Have ever shared a meal with a group of people from different parts of your life? There might be a family member or two, a colleague, a couple of friends, and an old college friend. None of them know each other well. You are the only obvious thing that they have in common. Speaking to different groups around the world, I’ve started to have this experience more often. It is an interesting balance. I have to consciously think about what each person or group knows or does not know. I have to think about what content and conversation style is appropriate for each audience, and sometimes find a way to bridge two or more styles and subjects. If I am not careful, it is easy to leave someone out of the conversation by referring to a shared vocabulary or experience that I had with some of the people and not others. It can be a tricky (but fascinating) exchange, sort of like you are having multiple conversations at the same time, or trying to shift between speaking more than one language in a single conversation.
Now move this scenario online to a place like Twitter or other social networks. My personal network of colleagues extends across place, religious backgrounds, jobs, political affiliations, and organizations. While I’m not ashamed of my own beliefs and convictions, it is too simple for me to just “be myself” with all of those groups. I’m not talking about changing beliefs and convictions depending upon my audience, but it is clear that different audiences call for different types of communication and being intentional about the examples and vocabulary that one uses. Most of us speak differently (or at least about different things) when we are talking with our grandparents, parents, spouse, children, colleagues, fellow members of a particular group, etc. When it comes to my online network, I have connections based upon shared educational philosophies, common academic or professional interests, one or more common hobbies, a shared goal, a common religious or group affiliation, and any number of other distinguishing factors. So, how does one manage these different interactions?
I have multiple forms of my online presence. I have this blog, for example, as my personal blog, a place that extends across many connections. The same is true for my primary Twitter account, @bdean1000. Similarly, I have www.bernardbull.com, which serves as a simple introduction to my professional presence online, including a link to a vitae / resume (but I have multiple vitae that I share depending upon the audience requesting it). I have one LinkedIn and one Facebook account. However, I also have three more Twitter accounts that I use depending upon the nature of the topic and the audience. I also blog on several sites, each with a different niche or intended audience. I’m active in any number of online communities. Among those are a dozen or more Google Communities, which is probably the easiest network for managing one’s presence across different types of groups and people. I can easily categorize people in different circles, representing different aspects of my life, and I interact with people in distinct (but usually open) communities that focus upon a shared topic or theme. In fact, even as I write this, I’m starting to recognize the brilliance of of the Google Community design from an identity management perspective.
Managing an online identity is not as simple as choosing what one does or does not want to show. It is about developing an increasingly nuanced understanding of how we are connected to different people and groups, especially as much of our online interaction is open and public. I suppose that people have a number of approaches to such a challenge:
- Disconnect – Avoid interacting online.
- Cloister – Only network with a specific type of person and group. That way you only have to worry about representing yourself in one way.
- Be a Bull in a China Shop – Network with lots of different people and groups but represent yourself in the same way across this network. Of course, that leaves us trying to decide what that one way will be. There are times when I need to use a more academic discourse and other times when a familial discourse is more appropriate. I’m not even sure what it would look like for me to blend all of those. In addition, it seems to disregard the other person in one’s choice of how and what to communicate.
- Embrace the Messiness of Connected Living and Learning – Network with different people and groups and try to take into account the distinct audience when you are communicating, acknowledging that some messages can and will travel across different people and groups. For this, it might sometimes require having multiple accounts that represent different aspects of your life, work and interests. At the same time, it will provide opportunity to have shared conversations across different types of people and groups. Engage in such interactions with reflection and intention.
This fourth approach is where I choose to live at this point. How about you? Or, perhaps you see some alternatives to the four in my list.