Who Am Me?

On Monday, I got the opportunity to speak at the LINK Research Lab at the University of Texas-Arlington. A huge thanks to the LINK Lab folks (Matt Crosslin, Justin Dellinger, Holly Zander, and Throy Campbell) who I was lucky enough to hang out with for the day. I made a joke that it was my first time that I had been to Arlington where admissions to the building didn’t require a ticket. Growing up three hours north, my family made many trips down to Arlington to visit Six Flags or go to the Ballpark in Arlington for a game. Baseball was my sport growing up. I loved everything about it and no team embodied it more than the Texas Rangers.

1993 Upper Deck - "Latin Stars"

1993 Upper Deck – “Latin Stars”

Once upon a time, I owned this baseball card. 1993 Upper Deck #52. (Left to Right) Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Upper Deck refers to them as the “Latin Stars” on this card. In retrospect, I can’t believe these four were actually on a team together. If you want to see the rise and fall of my love for baseball, it’s incapsulated in these guys. Jose Canseco’s book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big brought public attention the madness of the Steroid era (formerly known as my childhood). In the book, Jose Canseco outed former Texas Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro as a steroid user. Palmeiro would go on to appear at a Congressional hearing in March 2005 and say this:

Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.

Five months later, he would fail a steroid test and get suspended for ten games.

These were the men that I idolized. I don’t watch a ton of baseball now, although I did catch all five games of the World Series this year. I still love the game, but these experiences unfortunately hardened me to Major League Baseball.

In that sense, “baseball fanatic” is a piece of my identity in which I discarded/buried a decade ago. Identities, particularly digital identities, and how technologies influence them was a portion of what I spoke about at the LINK Research Lab. I argued that the affordances of the technology along with the social environment which rallies around it can force us into disparate identities. On LinkedIn, I’m a professional in the higher education industry. On Twitter, I am in a personal learning network amongst other peers. On Instagram, I’m a dad posting pictures of my kids. On Facebook, I’m seemingly stuck in senior year of high school. And so forth.

The title of this talk, “Who Am Me?”, was lifted from a recent segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The mainstream media had bought into persona he had crafted for The Colbert Report so deeply that the question became what “character” would Stephen play? And I love the way Stephen Colbert satirically examined this question. Are we anything more than the way we are perceived? What dictates how are we perceived? How do the channels in which exist in our society influence it?

Further, how does one change one’s identity? These tools make it difficult to transition between identities; a portion of one’s coming of age. I would guess that, more often than not, these tools and the identities that were built around it are simply abandoned. The question I posed was, “What is the role of higher education in shepherding a student in developing a digital identity? How is their academic self portrayed?”

Occasionally, this question is answered with an e-portfolio. And it’s not actually a terrible answer. I actually love the idea of having a rich online presence where you can easily see the work in which student is produced. Yet when we went hunting for an e-portfolio solution, what I saw were tools that were focused on a rigid end product. Inevitably, all students would look the same. We would give them a template and they would fill out pre-defined pages. Further, we would be adopting a technology that would further impose it’s idea of an academic identity rather than allowing the student to craft it themselves. And I found myself asking who owns this long term? Does it just disappear once they graduate? Inevitably, nothing was exciting enough for us to bite.

So you know where this story goes. All roads with Adam lead to domains. :-) A major turning point for us was reframing the idea: rather than giving someone a solution, how about we begin to reconceptualize the kind of web infrastructure we give students? I don’t think domains are the only answer, but they are good starting point because they give an infrastructure that affords multiple identities. This is because domains, of course, can become subdomains. A new wrinkle I added to this specific discussion was domain anatomy, which gave me a way to frame out the the complexity and flexibility of a simple address:

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A common misconception when talking about domains is that we assume that a domain is a website. At nearly every address above, you can have different websites. Thus, the domain is a naming convention for several identities. My identities look like this:

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It’s sort of the equivalent of how I organize files via folders on my computer (only this is public facing). This, of course, is not the entirety of my digital identity. I have work that exists on Twitter, Instagram, Medium, Github, etc. This work is also reclaim-able. I’ve written before about really taking a liking to an application called Known, which actually allows you to post work first to it and then syndicate it somewhere else, a notion which is called POSSE (Publish on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) by the IndieWebCamp.

Thinking about this from an institutional perspective for the last year is starting to really reap rewards. We’re late in the semester and we are still seeing roughly 100 posts per week, several of which we highlight on This Week on OU Create. I got to show UTA faculty how my course, PR Publications, works, as well as highlight some of the work faculty and students are doing. More importantly, how it’s changed and influenced the pedagogy of my class which is less about something happened contained in one place at one time with one assumed outcome to one that is more flexible and participatory.

So as I mentioned, I don’t think domains are the only approach towards this idea of managing one’s identity, but it does offer a flexibility and a certain level of ownership that I have yet to see matched. This site that you are currently on is managed via Wordpress. For the last six months, it was running on Jekyll. Before that–Wordpress again. How cool is that I can change out the plumbing and it cause no disruption to visitors? I can knock down this house of cards and keep the street address. Rebuild.

One thing that I am particularly more and more concerned about though is how social media’s ability to tightened down on control is seemingly going unchallenged. A portion of my talk focused on how we started with platforms that actually allowed you to edit the HTML of the page (Myspace, Tumblr, Xanga, etc.). Now we have platforms like Facebook that want to convince you that you will actually get a better platform by giving you less options:

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Our identities are becoming entangled with platforms in a way which strongly dictate who they would like us to be, how they would like us to be portrayed, and what affordances we are allowed to have (= not have). We saw this most recently with Twitter deciding that a simple object like a star could now become a heart, which brought on more stronger emotions than I’m sure Twitter could’ve imagined. I’ve enjoyed following the conversations and thoughts that I’ve seen expressed from Kate Bowles, Maha Bali, Laura Gogia, and others who participated in the conversation via Twitter. This is an product of what Anil Dash refers to as The Web We Lost. We enter these spaces after a negotiation. “Can I see myself here?” “Do I see value in my voice here?” “Can I learn from what exists here?” Yet the rules in which we accept when we enter can change in the midst of the game because we’ve decided that we will except free, version-less platforms in exchange for our data. Further, we’ve allowed them to become our access to the rest of web through API sign-on integrations thanks to Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others.

What would the web look like if we ever hit a point where one company monopolizes access to it? It actually isn’t terribly far-fetched. Mark Zuckerberg has his sights set on bringing Internet access to 2/3 of the world that doesn’t currently have it. Oh, sorry, I missed pointing out that the Internet he talks about is the web he controls: Internet.org brought to you by Facebook and only accessible via the Facebook app.

On the plane ride home, I began to read a book, “The master switch : the rise and fall of information empire,” by Tim Wu, which my friend, Ken Parker, had recommended to me as I was preparing for my dLRN talk. I ran out of space to fit in a sort of “word of caution” piece at dLRN, but I always appreciate examining history to inform future decisions. The book walks through different IT industries and their inevitable moves from open to closed networks:

History shows a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel–from open to closed system. It is a progression so common as to seem inevitable, though it would hardly have seemed so at the dawn of any of the past century’s transformative technologies, whether telephony, radio, television, or film.

So this is where my head is right now. I don’t think is a talk I’m going to abandon anytime soon so that will give me some time to refine it for future iterations. Below you watch the first crack at it.

Feature Image: Georg Nietsch