DIGITAL IDENTITY: The promises & perils of existing online


Picture1Digital Identity refers to the persona an individual presents across the Internet. 
More and more people are becoming active users of technology, contributing rather than just consuming online content. This is a powerful opportunity, but if they lack adequate media literacies, managing their online selves may be challenging.

What does it mean to exist online and what opportunities and dangers this may entail? In spring 2015 I gave two relevant talks at IATEFL Manchester and TESOL Greece. Here’s a brief interview to British Council Manchester online and here’s a live-streamed talk by TESOL Greece.


Digital Identity is the sum of all digitally available information about an individual, irrespective of its degree of validity, its form or its accessibility (Williams, 2010). It comprises everything that can be found about us; from the content we create or share to what other people post about us; from the profiles we make to the conversations we have. It is also shaped by what can be inferred about us; our likes and searches, our purchases, our friends lists say a lot about us. And as the bits of data grow and combine, a complete picture of us emerges. A picture that is becoming increasingly accurate and traceable, due to the rapid growth of available data and the big data capacities to process it (Rose et al, 2012).

Does this sound scary? Well, it might but fear has never been a source of security. Instead, understanding what it really means to exist online and what opportunities and dangers it entails, makes it all worthwhile.


Participatory cultures & self-expression

Computer Chip

Existing online gives people more opportunities for self-expression. Rather than passively consuming content, we can create, curate and share; we can experiment with art, photography, poetry; we can adopt different writing styles to express our opinions and concerns. According to Stern (2007) all this gives people the opportunity to “have a voice”, an opportunity that may be rarer offline. Connecting with like-minded people and forming communities of relevance to our niche interests, can also lead to greater knowledge and richer intellectual exchanges. Personally, I would feel isolated without my online knowledge communities. Whether I have met these people face-to-face or not, I learn from and with them on a regular basis and they never stop to inspire me to become a better educator.


Online expression is more conscious and intentional because we have more time to think. I agree with Diane Boyd (2007, 2014) who says that Digital Identities “have to write themselves into being”. We write all the time when blogging, commenting, updating our statuses, tweeting, texting, chatting. Why is this important? James et al (2009:26) suggest that our need to write our digital identities into existence can encourage reflection, which can in turn “nurture greater awareness of one’s roles and responsibilities to oneself, to others, and to one’s community’. All these, of course, are potential opportunities and depend on how seriously we take our online expression. Just posting nonsense, doesn’t make us reflective 😉


Either positive or negative, feedback helps us to develop and grow. In the past, opportunities to get feedback were determined by physical space. Personally, I could only get feedback from those within easy reach such as family, friends or colleagues. Would you agree that getting immediate feedback is now just a tweet or blog away? This is a massive opportunity especially if feedback is constructive  and genuine.

Personal brand
Your personal brand is all about who you are and is in many ways synonymous with your reputation. It refers to the way other people see you as a teacher, blogger, trainer or representative of an idea or organization. What do you wish your online communities to associate you with when they think of your name? Do you know that employers will google you before they even invite you to an interview? Online spaces allow you to build and cultivate your brand BUT establishing a good reputation online is not easy. It involves much more than simply getting your name out there. Watch this space for practical tips on this.


The performative element

digital identity photo
Photo by easegill

People perform roles all the time; we are teachers, colleagues, employees, wives, husbands so our behaviour is essentially shaped by the roles we perform; however, forming digital identities with an eye toward attracting or entertaining a digital audience, may undermine the opportunities mentioned above (James et al, 2009). When people share in order to be liked or appreciated, self-promotion may become more valued or urgent than learning or reflecting, and this can be potentially harmful. In brief, it’s OK when we share happy moments or professional achievements with our connections but where do we draw the line between sharing and showing off?


Tethering & Digital Distractions 

Tethering means connecting one device to another, but Turkle (2008) coined the term to describe the nearly constant sharing of information and connectivity to others online. More and more people are becoming so increasingly attached to their networks that they need to continuously signal their current locations, activities and moods. This may set the stage for an over-reliance on (positive) feedback, which can undercuPicture4t autonomy and create fragmented identities (James et al 2009). And as multitasking is an abiding myth, it may also distract them from what they are doing be it attending a lecture or having an interpersonal, face to face interaction.

As a teacher, I find managing digital distractions in class increasingly challenging. Whether we embrace new technologies wholeheartedly or not, let’s face it, digital distractions can interfere with the learning experience. This does not mean that technology should or can be banned from the classroom. Mobile devices are here to stay whether they are supported by the teacher or secretly used by the students. The debate, therefore, should not be on whether we allow them but on how we can prevent them from becoming a distraction.  As part of my Digital Citizenship & Literacy research project, I’m currently working on this area and will be presenting around Europe over the next months.

Digital Identity as the currency of the digital market

It is common knowledge (or at least it should be) that all the “free” services that we enjoy online, are not really free. We pay with our own currency aka our personal information. This can be used for good purposes, but it can also ‘be unscrupulously traded and abused’ (Saxby, 2011).

It is beyond the scope of this post to elaborate on the implications of this, but I want to believe that not all implications are negative. Consumers will “spend” their personal data when the deals are right; and as we (the consumers) are becoming increasingly aware of this, stakeholders will inevitably need to face the challenge of establishing a trusted flow of this data.

Though research is still emerging with diverse understandings about the promises and perils of existing online, there are some important questions we should be asking: How can we make the most of online opportunities without harming our reputation and credibility as educators and professionals? More importantly, what are the pedagogical implications of these promises and perils and how should they inform our teaching practices and curricula?


Boyd, D. (2007). Why Youth (Heart) Social Networking Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. In Youth, Identity and Digital Media, ed. D. Buckingham, 119–142. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated. The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

James, C., Davies, K., Flores, A., Francis, J., Pettingill, L., Rundle, M. Gardner, H. (2009). Young People, Ethics, and New Digital Media. A Synthesis from the GoodPlay Project. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last accessed 20/3/15

Rose, J., Rober, B., Rehse, O. (2012). The Value of Our Digital Identity. The Boston Consulting Group, Liberty Global Policy Series. Last accessed 20/3/15

Saxby, S. (2011). in Digital Identity: An Emergent Legal Concept. Sullivan, D. South Australia: University of Adelaide Press

Stern, S. (2007). “Producing Sites, Exploring Identities: Youth Online Authorship.” In Youth, Identity and Digital Media, ed. D. Buckingham, 95–117. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Turkle, S. (2008). “Always-on/Always-on-You: The Tethered Self.” In Handbook of Mobile Communications and Social Change, ed. J. Katz, 121– 138. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Williams, S. A., Fleming, S. C., Lundqvist, K. O. and Parslow, P. N. (2010). Understanding your digital identity. Learning Exchange, 1 (1). Last accessed 20/3/15