March 20

who am i? boundaries blurring…personal "noise" vs. professional "signal"

forgive me, i am having an existential moment . . . i am reflecting on who i am and how i represent myself online. I have become increasingly self-conscious about this over the last 6 months, and by that i mean i have been noticing and observing things about myself and how i think, feel, act, and articulate myself online.

i use the social web professionally extensively. In addition to in my online teaching, i use the social web to connect with colleagues. I would characterize this as my primary use of the social web. In the beginning i used it exclusively professionally- to talk to and keep in touch with my professional community, and to share with them what i do – an amalgamation of professional networking, collaboration, and increasingly a significant component of my professional development -my own personal learning environment – helping me to keep up with who and what is going on in my field. I am always aware of my digital persona… I always have in the back of my mind when i post anywhere and anything “Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, will read this…” : ) And that awareness is very interesting to me when calibrated against my desire to authentically represent myself online. Yes, i filter. i am very conscious of my professional persona and protecting that. I am very well known in the national online education community and am adjunct faculty at UAlbany. i put energy and care into my digital presence and my online persona. The personal stuff creeping in is something i can’t control completely. I am sensitive and aware and i monitor.

A serendipity that i did not anticipate is this blurring of my personal and professional selves… i resisted it somewhat for the first 2 years and just in the last half year or so i have slowly noticed myself letting that blur happen and enjoying it…partly because friends and family have found me, and partly because i want my students and my professional community of followers to understand that i am multi-dimensional – that i am not just what i do. In my bios, one will note, that i have always said that i am 1. Isa’s mom, 2. an artist. and 3. that i know a little something about online learning : ) So this awareness of myself as a multi-dimensional being, and diligence at representing myself as such, has always been there unconsciously emblazoned publicly on all my profiles.

I am sprinkled all over the social web, twitter, diigo, delicious, facebook, seesmic, linkdin, spock, plaxo, youtube, slideshare, flickr, and on and on and on . . . There is something about the presentation of self online that requires these presences, and the little artifacts posted to each, to give one substance/credibility/real-ness online – they are a digital commodity – used to gain status, relevance – or merely as proof of one’s existence. I think of them as my footprints, a history and journal of sorts of my meanderings through the social web, and my thoughts and interactions along the way. I also think of them as extensions or facets of myself that when looked at as a whole do a pretty good job of representing me and what i care about. These little artifacts give me digital substance, that if lost, would be like loosing my memories, erasing my existence, and if deleted purposefully, would feel self-injurious… Richard Smyth has an extremely engaging notion of memories in the digital age that has got me thinking a bit too about my memories and the digital pushpins and footprints that i leave online in facebook, twitter, etc., and that make up my digital self…these little inane pushpins in the time line of my social web life have become increasingly and inevitably a blurring of my personal and professional selves …  i have been thinking about this a lot.

Richard talks about technology as aides de memoir – mnemonomics (managing memory) he describes as a theory for understanding web2.0,  communications technology, and  social networking as collaborative memory. Memory he says, started out as oral stories stored in human brains and exchanged f2f. Literary memory followed with the alphabet and print stored in books and libraries. Today, he says, our memory is increasingly stored electronically and digitally – evinced in social bookmarking, for example. He talks about the collective intelligence inherent in social networking, where who you know becomes how you know – epistemology as community. He asks: how is web2.0 changing the nature of memory? how do these technologies supplement our memory? how do they free our minds from having to remember?

From the profile fotos i post, to the little bios i am obliged to write on all the sites i join, i have noticed things. But, i only started noticing when they changed – recently. For example, since 1994 i have had one digital photo of myself that i have used professionally for all my profiles, publications, online and in print, etc. When i first digitized it 14 yrs ago, i probably “selected” it as a good likeness, nice composition, and a pretty image of me. After that though it was just alex.jpg, the image i used for everything. I didn’t think about it at all – for 14 years . . . in the facebook world where people change their profile images like socks, it just never occurred to me. (The same was true for me in SecondLife – i lived in my newbie skin for more than a year – i just didn’t occur to me to change it.) It was not until my friend, Thomas McGuiggan, from high school friended me that it started occurring to me. I wanted Tom to know what i look like today. I noticed. That old grainy orange-ish 14-year-old image of me just seemed wrong somehow. One minute the image was real enough, the next i felt self conscious that it was not my authentic self. I have changed my FB profile 3 times since February 2009. Not really sure why. Vanity -maybe. Because i can -probably. Because i am now aware of it- i think.

I think it really started when Elizabeth Hanson friended me in FB about 8 months ago … she is a friend that i feel really close to and love from college. She put up pictures from college, we talked in FB, other friends of ours joined…i got “engaged” in the whole FB thing … when the 25 random things meme went ’round Elizabeth’s was one of the first i read. I loved it. (I have a thing for a well turned phrase and Elizabeth is an artist with a pen.) I didn’t get tagged right away, but loved reading the notes of my friends and acquaintances. When i was tagged, i LOVED writing my 25 things. I had no problem coming up with 25 things … my master list was over 60 items. I also worked very hard on that list. I spent time making sure they were each just so. I also noticed that some of them, though completely “me,” I just could not post (even though part of me really wanted to). . . And so i filtered … consciously… and noticed that i was filtering. I had a conscious sense of observing myself prune that list down, however, interestingly enough i did not notice till after i posted, that none of my things have to do with what i do : ) weird right?! …not one of my 25 things random things about me has anything to do with my job … i totally love that! And i don’t understand it. It was a very interesting exercise for me that may have been a tipping point of sorts in some way.

