Curating Digital Identity

Trevor Bechtel
Aug 9, 2016 · 27 min read

A dialogue between an Archivist and a Theologian

Given as the Civic Engagement Lecture for 2012 by Carrie Philips and Trevor Bechtel

I am a curator.
The title on my business card says, “Archives & Special Collections Librarian,” which takes a while to say, and sometimes gets funny looks from people when I’m out with friends or at an event and meet someone new and answer the “what-do-you-do” question…. especially when I get to the word, “librarian.” Those funny looks say different things. Oh, so you’re a librarian.

…Do you shush people? You don’t look like a librarian, with that red streak in your hair or that music coming out of your office. And hold on… so there are different kinds of librarians? I thought all librarians did was sit around and shush people and stamp books and talk about the Dewey Decimal System, or take care of their library cats.

Anyway, all that explaining got really old fairly quickly, and so I started just calling myself an “archivist.” But that gets a little sticky because there’s actually a very extensive exam one can take to become a Certified Archivist. And just like REAL librarians, REAL archivists go to graduate school and get their own masters degrees. I have the real librarian degree, and I did an internship for a summer in an archives, but I still feel a bit like I’m encroaching on someone else’s territory when I call myself an archivist.

Recently, though, I’ve gotten more curious about the term, curator, and I think it explains really well what I do. The Oxford English Dictionary says that a curator is one who has the charge or care over a person or thing.

…My gig here on campus over at Musselman Library is to do just that — care for lots of things. Some new things, but mostly old things. Things like sixteenth century folio-size Bibles translated into the kind of German that sixteenth century Mennonite ancestors would have understood.

Things like the collection of woolen felt beanies given back to the university over a number of years by alums who perhaps reluctantly wore them for a few months at the beginning of their first year at Bluffton during a time when colleges and universities still did that sort of gentle hazing of new students.

Things like a box of rubber squeak toys made in factory in Akron, Ohio, and designed by Dietrich Rempel, a refugee to the US from the 1920s revolution in Russia who eventually came to Bluffton to study art and later patented the casting process for the rubber toys he designed for children.

And things like paper. LOTS of paper. Paper which documents the lives of concrete people. Letters. Diaries. Essays. Notes. Birthday
cards. Obituaries. Clippings. Collections of bits of paper which are a concrete person’s lasting traces — the evidence of their existence they chose to save (or perhaps, didn’t destroy) to help mark their place in the context of the relationships and happenings in the rest of the world around them.

But as I mentioned earlier when I was talking about REAL librarians and REAL archivists… there are REAL curators out there too…

Those who have advanced degrees in museum studies and public history. Those who work for renowned art museums and cultural institutions. Those who select and collect and preserve and care on a highly professional level. And they, too, have gotten a bit fussy as they’ve watched their verb, “curate,” enter the lexicon of more average folks.

What I mean by this is that many of us engage in these kinds of archival and curatorial behaviors on a small, personal scale. Scrapbooking has been a hobby for generations but rose significantly in popularity over the past ten years or so. I’m sure a number of us have a shoe box or a cedar chest full of the kinds of traces we’ve been talking about — items or documents that trigger memories of some event in the past. Tickets from a memorable concert. Graduation programs. Pen pal letters. Actual photo albums with actual baby pictures developed from negatives or from Polaroid cameras. Boxes of reels of film or tapes of home movies. Whatever your method, this kind of personal recordkeeping is archival and curatorial in nature.

This spirit of curating and archiving has become more mainstream and familiar (and in more practical terms, easier) to the average person in our 21st century environment of technology-enabled communication. We can collect and curate all kinds of great ideas on our Pinterest boards. We can spontaneously capture memorable moments in our lives with our mobile phone cameras (and then artfully alter and share them with apps like Instagram). We can share any of this with an instantly broader audience than ever before through our participation in social networks like Facebook and twitter. With this technology, our personal recordkeeping has become more flexible, more spontaneous, and more public than the shoebox under the bed.

And because of all this, we might consider the ways our identities and the traces of them are public, private, concrete, virtual, and what all of that means for us.

I am a theologian.

