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.

Badges as Verified Brand Affiliations?

I attended the mid-year graduation ceremony recently at the University where I’m honored to work, teach and serve. At the beginning, the President shared a few opening remarks. He said something about the “credential” or diploma that students would soon receive. “Your degree is not as much a certificate of completion as it is a marching order,” he explained. While I followed along with the rest of the ceremony, this short statement sent me on a two-hour mental journey.

Read my blog long enough, and you’ll see that I often write and reflect about credentials. However, the claim in this statement from the President posed a perspective that is in contrast to many current conversations about academic credentials. In some ways, his statement represented the diploma in a fascinating and different light. I’m sure he also sees the diploma as recognition for accomplishments and evidence of learning over the past years, but in this case, he represented the diploma as a form of marching orders, a sending off. The temporal destination is unknown, but the charge is clear. They are sent off from our University as representatives, ambassadors.  In fact, at my school, Concordia University Wisconsin, we sometimes refer to members of this community as Concordians. We have certain core values that make up what it means to be a Concordian. While we embrace the diverse gifts, talents, abilities and callings of each person; we also seek to nurture a set of common core values and convictions that collectively represent who we are as individuals and a community.

Diplomas really do have this element to them. There is a brand associated with different diplomas. That why many people think of a diploma from Harvard differently than a diploma from the local community college…but this identity starts before getting the diploma. Even being a Harvard dropout or a current student at Harvard starts to open doors for people. If you are someone associated with that brand and learning community, there are benefits. It could also be said that there are likely expectations of one associated with that brand as well.

This got me thinking about open badges in a new way, a new possible application of them. I’ve been thinking about open badges as a way to recognize or make visible some sort of achievement, accomplishment or as a symbol provided when a person demonstrates competence in an area. I still think of them in that way. Yet, what is keeping us from also using them as a way to identify affiliation with the brand of a movement, community, organization, or something else of value? What if we issued badges at the beginning, before there is an actual accomplishment, achievement or demonstrated competence. What if the badge were used to mark one’s start and commitment to a brand?

The fields in OBI already lend themselves toward such an application: description, criteria, issuer, issuing date, expiration date, etc. The expiration date would be a way to check in on a person’s commitment to the brand or community. Does it persist? Do they have new actions or accomplishments that can be recognized or made visible with additional or supplemental badges? Even without expiration dates, it would be easy enough to stamp badges with dates of membership, service or affiliation; allowing them to be yet another way to visually represent the “brands” with which they have been or are currently affiliated. The description or criteria fields could just as easily describe the nature and extent of the affiliation. In the end, such uses could be a way to generate an entirely new form of visual and verifiable resume.

Perhaps there are already cases or user stories of open badges being applied in such a way, but I have not noticed them. As such, this  possibility creates an entirely new(at least to me) set of options for how badges, which are notably visual symbols with meta-data, might serve as an additional way to manage and represent oneself online. Some might argue that this is just as easily done by listing your affiliations on a resume, and perhaps that is just as effective. Yet, one distinction here is that the affiliation and symbol is issued by the organization, adding a level of verification and potentially a measure of credibility and “klout” that exceeds self-reporting.

Have you seen such use of open badges? What possibilities can you imagine? What challenges and opportunities are created by such a use?