Will The Real Dr. Bull Please Stand Up? Online Identity in the Digital Age

As some of you might know, there is a television show in the United States called “Bull.” The show is named after the main character, Dr. Bull, a brilliant psychologist with two earned doctorates and a masterful skill in reading and influencing juries. Given that I share a last name with the lead character and have been called Dr. Bull on occasion, you might imagine the joy people find in talking about the show with me.

If you searched for “Dr. Bull” a year ago, you would likely see a list of references to myself along with a Dr. Bernard F. Bull who is a retired professor of education from a faith-based University in Tennessee (eerie, I know). Try it again today and you will find the first five references in the list being about the character in this new show followed by one link to my biography on a University website, and then several more references to the television show.

This might be an interesting bit of trivia, but I mention it because of what it says about the fluidity of our online identity in the digital world. Fifteen years ago a search for “Dr. Bull” would bring up a respectable scholar of religious education in Tennessee. Then, upon his retirement and the development of my writing and academic journey in higher education, my online presence started to mingle with his. Given that the only immediate difference was a middle initial, you can imagine that there were a few confused messages along the way. Sometimes I wrote an article that people attributed to him. At other times, people reached out to me about an article that he wrote, sometimes even one that he wrote fifteen years earlier.

Then, with the emergence of a new television show, both of our online identities, at least based upon the search for “Dr. Bull”, diminished almost overnight. A search for “Bernard Bull” or “Dr. Bernard Bull” addresses the issue, providing a number of pages referencing my work and online presence. Nonetheless, that “Dr. Bull” pathway to my online presence dwindled or at least shifted.

This has minimal consequence for me at the moment, but it offers me a chance to reflect on a few aspects of online identity in the digital age.

Online Identity as a Reminder of Your Existence

In the digital age, your online presence is a means if alerting people to your existence. While this might be a plea for attention or an existential pursuit of significance for some people, it is also simply the nature of how we often meet others in a connected world. We share or work, express our ideas, make some of our musings and explorations public. We share images, links, quotes, candid thoughts, along with more formal writings or other products of our creation. In doing so, people read, listen, or watch. They connect with them, share them, build upon them, and sometimes reach out to us as well. If people don’t know that you exist and your ideas exist, they are not going to connect with you. That is one of the powerful and intriguing aspects of the digital world.

I’ve written about this in different ways before. Publishing articles online in the past produced any number of results for me (and many others).

  • People read an article and share it with others on one more social networks.
  • A professor or instructional designer reads it and makes it part of the required reading for a class.
  • A director of a center for excellence in learning and teaching takes quotes from it and integrates it into a monthly newsletter.
  • A person seeking a speaker for an upcoming event comes across my article and reaches out about my interest in speaking.
  • Someone at a think tank reads my article, appreciates a unique perspective, and invites me to write a whitepaper or some other written brief for the think tank.
  • A journalist reads it and reaches out to me about an interview for her upcoming piece on a related topic.
  • An online news source or blog reads it and asks if I would be willing to let them republish it.
  • A graduate student comes across it while doing research for a paper and reaches out for help, resulting in a Skype or phone chat of some sort.
  • Another graduate student on the other side of the world reads my article and it prompts them to go a different direct in his research. Not much later, I’m invited to serve on the student’s doctoral dissertation committee.
  • A professional organization reads it and decies to reach out to me about short-term or long-term consulting.
  • A publisher reaches out to see if I have interest in expanding the article into a book-length manuscript.
  • A scholar comes across my article, resonates with or disagrees with it, then reaches out, resulting in a rich and engaging extended written discourse. It turns into a face-to-face conversation or maybe even a future collaboration on one or more proects.

These are just a fraction of the responses triggered by writing an article on a public blog, subsequently indexed by a larger search engine. In the simplest sense, these occurred because people online became aware of my existence or the existence of at least one of my pieces of writing. Being absent from the online world, in return, decreases people’s awareness of one’s existence and potential connections.

Online Identity is Persistent

There is still that embarrassing picture of me from a conference over a decade ago that shows up if you do an image search for me by name (pointed out to me by a colleague). It is increasingly pushed down the page as newer images appear, but it is still there. The same is true for articles that I wrote a decade ago, media references, and more. I have some ability to influence this, even if it means reaching out to the people displaying the content, but I certainly don’t have full control of it. Yet, when someone comes across your work, images, or ideas from a decade or more ago; that still influences their impression of you. Even as this new television show is gaining attention, my content is mixed and blended with this new content.