The title on my business card is nowhere near as interesting as Carrie’s. But I still get the funny looks. Oh so you are a theologian? Do you judge people? Can I confess to you. You don’t look like a theologian with my non-standard hair; skateboard; and electric guitar. I thought that theologians were very pious, sitting around and talking about God or at least their angel cats.

I do like talking about God and the bible, but I am also really interested what it means to be human. We humans like to think that we are very unique and very interesting. And in many ways we are. Humans change our environment more thoroughly than any other animal that we know of; although beavers have built dams big enough to be seen from space.

Humans have a language that is richer and more complex than any other animal we know of and a system of writing to preserve our ideas; although whales and ravens have very complex languages as well. Humans do art; although spiders make life like decoys of themselves and bowerbirds are great interior decorators. Humans are very intelligent; but we are constantly captivated by the vision of a machine that is smarter than we are. We try to build artificial intelligences, and companion robots, and sometime what we make is so lifelike that it falls into the uncanny valley-that space that really freaks us out when something is too close to being human.

The valley works like this. We have no problem liking a faceless robot, or a robot or cartoon with exaggerated features, but as the robot or animation looks more and more like us it drops off the cliff into the uncanny valley. And, Manti Te’o; the Notre Dame football player who met girlfriend online who then tragically died and then turned out never to have existed; Manti Te’o knows that this valley is not just something that happens when we look at humanlike robot. A version of the valley can also affect us in words when people pretend to be something that they are not.

So as a theologian, I like thinking about these edges of humanity. Who are we? We exist between animal and machine; between other creatures and our constructions; and between authenticity and illusion.

These are all questions of identity, even if Carrie’s way of talking about this identity begins with collecting and mine with edges.

Okay. So what business does a real librarian — almost real archivist — wannabe curator have talking about something as big as IDENTITY. No, I’m not a sociologist, or an anthropologist, or a psychologist, or really any kind of -ologist that should be able to talk really intelligently about identity from those particular fields of study. But in my work here at Bluffton,

I am in the “memory business,” collecting stuff that represents memories and evidence of the past — these “traces” I spoke of earlier.. I’m also a pretty active participant in that 21st century environment of technology-enabled communication. Those two worlds collide in a very interesting way for me. It’s part of why I’m so interested in our topic of discussion today..

The part of history that I like is the connection to the “story” part of that word. Stories about the personalities, relationships, and lives of real people whom I’ve never met and who may be long passed away, but who are somehow alive in the documents stored in my archives. And because of this connection I can see between physical traces left behind and their potential for storytelling, I’m mindful of the ways that the trace itself will be changing over time as we use more and more digital forms of technology to leave those traces behind us. What stories are all of these traces, physical AND digital, telling about each of us?

As a theologian stories are also very important to me. Most of my work begins and ends by reflecting on the stories that are found in the bible. These are stories that I believe are powerful, strong enough to save people, but that they are stories is very important to their power. In this way I am also in the memory business. My job is to take the memories contained in biblical stories and make them relevant to the kinds of questions I began with, questions about what it means to be human in technological age.

And since the Bible contains the stories of people who lived long ago, I am also very interested in traces. What is the trace left in the text by Moses, by Ezekiel, by Ruth or Esther. What is the trace left by Mary or by Jesus?

The apostle Paul is perhaps the most interesting person to think about when we are considering the trace. Paul wrote many letters during his time as an apostle, and he is particularly forthcoming when it comes to telling us who he wants us to think he is. Paul knows that there is a strong connection between our concrete everyday selves and the self that we portray in writing. In 2 Corinthians he puts it this way.

Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts 2 Cor 3.1b- 3

Paul suggests, in a letter, that letters are not necessary, because Paul and the Corinthians are both written on by God; they are both letters of Christ. It is weird to say in a letter that letters are not necessary. The point, I think, is that God has left an invisible trace on Paul and on the church at Corinth. So it is not just the trace of Paul, or of the church at Corinth that we see in this letter; we also see a trace of Christ. In other places Paul calls himself an apostle, a term typically reserved for people who had seen Jesus and followed him before his crucifixion. Paul argues that he has seen Jesus; if only on the road to emmaus, or in the hearts of his followers, but that this is enough to make Paul an apostle. In Thessalonians Paul suggests that he is writing with his own handwriting. In that context it seems to be necessary to convince people that Paul is who he says he is. He is authentic and not a deceitful illusion. What is Paul’s identity then? Let me suggest that it is at the same time social; Paul is defined in relationship to other people, especially the churches he planted; individual; Paul is defined by the particular and peculiar things that he does which we can learn about by reading his letters; and finally also virtual; Paul is who we find in the letters. Paul is the trace. And Paul is the bundle of traces both visible and invisible, individual, social and virtual that are collected in his life, writings and experiences.

So this is important for us in two ways. One, Paul insists that his letters are true representations of himself. He is authentically Paul in his letters. And, as we realize now, the letters become Paul. Paul is still alive to us through the things he choose to put in his letters.

Let me stop for a moment and notice a few of the words that we have been using.

Authenticity is an important concept for us; when we are truly ourselves (a theologian is going to say who God created us to be); we are authentic. When we present a version of ourselves that is deliberately false, like Manti Te’os girlfriend, we are engaging in some kind of lying. There is an important difference between authenticity and illusion in terms of how we present ourselves to others. Paul reflects on this difference a great deal.

Do you think that the difference between our concrete selves and our virtual traces maps onto the difference between authenticity and illusion? How am I, the person sitting in front of you now different than my twitter feed, or my facebook or my pinterest. Are those virtual traces illusions of me or are they authentic versions of me?

Jeff Hancock, in his talk about the future of lying at the TEDxWinnipeg event last year, noted two very interesting observations about traces and about authenticity. Jeff is an Associate Professor in the department of communication at Cornell University, and he studies the ways technology mediates social interactions.

He noted one study in which four close friends of a person were asked to describe that person’s personality. Then, four strangers were asked to describe that same person’s personality, but only based on what they observed about that person on facebook. The study showed a high level of agreement between the two groups of describers. The facebook profile was an authentic version; authentic enough that the strangers could describe the person as accurate as the close friends.

Jeff also noted that technologically-mediated communication is more honest than face- to-face communication. This is because humankind began to communicate by speaking at around 50,000 BCE, but didn’t begin to communicate by writing until just about 3000 BCE. That’s roughly 47,000 years of communication with NO traces of that communication left behind for later review. He goes on to observe that humankind has therefore evolved to speak in a way in which our words disappear, but we’re living in an environment where everything is recorded. He closes his TED Talk with a question to audience to think about the traces that they’re leaving behind as their personal record, and to think about how authentically “them” those traces are.

If you Google “curating online identity,” you’ll probably find the site, “Distributed Identities: Curating our Online Presences,” a community of contributors working under an effort of the National Writing Project. This group of resources and related commentary suggests that while we may maintain multiple online presences, our identity is distributed among them. My tweets would be a version of myself; my facebook status updates are perhaps a slightly different version. These presences are not distinct and siloed, characteristics of my identity overlap among and and are bundled between them. If Paul is right that identity is individual and social and virtual then my twitter feed is not a product of my individual identity, but rather a part of that larger distributed identity.

A touchstone for these ideas is the American sociologist Charles Cooley and his idea of the “looking glass self.” As we see our face, figure, and dress in the [looking] glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it.

A self-idea of this sort seems to have three principal elements:

  • the imagination of our appearance to the other person
  • the imagination of [the other’s] judgment of that appearance
  • and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification

Importantly then, Cooley’s is an approach in which our identity has both a cognitive–the imagination and an emotional–the self-feeling aspect. We reflect on our perceptions of our appearance and feel a certain way about that. I’ve dressed up to talk to you today. I’m wearing these nice black shoes which I wear less than five times a year, in order to impress you. I feel good about how I look. Up until this moment in time I have felt like your appraisal of me has been pretty positive. Now that I’ve pulled back the curtain you might be wondering what I wear on my feet the other 360 days of the year.

