meMedia or iRobot?: Constructing Identity(s) in the Online World

Here is the second meLecture for ALC201 Exploring New Media: Users, Settings, Implications, which focuses on the theme of online identity:

A number of interesting points have come up already in this week’s seminars. The construction of About.Me profiles – which I intended to be primarily a warm-up exercise as a lead-in to more extensive digital media produsage – has turned out to offer considerable insight into how we portray ourselves online. The sheer variety of profiles illustrates many similarities and differences between people’s self-concepts and their approaches to depicting these. What does this variety in self-presentation reveal? Do the relatively restricted generic conventions and possibilities of the About.Me site limit individuality or is there enough space for one to express oneself freely? Can individuality be expressed by refusing to upload a profile picture (in effect, subverting the template)? This is an useful example to think through in relation to the argument made by Jaron Lanier that we are all becoming ‘nonpersons’.

Most users will have looked at several other profiles before constructing their own. What does this suggest about how we learn? As I’ve been emphasising, people don’t know how to use Facebook or play an Xbox game because they’ve listened to a lecture about it or read a book on it (not that these are redundant ways to learn things by the way!). Rather, people quickly become skilled at using Facebook and other digital media because they – knowingly or not – observe how others are using it, teach themselves how to do things by both repetition and trial-and-error, and, when needed, consult the Help menus or demo videos uploaded by the site’s designers or other users. Whenever it was that you started Twitter, were you as adept at using hashtags as you are now? And how did you get better at it…?.

An interesting concept in relation to this topic is that of ‘exposure’. While the majority of students were comfortable depicting themselves on a public About.Me page that can be accessed by anyone in the world with the requisite hardware and digital literacy, the same people were not generally as comfortable having a room of 20-25 people observing and discussing their profile in front of them. Without implying a negative judgement here (just making an observation), this would – at least in part – seem to point to a certain ‘disconnect’ between our physical selves and our virtual presence(s). While general shyness (of the kind I myself was partial to myself during my undergraduate studies) might have played a role in this, this unease in seminars still underlined the crucial importance of carefully, creatively, and critically thinking through how we construct our online persona(s). Lots of interesting questions arise here: If we’re often more comfortable communicating certain things about ourselves online, does this also entail a risk that we might be at times more ‘carefree’ – and when does this become ‘careless’? On the flip side, do we judge people online differently than we do in person? How much time and thought do we put into how we are communicating when using instantaneous social media? Are we more willing to ‘expose’ ourselves to the world than to those right in front of us?.

Many thanks to everyone who helped in putting together some of the footage for this meLecture, and to those who have been actively engaging with the material and each other via Twitter, YouTube, and the CloudDeakin discussion forums – this is great to see! Keep it up!

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