really ready to say that what can be expressed online represents the extent to what we can express? And are we ready to lock ourselves into a set identity, where the physical and virtual versions begin to mirror each other closer and closer?

For me, the depth of humanity runs much, much deeper than what can be expressed online. And part of being human is having fluidity, plasticity, and an ability for pure potentiality. That means that tomorrow I can choose to be different from today, to make an unexpected decision, or to change my mind completely. I am not one thing. I am not one identity. I am a system in flux. And so I’m frightened when someone is so quick to say that who they are online is who they are. Reduced to bits.

My Doppleganger (or Which One is the Puppetmaster?)

What are you willing to sacrifice in the physical world in order to maintain your virtual self? How often during your typical day do you see/hear/experience something and think to yourself, “I need to put this on Facebook” or “I’m going to tweet this.” I place value on interacting and sharing, but at what point do we become so intertwined with the upkeep of the persona that we forget how to be fully engaged in the experiences of our physical lives? How strong is the itch to update? Are you in control of your online self? Or is it in control of you?

Could you walk away?

Be An Agent, Not a Slave

I don’t know that the early visionaries of the Internet thought much about the development of virtual selves. Most of the literature I’ve read addresses the potential of developing systems to transfer and share information, not to create identities. There was an idea that a hyperconnected world would allow us to organize, filter, and gather the pieces that would allow us to make breakthroughs and solve real problems. The work of Vannevar Bush and Norbert Weiner and Douglas Engelbart suggested the possibilities for extending human intelligence, and via technology to somehow become more fully human. Perhaps we’ve been sidetracked.

We thought the Internet would provide a path to liberation, but maybe instead we’re allowing ourselves to become slaves again, just in a new medium. Perhaps it would serve us better to step back and observe what we’re doing, and ask ourselves why. Creating an online self is fine – it’s fun, it’s collaborative, it’s entertaining, it’s potentially enhancing. But identifying too deeply with the online self might be a trap. In our info-saturated world, one of our most precious resources is our attention. Attention as in where our eyeballs go, but also attention in what we think about. The ability to express yourself online does not equate Freedom if you become impotent in your ability to take action in the physical world. Think about what you’re doing and why. Think about the time spent thinking about Twitter and Facebook, and the resulting portion of time that it takes away from expressing your human agency in your life.

Use it as a tool. Use it as a means. But don’t lose sight of the big picture. At the end of the day, your true power lies in your ability to act – and that happens in the world, not in Farmville.