Digital Identity

Man standing outside, backed by sky with fluffy clouds, holding up digital devices that suggest we are seeing through him to the world behind
Who are you online?

Almost everyone has some form of digital presence today, whether it is one they created or not. An important part of digital citizenship is knowing just what that digital presence includes and taking steps to have some ownership of that presence.

Digital Identity Checkup infographic

It is possible they may find a listing for you at University of Regina, at least if you are a faculty member or on a longer contract. If you are a sessional instructor, your faculty or department may or may not include you in their list. There are various levels of information provided, from basic to more in-depth. Depending on the faculty, the listing will include contact information if possible (office, email, phone, fax), and could include a photograph, areas of research, courses taught, or even more extensive information. This constitutes a fairly basic level of information. This is fairly standard for most universities, at least for their faculty members. A student, colleague, or someone trying to learn about your research could attempt to contact you, might have some idea of what areas you are interested in, and may know what you look like.

Any instructor may also be included on other sites based on their involvement or employment. Sessionals may have a page on another employer’s site. If someone teaches at multiple institutions, there may be a page at another institution’s site. Sitting on a board or volunteering on a committee or even for an event could also result in having a profile or mention on a website. You may be able to provide some information for this or at least confirm the information used is correct.

These types of listings are, however, mentions beyond your control to some extent. There could be some personal input in selecting an image or providing research information, you may be able to submit even more than the minimum or choose to have only the absolute least information possible. The page is likely part of a template, however, and you may not be able to add or choose aspects to include or not (e.g. your contact information may be required and it may be context specific like a university email address and office phone number). You probably cannot personalize the layout and may not have any access to editing the page yourself.

There are also ways you will appear digitally that you have little to no control over. Things like news articles, minutes of meetings, conference websites, published papers, images from events, or mentions by other people are all ways you could have a digital identity that you had no say over. Yes, you could potentially have your name removed from some of these things or have an image removed but not necessarily. These are the sorts of things that may provide little information about you or could even be outside what you would choose to present. They may or may not be correct, depending on the source.

flickr photo shared by quinn.anya under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

The more important pieces when it comes to digital citizenship are those that we choose. These are profiles we intentionally publish, social media sites we join with the name we use professionally, blogs, websites, comments, videos, podcasts, or even just a basic placeholder. Part of being a digital citizen is intentionally crafting and taking ownership of your identity online. This is not just knowing what someone will find if they search for you but creating the artefacts most likely to be located as a way to introduce someone to you in positive and useful ways. For more about the concept of creating a digital identity, see Palfrey and Gasser (2008).

Kirsten Hansen's U of R website staff profile Kirsten Hansen's Twitter profile
Compare these two profiles. On Twitter I can control the image, the text, and what does or does not appear. (Note that my job title is not updated on the U of R site).

Why does this matter?
Most people would agree that how we present ourselves is important. In a digital world, search results are a big part of creating a specific impression. Without body language and tone of voice, we rely on images, design, text, visuals, and potentially audio to reach conclusions about someone. When you choose how you are presented, you are crafting a version of your identity that reflects how you want to be seen. If you want to know more about a business, a product, or a person, the first thing you do is likely an internet search. It is important to recognize that you are likely to be the subject of a search by someone else. A current student, a fellow researcher, a hiring committee, a potential graduate student seeking a university and advisor, a granting committee, a potential hire, any of those people could want to know more about you.

Why wouldn’t you?
Crafting an online identity is not something that everyone necessarily wants to do. There are reasons that some feel uncomfortable with or daunted by the task. You may feel more like a digital visitor than digital resident. You may feel safer not being online, assuming that what you don’t do can’t hurt you. You may not feel you have the time to invest in intentionally being online. While it is still possible, at least for now, to get by without taking ownership of your digital identity, those days are coming to a close. More and more, introductions are going to be digital and having a digital identity will be the equivalent of a handshake and “nice to meet you” conversation. There are some people who have good reason to lock down their digital identity, like those who fear for their life for various reasons, those who have experienced significant online harassment, and many others. It will, however, continue to get harder to be a world citizen and not have an active digital identity.