Now, I want to think about these four pairs of shoes for a second. Which pair is more authentic? Which is the illusion? Obviously, I own these black shoes. Given other things I’ve said about myself, Tom’s would make sense. I want to like Tom’s shoes but I can’t stand how they feel on my feet. The Jimmy Choo’s were meant as a joke; but the joke tells you I know something about fashion, or at least that I’ve watched the right tv. I can tell you that I’m not wealthy enough to own a pair. I own the Birkenstocks and I wear them much more often than any other shoes. Are they more authentically me?

Maybe you think that I am putting on a show by getting all dressed up like this. Erving Goffman followed up Charles Cooley’s ideas in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

He held that there is an essential analogy between performance and everyday life. All of us perform, like actors on a stage, a variety of roles. Goffman suggests that we deliberately take these stages and attempt to please the people we are performing for. Carrie and I are both performing the role of academics today. We have taken this stage and are quite literally performing these roles of academics, or curator and theologian for you. But you are also performing for us. You are putting on your best academic selves and listening to us so you can write a good essay. And these are not the only roles that we perform. Some of us are also athletes; that is a different stage, some musicians, some actors, some cooks, some builders and craftspeople, some farmers. We can choose our props, our stage, our costume. We have agency in shaping these performances, but the structures of the roles that pre-exist us also shape and limit our performances. Most important is Goffman’s distinction between a front stage and a back stage. On the front stage we perform our roles. We can also retreat to the back stage where we prepare and practice our performances and process the feeling that they elicit. Many people chafe a bit a Goffman’s ideas because we don’t think of ourselves as always performing, because performing feels inauthentic to us and because, in Goffman’s words, “a performer engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case” (Goffman, 1959: 56).

But Goffman is very useful for thinking about virtual and distributed identity. Using facebook is like having a front stage that we have perfect control over. We can take the time to edit and develop our ideas. We can slave over a status update trying to get it just right. As Goffman suggest we may seem to be putting the best version of ourselves forward. But Jeff Hancock suggests that that is not what actually happens. Our facebook profiles exist over time and it is hard to lie over time. Our true selves emerge on facebook and our facebook interactions shape our sense of self. Goffman talks about taking on many different identities.

Another contributor in the National Writing Project reflected on how she consciously maintains two separate facebook profiles, one for her personal self, and one for her professional self.

She discussed the justification for choosing to maintain distributed identities in this way — that there was value in having both of her “selves” be separately present and active in social networks like facebook. She notes in particular the startling event of one day seeing facebook suggesting that she “friend” herself. The two online “selves” had become alike enough to trigger facebook’s friend suggestion feature — an experience that supports Hancock’s argument. Maintaining two distinct profiles for the same person was actually more difficult than the author expected.

A third commentator took a conscious look at his online identity by looking back and reflecting on the collection of profile pictures he’d chosen over time and what each of those images might suggest about his identity.

Apparently at one point I was not impressed with my fashion choice for that particular day and felt Glamour magazine would have given me a black bar. Maybe some Jimmy Choos would have helped. But since you can also see my beloved Asics Gel Kayanos in the top right corner and the image from my first half marathon finish, you might guess that I don’t have any stilettos in my closet. And you’d be right. You might also guess that I have a very cute, small person in my life — one who can be trained to make silly faces. And everyone has taken one of those emo, not-looking-at-the-camera webcam photos, right? Or tried on a blonde wig for a party. Or played with photoshop to change an angry red bird into an angry brown beaver. Or played the facebook doppelganger game… except that my doppelganger happens to also work here on campus and we were bridesmaids in a wedding together once. There are more I could have shared, but even this subset is enough to say that some of us can be pretty creative at choosing an image to represent ourselves Sometimes it’s a careful, thoughtful choice, and sometimes it’s a spontaneous choice. But it’s still a choice we make for ourselves.

So images clearly represent one portion of our online identities. The images we choose to use as “officially” representing ourselves online are certainly one significant part of the curation of our online identities which we perform. The words we choose to write, in comments and tweets and status updates also contribute to that identity.

But here is where we notice something new about twitter and pinterest, the photo site instagram, probably many massively multi-player online role playing games like World of Warcraft or Skyrim, but most certainly facebook, and myspace and orkut and friendster before it. These are all very social ways in which we leave digital traces. Our traces even interact with each other.

