Posted by: Brynna Kaulback | May 26, 2014

The Networked Scholar-Practitioner: Deciding to Develop a Digital Identity

I have been thinking about my involvement in various online communities/networks/social media as, in the next few months, I complete my studies and move from the academic world back into the practical world with a new identity as a scholar-practitioner. Having begun building my identity as a networked scholar-practitioner during the years that I have been a doctoral student, I think now about how I will continue this development and how this identity will change as I leave the haven that has been provided by academia.

Nurturing an identity as a networked scholar-practitioner can be understood as engaging in a variety of social and reflective practices. Online presence leaves traces, but these traces can be anything from mere clicks in the big data movement to the creation of a sustained social and active membership in online communities. White and Cornu (2010) have offered a way to understand these varying levels of online engagement. They conceptualize interaction among people on various platforms as taking place in social spaces or places and suggest that people are either visitors to or residents in these places. Visitors see the Internet as a tool, a way to accomplish a task – to find information, for example, or to accomplish a banking function. Their actions do not create a digital identity; once they leave the online world, it is unlikely that others would even be aware that they had been present. They will use email or Skype in the interest of maintaining relationships, but these relationships are seen as existing in the off-line world and the online world is a convenient way to maintain and support those offline relationships. White and Cornu posit that visitors are opposed to developing a digital identity for several reasons – privacy, fear of identity theft, and a sense that ‘engaging in social networking activities are banal and egotistical” (White & Cornu, 2011, § IV, 1).

Since I was writing this blog post on Memorial Day Weekend, I decided to investigate these ideas with three women who were sharing the holiday with me. The privacy issue was indeed paramount, as White and Cornu had suggested, but I wanted to inquire further into what lay behind this desire for privacy. A concern that others would take their words and twist them, using them against her professionally, was the concern of one. She didn’t mind if others posted photographs of her, as long as they weren’t ones that could be used against her professionally. A sense of being invaded, of having people know more about her than she liked was the second guest’s explanation. The third participant in this informal investigation explained that she wanted control over what was put out into the world about her – a concern not unrelated to the first two – but also conveyed a worry that extended to photographs as well as text, or even just having other people know where she had been at a particular time. She wanted to be able to mediate how she was portrayed in the world. The third pointed out also that the responses were not unlike what each of the three respondents were like in the off-line world. Although this was clearly a limited sample, my fellow celebrants validated White’s and Cornu’s suppositions.

Residents, on the other hand, are those who “see the Web as a place, perhaps like a park or a building in which there are clusters of friends and colleagues whom they can approach and with whom they can share information about their life and work” (White & Cornu, 2011, § IV, 2). Residents, in addition to using the Internet as a tool, are likely to have a digital identity and to have membership in online communities. These are not dichotomies, but a spectrum, argue White & Cornu, with participation and trace-leaving likely dependent on context. Also, they note, these are not an indication of technical know-how or dexterity nor do they place a value judgment on one end of the spectrum being more worthy than the other. Since I have an intermittently active blog, a fairly active Facebook page, and I have recently tried to learn how to use my dormant Twitter account, I fall further along the spectrum from Visitor to Resident than the three participants in my informal survey.

I would argue, however, that there does seem to be some kind of tipping point along the spectrum – a decision to adopt a digital identity and support it, even to promote it. Cultivating an online presence in an intentional way requires an awareness of one’s online presence and an attention to its portfolio. Developing that digital identity as a scholar adds still another dimension, for one’s digital identity may precede one’s scholarly identity. Additionally, the decision to own a digital scholarly identity may be a conscious development, or, as Bonnie Stewart wrote in her blog, “Sometimes things shift when you’re not looking … I woke up last Monday morning to discover that practically every Chronicle link on my Twitter feed related to my research area” writes Stewart. Is there not a moment in time when you discover that, decision or not, you have a digital identity as a scholar?

Where am I in the spectrum of developing a digital identity? The question is complex in more than one way – in addition to accepting that one will have a digital identity, there is the question that emerges from a realization like Stewart’s, to what extent is one’s digital identity that of the scholar? Or, in my own case, of a scholar-practitioner? More of that on another day.


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