Here is the time line as best as i can figure – June 2, 2008 and then again on June 13– i posted my first non work-related videos on YouTube. In August 2008 Elizabeth friended me and posted old college photos of us and our friends.  January 6, 2009, my friend Kevin Lim twittered and blogged about changing the way he uses twitter ( January 7 i posted my first twitpic – – note that none of my twitpics are work related – these are posted to my twitter stream – the point being that this is not just in FB, but that this phenomenon is happening in all my social sites. January 9th Thomas friended me in FB. January 27 i read my friend Alex Ried’s wonderful blog post on why blogging is so hard ( Approximately on February 1, 2009 Elizabeth deleted just about everything on her wall. (This astounded me. How could she do that – like she was erasing her memoires or part of herself – she points to her Virgo nature and penchant for tidiness and thinks of the FB wall as ephemera…) February 3 i posted my FB 25 random things about me. February 11th i changed my FB profile picture for the first time. February 15, pondering my friend’s wall deletion, I posted the question on seesmic, do you delete stuff you post? Around this same time i started actually visiting and hanging out in FB regularly, where previously i merely had my various feeds auto update my wall.

Alex Reid said in his digital digs blog post that these mundane little things. . .

…may not matter to you, but they matter to me. Of course twitter also becomes a way of sharing interesting things discovered online and having quick conversations, so it is not all daily minutiae. But my point is that even that minutiae can become a way of creating a networked identity that becomes a basis for stronger and more productive connections.

Kevin Lim in his theory is the reason blog post waxing philosophical about twitter noted:

Pragmatically, most would say that the conversation is a signature of being human, which in itself is a value which we cannot yet reproduce mechanically simply by constantly tweeting links. The reward of twitter was that our connections felt alive whenever someone @replies (reciprocates).

In a low-resolution environment of 140 characters, I thought I could get by with being human through a simple machine. On the contrary, twitter was about the celebration of being human, and I had a choice whether to partake in it.

My new friend George Siemens just wrote in his newsletter:

The internet, specifically social networking tools like Twitter, assaults the boundary between our private and public selves. The many representations of “George” – father, son, brother, employee, friend – move toward one on Facebook. Social networking and social theory explores this blurring of identities through Erving Goffman’s (a connection to Manitoba!) work: “front stage” and “back stage” concepts have been a useful way to understand social life. Goffman wrote in 1959 of how we keep certain information private, part of the process of impression management.” Impression management is not solely under our control. If you have presented at a conference, commented on a blog, or had someone take an image of you and post (and tag) on Flickr, you exist online. Others participate in defining and broadcasting who we are.

I don’t like thinking about it as “impression management.” And yet, there it is, no matter what i believe, we all filter and consciously or unconsciously make choices about how we represent ourselves online, in person, on the phone… etc. True, some people are (as my friend Kevin Lim says) more noise than signal – but being all signal is not right either. I want a balance in my life, and i want to connect with people that balance.

So, Sarah, i want to know that you found your pink hair dye today, and to see photos of the socks you knit, what you are making for dinner, and that your doppler is out of date. Your tweets are relevant to me. Alex, i want to know that you have contactors coming to your house today, about the demo in your department meeting, and that you showed your little girl twitter – and that you have a new blog post. I like the snark you sometimes have in your voice. Kevin, i LOVE hearing your twitter voice, knowing what you are eating for breakfast/lunch and what you are doing while you eat, and knowing that you get turned on by pedagogically-focused gaming links : ) George, I am interested in hearing about your parent-teacher conference and when you are looking for coffee… Because your “noise” gives you context and makes me feel closer, more connected to you and our common human-ness, which makes you more real to me, helps me trust you, and makes your “signal” to me, and its impact – that much more powerful.

I am what i bookmark and what digital breadcrumbs i leave about the net. I am who i know and who i interact with online. I am known by the digital pushpins and footprints i leave about. AND i am more than what i do for a living. It is really important to me that people know that – and that people know me – my real multi-dimensional self.


Posted March 20, 2009 by alexandrapickett in category Uncategorized

About the Author

Alexandra M. Pickett

6 thoughts on “who am i? boundaries blurring…personal "noise" vs. professional "signal"

  1. Alex R

    thanks Alex. The distinction between signal and noise is not always so easy to distinguish. Noise is, indeed, integral to signals. We are always make sense out of noise as well, turning it into signal, as when we make meaning from people’s unconscious body language when we meet FTF. As you point out, noise can often be rhetorical as well. As such it isn’t pointless but serves an indirect social function.

    Which reminds me that I should probably change my FB photo.

  2. Pingback: my criteria for evaluating whom to follow on twitter | Alex's reflecting pool

  3. Bob Yavits

    According the the great 20th century spiritual teacher, and many of his student/teachers, “Who am I?” is the most powerful spiritual question that can be asked.

    This is from “Silence of the Heart, Dialogues with Robert Adams”:

    There is only one I actually. That is I Consciousness.When you follow the personal I to the source, it turns into the universal I, which is Consciousness. Begin to catch yourself. Begin to realize your divine nature. You do this by keeping quiet. The fastest way to realization is to keep silent.

  4. Aimee

    I enjoyed your presentation today at EdTech Day 2010 at BSC. I also enjoyed our subsequent conversation and thank you a million times over for mentioning this post to me. It has given me wonderful food for thought. The noise/signal and multi-dimensional self really resonate with me as I find myself at a tipping point.

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