Visibility in the Digital World is Not Static

Search engines, social media outlets (LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and countless others), online communities, and other peer-to-peer media outlets are in constant flux. Their use and visibility is changing, but so is the way that they index content and interactions. What is easy to find today may be largely hidden tomorrow. A change of an algorithm with a leading search engine on a given day could drastically change the visibility of a person or a person’s work.

Identity is Distributed

This is not like some carefully controlled and constructed online portfolio. While it is possible to drive much traffic to one or a few desired places to learn about you and your work, identity on the web is distributed across mediums and contexts. There is no single “go to” place at the moment. As such, the “reader” experiences another’s identity in sometimes unpredictable ways. Much can be done to manage and influence what happens, however. A person can choose to limit his/her footprint such that most or all of that person’s identity connects back to a central and easily discovorable hub. Yet, most people don’t think about their identity online in such a systematic manner.

Some Aspects of Identity are More Easily Identifiable in the Digital Age

That which can be indexed and then searched for gets the attention. There are countless aspects of a person’s life and identity that are not online. Yet, people attend to what they see. They make assumptions, sometimes wrong ones, based upon what they see, read, and watch. This is part of why open recognition is something that captures my attention today. What if we can find better ways to recognition a broader range of people’s gifts, talents, abilities, interests, contributions, and more…even across organizations and contexts? What if we can create better ways to make these things searchable and discover-able. This would allow for any number of promising connections, but does bring with it some risks.

Conclusion

This is a realm of identity that is at the forefront of some people’s minds and completely absent from the minds of others. What people know about you and how they know it has changed forever in this digital age. How we connect with others is changing. As such, how we think about our reputations and relationships has changed as well. We are either on display, hidden, or somewhere in between.

Yet, we remain known and our existence remains acknowledged on the most local of levels. Even while all of these shifts are happening in the digital landscape, there is still the eye contact with the person at the local coffee shop, only that person may have no idea that you wrote three books while sitting at the table in the back corner sipping your hot chocolate. That aspect of your identity is potentially better known by the person in New Zealand who subscribes to your blog, participated in a MOOC with you a few years ago, and came across one of your books through a Tweet. Of course, when they see your name, both that barista and long-distance follower of your work may still find it funny that you share a name with the real Dr. Bull, the fictional character on a new television show.

Books and Stories Can Change Lives: Storytelling in the Digital Age

Storytelling in a powerful skill in this digital age, so much so that I put it on a shortlist of critical skills for effective digital age communication. People who can craft and tell compelling and resonating stories, and who can connect with audiences around those stories, have a greater voice today. Tim Tomlinson wrote that, “The best books and stories can change our lives.” Years ago I thought about pursuing a MFA in creative non-fiction. In fact, I was accepted in a program and took the first class. At that point, I already had four degrees, a full-time job, an additional part-time job, a consulting business, and a family. Plus I was, at the point where taking classes was less desirable than learning in the wild and learning by doing. As much as I treasured the idea of learning from great writers and teachers, what I really wanted to do was write. Write to think. Write to learn. Write to connect. Write to imagine and invite others to imagine the possibilities. So, I didn’t sign up for a second class, but I did commit to writing each day.

I wrote about many things. I wrote short stories inspired by my Mississippi roots and the legends that flow out of that river. I wrote about what I was thinking, reading, learning, and seeing in the world around me. I wrote about education, culture, trends, and those persistent ideals that haunt or inspire so many of us. I wrote about my joys and fears. I wrote about affordances and limitations. I wrote about possibilities.

I liked the idea that others might want to read what I wrote, and that they would find something true, good or beautiful in it. Just as much, I valued the idea that people would find something useful or inspiring. So, I didn’t pursue an MFA. I just started writing.

Writing isn’t easy for me but it is rewarding. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing. I might even dread it. Yet, once I get going, I don’t think about those things. I’m immersed in words and ideas, and even if nobody reads something that I write, I’m glad that I spend a few minutes or hours of my life doing it.

At the same time, I don’t just write for myself. It is never a solitary activity for me even if I’m alone. I am also writing to connect. I’m a teacher at heart, and I aspire to writing things that help people, even to influence people. I’m candid about that. I want to challenge, inspire, and help people explore the possibilities. I want to be a champion for truth, beauty and goodness; especially as they inform the promise and possibility of life and learning in a connected and digital world.

So, when I first read that opening quote by Tim Tomlinson, something changed in me. “The best books and stories can change our lives.” I wanted to write things that did that sort of thing. As one of my professors in my doctoral program once noted. “If you are in education, you are in the business of changing people.” You might not like the idea of this and it doesn’t need to be manipulative, but it is the work of changing or influencing people. Even in some of the most self-directed learning contexts, teachers influence learners. Even if you limit your comments to asking questions and guiding people, you are invested in their change and transformation. That is probably why I first became a teacher and it is certainly why I continue to write.