The traces that are left by images, as in Carrie’s avatar gallery, or by writing as in the case of a blog post, or even a tweet have analogues. We could imagine what they would look like if they weren’t on a computer. In fact, of course, they were concrete before they were digital.

There is, of course, the matter of actually archiving these digital materials, especially materials that are “born digital” — they’ve only ever existed as bits and bytes, and how should archivists preserve them? While that’s not relevant to our identity discussion here, quite a bit has been written and published about it. It is something of great concern in the archives community, partly because the best answer about how to archive 1’s and O’s is unclear, but the need to preserve things like photos and paragraphs is clear.

But there is no real analogue for Facebook. Facebook is of unique interest to the curator of digital identity because it expands upon traditional ideas of both curation and identity. We have mentioned a number of ways that facebook expands on traditional notions of identity by arguing that a contemporary idea of identity should take into account individual, social and virtual identity. And we can see how facebook does this quite easily. My profile is something that I maintain, and I populate it with the traces of my everyday life. I record special events, and mundane ones. The individual aspect of my identity builds and shapes my the virtual aspect of my identity. But the virtual aspect is also a shaping force; things that happen on facebook and only there do shape who I am.

I have 1122 friends on facebook. Obviously, these people are not all close friends. The vast majority are former students, but I have friends from every era of my life from elementary school, junior high, high school, each of the three colleges I’ve attended, graduate school and each of the three universities I’ve worked at. But I also have friends who I know, never only through facebook, but almost entirely through facebook. Some of my closest friends are people who I have only met once. It helps that in most cases, these are people that I share a very close friend in common with. Facebook can allow the maintenance and development of close friendships across distance, and even time. Many of you will experience this in a unique way soon. You’ll graduate high school and all come here to Bluffton to go to college. But many of your high school friends will not come here. You don’t need to say good bye to them in quite the same way as people used to, because facebook will allow you to maintain relationship. Even if you never directly interact with some of those people again; you don’t write on their wall, tag them in a picture, or poke them, you can creep their profile and see what they are up to. All of us that have facebook accounts participate in curating our digital identity and putting it on display in this way.

But most importantly and differently, the social aspect of our identity is a considerable shaping force on facebook. When you write on my wall, you shape my identity, when you tag me in a picture or mention me in a status update, when you provide my location for an event, you are curating my identity.

And facebook really wants this to happen. The changes in the structure of facebook pages are continually towards making it a better and more open archive of our lives. The news feed brings together information that is happening to my facebook friends. Or think about the relatively recent innovation of the facebook timeline which brings a logic, a chronology, to my facebook posts. Facebook is trying to provide us with as seamless as possible an interface for shaping and curating identity. Facebook is beginning to help me curate my identity by pulling it together.

We have argued that you have one identity that is distributed broadly. Mark Zuckerberg agrees when he says,

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Goffman’s idea of distributed identity is not going to go away, but we are going to have a better sense of how all of the different aspects of ourselves fit together in an integral hole.

Just last week facebook unveiled its newest feature, a feature that continues to expand its role as a tool for the curation of identity. It is called Graph Search. Mark Zuckerberg calls the network of friends and likes that we build on facebook our social graph. This new tool will allow us to search our social graph. If I want to know which of my friends like Doctor Who I can search for that. If I am travelling to Cincinnati and want to know which of my former students live there I can search for that. This kind of search is very different than what Google does for us. Most people, including Google, think that graph search is going to be a really big deal. It is a big deal because it is a search that is much more connected to my own identity in each of its individual, social and virtual aspects. One way that this is true is that graph search works better the more search terms you put in. On Google if you aren’t getting results you need to drop search terms and make your search more general; this is because google targets information. On facebook’s graph search you are targeting people and the more you can specify what aspects of their identity you are interested in, the better. This is another way that facebook is building a searchable archive of identity.

When archivists talk about identity, four key themes tend to emerge. They’ll sound familiar; these themes confirm our position that identity is curated AND support this notion that identity is individual, social and virtual.

