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Steven Warburton :: Blog :: Stories of digital identity - tales from twitter

January 05, 2009


The Rhizome project has been helping to organise the Eduserv Digital Identity event which is being held at the British Library on 8 January 2009. Full details of the event are available here. But in brief, the approach for the day is to run a patterns workshop with the help of the Planet project, using a defined methodology to share the personal stories of our 35 plus participants in relation to their experiences of 'digital identity'. To do this we have solicited stories (or cases) from the invited group coming to the event and provided a template (STARR - see below) to help structure each submission. These are held on the Planet Xwiki site in a searchable database. Telling a story is an interesting and thought provking exercise exercise and we welcome anyone to come to the site to submit a personal narrative that they might have to share about digital identity. This is a copy of the case I have submitted for the event:

Name of Story: "Twitter-versed"

visualising twitter

Situation (What is the setting or context for this case study?):

The context for this case study is what questions are raised about the nature of ones online presence/identity when one becomes embedded in a 'twitter community' (in this case a modest size of around 100 followers/following). Once embedded within an established community there is a nagging pressure to remain plugged into the Twitter life stream, almost constantly, and sometimes to the detriment of other activities.

Task (What was the problem to be solved, or the intended effect?)

The problem or the central point of the story (like all good narratives) revolves around a love-hate relationship ... what exactly is this Twitter thing - a multi-channel conversation, a pest, an addiction, redundancy looming for SMS, a potential educational tool, community bonding, a self promotion vehicle for over excitable egos, a live RSS channel, a reputation nightmare waiting to happen? Why are there are feelings of unease if one does not 'tweet' (send a Twitter message) at least once per day? Is it the existential fear of dropping out of the community if presence is not marked? Or is that my digital identity or my digital territory will be lost and I will cease to exist? Twitter exudes a certain lack of reflexivity and the exerts an invasive and pressured need for presence - the need to present some kind of digestible form of real identity into a streamed digital, micro version. How do you engage/disengage, without deleting an account that can fulfill useful purposes?

Actions (What was done to fulfil the task?)

Try and define a simple set of rules for use. Perhaps rules is too strong a word, these were more like notes to self:
* Only switch on my Twitter feeds when I am actually interested in getting the updates from the community
* Only use it if I actually have something to say to someone in particular.
* Use direct messaging as the main tool, for example if I need to send what would be equivalent to an SMS text to someone

Results (What happened? Was is a success? What contributed to the outcomes?)

Limited success - the rules are just too inflexible to be obeyed with ease. Not being plugged in all the time does provide some freedom and space to concentrate elsewhere. I maintain an uneasy feeling that Twitter does not reflect an identity that coheres with my internal sense of self. It feels unnatural to compose intermittent micro-statements that say everything and nothing - shouting to the world I am here, I am here. But this is also the compelling nature of community participation and whether I like it or not I take my voice from one modality to another, adjusting to the affordances of the technology, threading my way trough the strands of my online and offline communities.

Reflections and Lessons Learned (What did you learn from the experience?)

140 characters almost demands an all or nothing response. Keep posting to build something that makes sense over an extended timeline, a conversation, or simply tweet once in a while that I am still alive. I am not going to disappear from the world if I do not Twitter but I would be uncomfortable not having access. My online identity is distributed across many platforms and spaces and I choose to see my blog as one of the key nodes. In my blog or indeed Facebook I feel far more in control of the space I speak into, and the potential audience reaction - even if that is not truly within my power to control. Two issues that still disturb me are the illusion of ephemerality and the partial, unstructured nature of the community. Twitter feels like a spoken conversation yet look back and the tracks remain. Twitter also bends attention to itself and creates a certain exclusivity where sometimes I, for one, can forget that not everyone I know is a Twitter user.

Twitter is a strange animal - curiously addictive but also difficult to work out what value it has - it can be infuriating and gripping in one and the same moment. It is a space of distributed social conversation that blurs community boundaries and for me it represents another site where digital personas are performed ... something that makes it worthy of more detailed study.

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Posted by Steven Warburton

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