This is a write up of a session that I facilitated at the excellent LocalGovCamp yesterday. I wanted to run the session as an extension of some work I am doing around identity that you can read about here – and luckily a bunch of people where also interested in discussing the topic and provided some real insights. As ever its a huge pleasure at these things to talk with knowledgeable and informed people who can challenge your own thinking. No real conclusions but that’s fine – its going to be a while before we can possibility understand what it means to have a digital wrapper around our lives.

The session really focused on two key themes:

  • Can we control our online identity?
  • What are the requirements of identity with respect to civic and democratic participation possible

There were a couple of overarching thoughts however, one was the importance of trust and reputation with respect to being effective online and the other was the need for audiences and organisations to reconcile with the fact that it is perfectly possible for your personal opinions to differ from that of your employer and for you still to be effective in your job. This last point is perhaps the greatest tension resulting from the fact that the different parts of our lives tend to blend into one online.

Who am I anyway?

There was a general agreement that online identity creation is a conscious act with us producing a more polished version of ourselves. However there was also agreement that it is extremely difficult boarding on the impossible to keep personal and professional identities separate online. One participant who is recently redundant talked about the need to consciously clean up and re-manage his online identity to reflect his new state and a number of people in the room agreed that they would need to do the same

The place where this seems to be most difficult is twitter where only one person was successfully managing more than one identity (and no suprises that @reinikainen also may or may not engage in some mischievous trolling as well). Its possibly not surprising – twitter is the most conversational of the social media spaces and for many people the effort of conversing in two different styles was too much bother. Its different to something like blogging where people spend more time considering tone and audience (this is reflected in my survey data so far as well). However the consequence of this was a hastening the the ‘life leak’ that has people answering work queries from personal accounts.

My own view on this that its a reflection of the fact that these tools are not yet mainstream in many organisations and in many cases corporate accounts become the responsibility of a single user. If we had more effective cover and clearer responsibilities then people would not feel so compelled to answer in their own time – but that’s perhaps for debate. This will also be an issue as organisations start to take account of the social capital value of twitter and other networks – but again possibly a 2012 rather than 2011 problem.

Facebook was another environment where people have just one presence but with greater attention to privacy settings – however this is a problem when using Facebook for work purposes. Blogging was seen as a much easier space to control online identity – again echoing what people are telling me in the questionnaire.

Carrie Bishop brought up the excellent point that we also need to think about the ‘secret data’ that organisations such as Amazon, Tesco and even the NHS have on us. At some point we may need to consider what these data sets say about is when we consider that digital wrapper.

Overall the conclusion here is not surprising – we all felt that we need to be more sophisticated in the way in which we manage online identity – the problem perhaps is that we are not yet sure what that means as we need to do so in the context of huge amounts of social change around this issue. As people who are probably already more sophisticated than most about this as a group this probably means that when we train and evangelise about the social web we need to include a section on digital identity and teach awareness of some of the risks as well as the opportunities. There are clearly shifting norms of behaviour around what is acceptable but we still need to be aware that the blending of the different parts of your life online means some that it needs some degree of awareness and active management.

We talked for a while about the important of context and also the way in which we judge the provenance – these are also skills that need teaching as we encourage more people online.

Who are you and why should I listen to you?

We moved on to talk about what this means in a democratic and civic context – what do you need to know about someone in order for them to be an active participant is online debate about local (or national) issues.

The thing I took away from the session (again thanks to an insight from Carrie Bishop) was the fact that debate and decision making need thinking about separately with decision making processes (such as voting) being legitimately anonymous at times where debate and more general participation benefiting from having knowledge of who you are talking to.

The conclusion was that for any kind of decision making, or to support a decision making process, the important fact is that you are able to apply a test of representativeness to the opinions that you are seeing.

There was again a discussion of how, when you live and work within the same local authority of any part of government, you reconcile your citizenship with your professional role. The conclusion here was that we need to see a shift in public (and media) perceptions to accept firstly that people are more than just their job and secondly that organisations are made up of people and not a single faceless entity. This is a peculiarly public sector problem – until we link it to a social capital evaluation of brand and realise that once we are in a social and conversational sphere then we are all the custodians of brand value.

I started the session with a bias towards a need for accountability and transparency around identity – as well as a recognition that this will be a challenge until we have a better cultural understanding of the implications of the ‘publicness’ online. Carrie again brought up an important counter to that position which we formed as follows: How do we allow space and discussion of more extreme positions in an environment where we need to show a polished and perhaps more bland overall self?

Intriguing – its another sense of the word open and also a counter to what can be a tendency to homogeneity online. Can we be open and exploratory with debate online when even our whimsical or transitional views become part of our identity?

Context matters

Identity online is about content – its meritocratic – this means we make conscious decisions about what we create. At the same time we are unguarded in the face of the publicness of the social web and we do not yet understand the consequences of this.

However if we can’t separate our different personas online what we can do is to create an appropriate context for our comments that allow people to see that we are – and we can help to develop context clues that will help readers and viewers form accurate pictures of who we are and what we mean. Who knew the future was all about better emoticons?

I hope this reflects the session for everyone else – very happy to update / correct if people remember it differently or if I have missed something. Thanks to all for their contributions.

PS  Would also be very grateful for more survey responses – if you have a moment…..

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