When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere, just ask him. If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he’ll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn’t perfect. We’re flawed, because we want so much more. We’re ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.
-Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men
Pre-internet, a person’s identity was rooted in things like their relationships, material possessions and job. What they were perceived as was, for the most part, fairly linear. Their reputation was linked to personal relationships, which by their nature are based in consistency and proximity. It takes time to build a good reputation. Don Draper’s colleagues knew him as a genius ad man, in control and the best at what he did. And thats really about it.
In the Digital Age, things are different. The advent of the social web has added two key new dimensions to your identity: Real-time insights and Non-contextual History.
Real-time insights give the observer a feed of information about who we are. Our posts on social media are constant and steady. Your reputation can be ruined in an instant, just ask fashion designer Kenneth Cole.
Our Non-contextual Histories are rooted in the fact that Google surfaces information that is not always categorized and weighted properly. That amazing article you wrote? Page 22 on Google. That tweet you sent out about being in love with Lady Gagy? Page 1.
Regardless of whether we want it to be or not, our public persona is widely available. Facebook, Twitter, and Google paint a historic picture of who each of us is. The tough part? We don’t get to pick most of it.
Google surfaces all sorts of gems from our pasts. For a period of about 3 years whenever you googled “Doug van Spronsen” on the second page of results there was a comment I left on a music blog years ago. It wasn’t smart, intelligent or representative of the image want to project to the world. But it didn’t matter. The primary source of the social world, Google, surfaced that comment as a piece of my defining identity.*
So, to counteract these dimensions, I think people typically follow one of two paths; Either they engage in Digital Apathy or they aim to create a “Digital Super Me”
Digital Apathy is both rapidly fleeting and increasingly irrelevant. Just because you choose not to “opt-in” does not mean that your identity is secure. Your digital trail exists and will continue to grow. Press releases, company announcements, tagged photos and countless other sources serve as consistent markers to your digital identity. Which, of course, is your primary identity.
The other, more common approach is to begin developing what Alex Bogusky coined as the Digital Super Me. From his original post:
A highly-sharable and incredibly robust digital version of our selves that only drinks the best wine, vacations in the finest locales and has the best and brightest children.
We like this, because we have control. What I tweet about, post on Facebook and add to tumblr are the curated versions of my identity. The core challenge however, lies in the fact everything I post is consistently transient. It decays.
In order to maintain our Digital Super Me personas, we have to persistently add and more and more evidence to our social graph. If we don’t, our online trail becomes cold. Because of the transient nature of our identity, there is a consistent pressure to continue engaging in the services, lest you let your content grow stale.
I believe that the anxiety that many people feel in regards to their email will eventually spill over to other digital media. For some its already here. The “need” to update Twitter or to blog. It can be stressful and its only increasing.
But its not all bad. The flipside of this anxiety is the access to revolutionary communicational tools and a wealth of information on our fingertips. The good vastly outweighs the bad.
The most important thing is that we become aware of our identity and how the digital world shapes it. To be proactive and aware of what our digital lives say about us, but still realize that in the end, your identity is still tied to who you are, not what you portray.
* I tried to find the original post, looks like its been lost to history now. What a shame.