This quote about books and stories changing lives also continues to influence my philosophy of education. As much as I am a champion for educational innovation and connected learning, I see immense value in books and stories as forms of learning. Of course, stories don’t only come in written format. We have thousands of years of an oral tradition in humanity that leans heavily upon storytelling. Similarly, in this digital age, stories quickly established their home, with digital narratives of many types spreading throughout the web.

This age resulted in new and fascinating forms of storytelling that continue to be rich in meaning. There are storytellers in the blogosphere, on video sharing sites, and throughout all forms of social media and social communication technologies. These stories change lives too. It might even be argued that some of these change even more lives, reaching massive groups of people in a fraction of the time, spreading across time and space more than most stories of the past. A story created and told in rural South Dakota can reach Los Angeles, London, New York City, and New Delhi in seconds, with people sharing these stories among their peer groups on the social web.

Yet, consider the fact that storytelling is democratized in this age. Storytellers of the past shared in their local communities, with only a small number of people gaining a forum to share their stories across a country or around the world. Those rare few could share their stories on television, through films, through recorded music, through plays and musicals, and through books. Those stories spread and influenced. Today anyone can craft and share a story that travels around the world. There are few to no gatekeepers in these new forms of storytelling. If you have access and the courage to share then you can let your story be heard.

Of course, some storytellers continue to reach wider audiences. These include more traditional authors, musicians, filmmakers and the like. Yet, we are also aware of Youtubers who gain significant followers. The same is true for bloggers, podcasters, and influencers in various social media outlets who manage to garner a large and diverse following over time. This is not a small change in the world, but we also don’t fully understand the implications of this change.

Some might argue that this democratization is diminishing the quality of stories, drowning truly great stories in an ocean of lesser stories. Others look at this and celebrate the fact that stories often unheard or even intentionally silenced are indeed changing lives today. Real world stories about tragedy and injustice are shared even as the tragedies are unfolding, sometimes eliciting actions that help address the issue. Powerful groups seeking to suppress stories that undermine their agenda no longer have as much power to do so. Stories that have deep meaning and value to a small but diverse audience now have a greater chance of reaching that audience.

As such, I’ve come to believe that the connected and digital age is also the age of the storyteller. People with the courage and conviction to tell their stories have more freedom and access than any other time in history. In fact, this is part of why I see the art of storytelling as a valuable 21st century skill for young and old alike.

  • How are we helping learners discover the power of storytelling in the digital age?
  • How are we equipping them to analyze and make sense of a broader range of stories today?
  • How are we encouraging and equipping them to refine their craft as digital age storytellers?

From Content to Panic: Lessons from Lost Computer Files

Here is to lessons from lost computer files. In 1990, I sat in a computer lab working on a research paper that was due the next day. It was a semester-long project that occupied close to a hundred hours of work and filled almost forty pages. At that point in my life, it was my longest writing project. I remember staring at the screen, proud, content, and happy to be ready to type the final few pages. These last pages were not part of the formal paper. Instead, the professor asked us to conclude with a written personal reflection about the writing process, what we learned about ourselves through the project, and any lessons that we might take away from this experience. I decided to take a break, eat dinner, and return for this final section.

From Content to Panic

In those days, that meant saving the paper to my floppy disk. I did that, enjoyed my dinner with some friends, and returned to the lab. When I inserted the disk, my contentment shifted to panic. There was an error trying to read my disk. I tried everything that I knew at the time, elicited the help of the lab monitor, but to no avail. My entire paper was gone. Fourteen weeks and close to a hundred hours of research, writing and thinking gone.

Irony

I was a triple major at the time in education, history, and theology; and this class was called Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Essentially, it was a class on methods of interpreting passages in the Scriptures and the professor assigned me a small section in the fourth chapter of the book of Philippians. Philippians 4:11: “ I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

Perhaps you appreciate the humor in this situation. There I was, staring at an error message on an otherwise blank screen with a massive paper/project due the next day. Did I mention that this project was worth a third of my grade? Without it, my highest possible grade was a “D.” And the topic of my study was a 1st-century apostle writing about being content regardless of the circumstance. I was far from content in this circumstance. I felt panic, despair, and anger…but eventually I just felt numb.