  1. People keep personal records because humans have an instinct to want to account for themselves and furnish evidence of their stories and their place in the world. (EOM1:28) We’ve mentioned how important stories are earlier in this talk. A prominent Australian archivist, Dr. Sue McKemmish, in an essay called “Evidence of me” about personal recordkeeping, connects to the writing of novelist Graham Swift. In his novel, “Waterland,” Swift suggests that “the fundamental urge to tell the story, the instinct to account for ourselves, defines what it means to be human”:“But man — let me offer you a definition — is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right. Even in his last moments, it’s said, in the split second of a fatal fall — or when he’s about to drown — he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.”
    Is this urge to account for ourselves and leave traces behind part of the reason why so many of us participate in social networking sites? Is it because facebook makes it so easy to curate our stories, especially on the individual level of identity? We know at least anecdotally that participation in social networking sites is sort of addictive. Is that perhaps because these are spaces where we are able to work very easily within the identities we’ve curated?
  2. In constructing identity, people seek to differentiate themselves from others AND identify with others. (EOM2:118) In talking about identity construction, McKemmish makes the statement above and then goes on to explain that “We assert our own individuality, our uniqueness, with reference to our distinguishing attributes. Yet one way of defining our attributes is by identifying ourselves with others in terms of gender, sexuality, family, age, education, occupation, class, religion, place, ethnicity, nationality, race, and so on.” In other words, we have the individual sense of identity — that which makes us distinct from others — but we also need the social sense of identity — that which connects us to others.
  3. People bearing witness to the cultural moment in their personal recordkeeping may be significant for developing individual identity. (EOM1:38) McKemmish continues that “The public and private roles and relationships associated with these attributes are both socially constructed and shaped by the interaction of an individual personality with the social construct of identity.” This statement takes the social sense of identity and situates in an even wider context — not just finding ways to relate to others with whom we share commonalities, but also finding ways to witness to what is going on in the wider world. Archivist-curators like me who manage a collecting archives are in a particular kind of memory business. A collecting archives is one which collects archival materials from individuals, families, and organizations. This usually means collections of the kinds of traces I mentioned earlier, but those collections need to make sense in the scope of the overall collecting policy of my archives. So, my archives will have collections of traces from people who might have a connection in some way to Bluffton University, or to the local Bluffton community, or to the larger population of Swiss Mennonites who settled in this area. These individual collections of traces are important for telling the individual stories of their creators, but taken together as a whole, they are also important for bearing witness to the larger context of the cultural moment of any given time. They are, individually, collections of evidence of a bunch of “me-s”, but collectively, they become evidence of “us”. A sort of preserved form of societal memory that together, tells an even larger, wider story about the world around us.
  4. Digital technologies open new opportunities for doing all of this. The connection here to virtual identity is perhaps now fairly obvious. Consider “all of the above” taking place now on a digital, virtual, bits-and-bytes version of Goffman’s front stage.

I hope that you have a this point a fairly rich account of identity that incorporates our digital adventures seamlessly into the broader stories of our lives. You know things about theological and sociological accounts of identity and how to connect these to various kinds of archives. You have a sense of the curatorial power that is exercised on identity both deliberately but also very casually by individual and their friends.

What are some of the questions that this raises for you. Do you think that everyone in the future will need to have a facebook account in order to be considered a good citizen? Will we someday vote using our facebook? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get those horrible election advertisements off of our televisions? I’m not saying I want them cluttering up my facebook, but my facebook is pretty good at already knowing the things that I like. And when I don’t like something, I just let facebook know I don’t like it. I like not getting advertisements for things, like guns and sex, that offend me. I am very happy to trade away a bit of privacy for more personalized advertisements.

However, I do not necessarily want to live my life in a bubble. Eli Pariser, in a famous Ted talk and book called The Filter Bubble shows how Google and facebook and many other spaces online increasingly filter search results to show us what is most relevant to us. The result is that I see what Google and facebook think is most relevant to me; they personalize my search. In a way, this is it’s own form of curation, a kind of machine curation, and it certainly also has its effects on identity. Pariser’s most interesting story is of two women who were friends of his. They had much in common: similar work, wealth, class, race, marital status. But when they searched the internet to find out more in the days after the BP oil spill one was consistently shown search results on the crisis in the gulf and its environmental impacts and the other was shown corporate web page for BP including ways to invest in BP. If when you browse the internet you stay only on CNN or Fox your search results will start to bias in a particular direction. The question of how we can have identities with appropriate exposure to a broad diversity of views and ideas is an important on in an age of pervasive filtering when our identity is bounced back to us online.

