In this post I want to explore the idea of authenticity in an age of digital identity. My objective is to consider how it is possible to measure authenticity or to assume that practices among digital nomads are ‘natural’ behaviours. And given that foundation, I want to consider the legitimacy of notions of freedom, democratic participation and ‘effective’ collaboration.
So: small goals, huh? Well no-one ever said I was lacking in ambition. And maybe this could form the basis of a longer essay. But first I need to establish my own position as a digital nomad.
I make my money and my reputation from technology. I have lived on two sides of the planet in this profession, and I now live in a city where my social life is largely dictated by my social media and technology industry connections. I enjoy consuming and producing media and theory online, and through other digital channels. The work I do with Amplified is the generation (and often summarisation) of complex issues for mass consumption as well as for later access as part of knowledge retrieval.
I’m at home online. I am a technological being and I like myself as such.
And I’m not alone. I know many other who would similarly describe themsleves and I know people who have been able to use technology as a means of defining their identity – of shaping themselves, and becoming someone they want to be, rather than using their careers and training to categorise themselves. While I don’t have the evidence sitting in front of me, the concept of having multiple career paths and specialisations over one’s lifetime seems more prevalent among technology-oriented communities than for health, built environment, retail, professional services and education communities. At least I have observed among my digital colleagues, many examples of people who typically pursue a variety of simultaneous career paths, often ranging from creative and public interest to corporate or bureacratic. It’s professionally nomadic as much as it is intellectually and socially stimulating for such practitioners.
Much popular analysis of such digital nomads describes the internet and emergent technology as the means of achieving an authentic identity. Commentators have hailed the internet as an environment uniquely suited to productive and effective collaboration for creative works and problem solving, partly because there is a rawness and immediacy online which ‘frees up’ communication from corporate branding and from traditional political or social boundaries. Authenticity is central to the outcome of all engagements online; honest practice and commentary begets trust, trust begets effective cooperation, cooperation begets mutual gains.
But lately I’ve been increasingly questioning what is actually meant by ‘authenticity’. On the surface of course, it should be obvious: honesty, trustworthiness and transparency. But while we seem to implicitly recognise authenticity in engagements either online or offline, I wonder how much of what is perceived as authentic is influenced by the identities we share online.
I feel like I’m being honest and I’m comfortable with expressing myself online. But I am certainly conscious of the fact that my personality and identity is shaped by the information I share; that indeed the identity by which I am known is constructed by my engagements and outputs in cyberspace. And all my practices online – from tweeting and blogging to business strategy and research – is all carefully constructed to elicit specific responses. I protect and promote my business and income-generation capacity, I support people and initiatives I respect and admire, and I engage socially with people whose interests I care about. But I don’t share everything. Yet some of what I choose not to share could be regarded as more authentically me than the identity by which I am known.
Now it’s pretty obvious why I don’t share everything (or anyone else for that matter). Some I assume is far too tedious to share, some I just don’t have time to share and the rest is either information I regard as inappropriate to share, or it is something I just want to be for me and no-one else. But regardless of the legitimacy of my claims to withhold information, it is still true that the identity you know from this blog or in engagements online or off, is still a constructed, negotiated identity.
Further, several people who have met me in real life will ‘know me’ by the context in which we have interacted. Thus my ‘identity’ may be vastly differently described by different groups of people, and my honesty and reliability as a professional, as a source of information, or as a social entity will be measured by the fit of what I say or do to their notions of my authentic practice. So what seems authentic and trustworthy to one group may seem either austere or heartless by another. Depending on the level of personal access someone has had to me, the faith and/or interest they would have in my analysis would probably shift.
But this isn’t just about me. I suspect the same is true for virtually any person on the planet and in any interpersonal engagement. Only online, people can be much more judicious and specific in their constructed identities. Without physical traits and professional contexts (and even tangible ephemera and characteristics that reveal professional roles), digital nomads can interact with a range of content sources and individuals in multitudinous contexts online, simltaneously managing different identities and generating trust relationships based on those negotiated identities. It’s genuinely post-modernist stuff.
Importantly though, it’s possible to sustain directly conflicting identities online if an individual is so-inclined. I suppose I should acknowledge here that on occasion I have posed as a man in various newsgroups or in comment to mainstream media sources because I wanted to remain anonymous or because it suited me to play with my identity. It’s hardly a crime, and I don’t feel that I have compromised my online identity by engaging in this practice.
But if it is possible to sustain differing identities, then I question which identity is really ‘authentic’. (Actually, I would argue that to some extent they are all authentic, as they exhibit different perceptions or projections of the self.) And given there is uncertainty as to the aspects of various identities that may be considered ‘honest’ or ‘truthful’, I wonder how legitimate it is to talk about notions of democratic practice, freedom and effective collaboration. Perhaps most important of all, I wonder whether the vision of authenticity we endorse in evangelism of social media tools is actually genuine, or whether it is merely another frame for engagement which is less about believing the lie, and more about living it.