Then something else emerged. I vividly remember this thought. “You still have fourteen hours until it is due. Get to work.” So, even though I was numb, I just started writing again. I wrote the first section and, to my surprise, a good deal of it came back to me rather quickly. The same thing happened with the second, third, fourth, and fifth sections. I couldn’t remember the sources that I needed to cite, but I bracketed that problem for later. I wrote until the lab was closing and they kicked me out, which I think was about four or five hours later. I looked at the document, and I had a little under twenty pages written.

A Dark Library

With no computer in my dorm room and the lab closed, I decided to get to work on looking up the sources again. I headed to the library, where I happened to work. That included the job of opening the library on some mornings, which meant that I had keys. So, I spent the entire night wandering through a dark and closed University library, hunting down the sources that I used in the paper, taking all the necessary notes. I was there until sunrise. I snuck out, slept an hour or two, and then headed back to the computer lab that morning to finish my paper.

The Deadline

An hour before the class and the deadline for submitting my paper, I found myself at the same spot that I was the evening before. I had a slightly shorter paper, about 30 pages, and all I needed to complete was the personal reflection. What did I learn about myself from writing this paper? What lessons will I take with me?

The Final Section

Should I tell the truth? I decided to do so. I explained the irony of writing a 40-page paper about the secret of contentment only to find myself in the discontent position of losing all of my work the day before the due date.

  • I wrote about the lesson of working through the initial feelings of loss, despair, anger, and apathy…ending up with a decision to just keep moving even though I didn’t feel like doing so. Just start writing and see what happens.
  • I wrote about how the more I wrote, the more motivated I became.
  • I wrote about how I didn’t lose my paper. In fact, the technological glitch was a gift in that it showed me how much of my paper was stored in my mind, not just on some floppy disk. Deep and meaningful projects change and grow us, and that is part of the purpose of such projects.
  • I wrote about how this second paper was better than the first. Then I reflected on the fact that, even if I failed to write this second paper, the experience reminded me that there was more to this experience than meeting a deadline or getting a grade.
  • I also included the practical lesson of remembering to always keep a backup of important work.

Lightning Strikes Twice

If only I had remembered that last lesson. Fast forward twenty-five years to last week. Four months ago I switched from a Macbook Air to a Surface Pro as my primary computer. With my Macbook Air, everything that I write is automatically backed up in two places in the cloud. The chances of losing something in the case of a computer crash are slim. Even in the worst case scenario, I might lose a day or two of work.

Since I’ve only had the Surface Pro for a few months, I didn’t get around to setting up those fail-safes yet. I should have done so, but I did not. During those months, I wrote 20,000+ words of a book that I hope to give to my children one day. I did thorough revisions of two nearly complete manuscripts on books that I hope to publish this year (one on formative feedback and another on self-directed learning). I also had just about 75,000 words of writing on other essays for upcoming articles, blog posts, and portions of these and other books. I write and edit for 15-20 hours a week, so I had far more than a couple hundred hours of work on that device…and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get around to backing it up.

The Pop

Last week I heard a pop on my new laptop and noticed that the keyboard stopped working. The battery was low so I tried to find a way to quickly set up a means of backing up my core files to the cloud by using the touch screen, but the wifi stopped working as well and none of the USB ports were functional. I tried several things only to watch the battery charge go to zero, the screen turn black, and the computer would not accept a new charge. It was/is, for all practical purposes, dead. I sent it off to a lab that specializing in data retrieval but the people at Microsoft tell me that you can’t retrieve data from this sort of integrated, solid-state hard drive. Time will tell. Regardless, I found myself with a very familiar set of emotions that I experienced twenty-five years ago with that first paper. I don’t know how this one will turn out. It was certainly foolish not to have a more recent backup of my work.

Nonetheless, I find myself looking for some lessons from all of this. Here is what I have so far.

  • Save your work. Really. We are in the digital age. That is as basic as looking both ways before crossing the street. Now that I have that out of the way…
  • You are more than what you write or create. In fact, what you write and create is often a way of becoming. You are refining your thinking. You are clarifying your convictions. You are deepening your knowledge and expanding your wisdom. You are becoming more of something as you write and create. That really is a valuable part of the experience, even apart from the final product.
  • Keep moving. There will always be setbacks. It is natural to struggle with some negative emotions, but keep moving through it because resolve and persistence is what makes the difference between an abandoned effort and a proud achievement.
  • Life isn’t about easy, but it can be deeply purposeful and meaningful.
  • I write. Sometimes what I write gets shared. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets saved. Sometimes it gets lost. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes I miss the mark. In the end, at this phase in my life, I truly believe that part of what I’m supposed to do is write. It isn’t just about the outcome or the product (although I do have some specific goals that I keep in focus). What is it that you just do, something that is about more than the outcome?