We increasingly store, archive and curate our identities online, and one consequence is that we are asked to give up more and more of our privacy. The newspaper headlines are full of examples of this from facebook or instagram changing their privacy policy to stories of the government conducting warrantless search of electronic data. The front stage for Goffman and for facebook is public. There are certainly still areas of our lives that our private, and we can certainly choose to keep it that way, but will this choice become increasingly difficult, just as the choice not to have a credit card or a cell phone is increasingly strange. We will need to be able to account for the values and benefits of public and private space; of the necessity of private space for the formation of individual identity; and of the benefits to democracy, debate, and education that can come with and enhanced public square.

Many of us have been astonished over the last two years by the citizens movements in the public squares across the middle east in what we now know as the Arab Spring. We have also been surprised by the role of twitter in facilitating these people’s movements. Twitter is perhaps the best example of instantaneous witnessing to the cultural moment on a global scale. Whole societies seemingly came to life and a revolution was born online. There is a great deal of debate about how instrumental twitter and facebook were to these revolutions. However, no one can deny the novel and useful power of reading, in your living room, or on your phone, the unfiltered shouts of a people. There was much good news reporting about the Arab spring; but if you wanted to, you could also read the revolution. It helped to be fluent in the right languages, but some translation in English happened.

Identity is very important on twitter. If you are a well known public figure you can apply to have a verified account. These accounts are given this little blue checkmark. But identity is also deliberately spoofed on twitter. One noteworthy account @ceostevejobs was suspended soon after a newspaper quoted from it believing it was authentic. Other accounts are deliberately faked sometimes employing the persona of a celebrity in a fiction meant more as poetry than satire.

This is the case with the @nottildaswinton account. It burst onto the scene in May last year and featured some incredibly creative mystically natural writing. Noone thought this was Tilda Swinton but for a long time noone knew who was doing the writing. Pseudonymous writing is a venerated tradition and twitter is providing new venues for these kinds of creative. The balance between a celebrities public and private life; and the use that is made of their public persona by persons out of their control is another interesting facet to the shaping of identity online.

This week, on Martin Luther King day, the president was inaugurated. Something that is really interesting about this president has been how he has utilized social media to great effect in campaigning and in running his administration. His use is very different than those millions of people working towards the Arab Spring, but it is still very effective. These digital spaces can be populated in very different ways. We are just at the beginning of knowing what this might mean for us, for our identity and for our society. Predicting the future is a very dangerous game, and we have not tried to do that today. But by showing you some things about how we take care of the past, we hope to have given you some good ways to think about the future.

The president himself seems eager to curate an identity that is more public, and is probably-if what we have been saying so far today is right-more authentic than his predecessors.

On election night, a night when a nation stays up late to welcome and celebrate their new leader, one group of people; the party faithful who spend a great deal of time and money to be at the official celebration; typically get to hear from and interact with the president first.

There was a watershed in digital publicness this year when Obama, before addressing the crowd gathered at McCormick Place in Chicago, tweeted his gratitude to everyone. Obama has a complex identity. He is a human being just like you and I but he also regularly needs to occupy a very special front stage as president. When he has written a tweet he signs it -bo like this one. This tweet, sent on his account earlier in the evening but not personally by him, became the most retweeted message ever. It is likely the case that only a few of you in this room will become president. A few more will hold similarly public positions. But all of us will need to pay attention to the dynamics of an identity that is increasingly curated and digital.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

The Spirit’s Snapchat

A Mennonite theology of social media

The Spirit’s Snapchat

A Mennonite theology of social media

Trevor Bechtel

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so let's not waste our time thinking how that ain't fair

The Spirit’s Snapchat

A Mennonite theology of social media