The online and offline worlds are becoming increasingly indistinct. Everything we do in that unified space, now, is driven by intent: the sense that what we do accomplishes something and has a purpose even when neither the intent nor the purpose have been clearly defined.
This makes our activities a key part of our identity and this is exactly the point where the ‘fun’ begins. An influential account by Giddens (1991) examines identity as a constantly re-worked personal narrative striving for coherence. Cohen (1994) emphasized individual creativity against Durkheimian social conformity. In other words what we think and what we do creates us, more than what others think we should do. The most resilient influence in the argument of what exactly constitutes identity has been Goffman (1975) who emphasized multiple identities equated with differentiated roles, framed by context.
We are, as we intuitively know, someone at work and someone else in the pub. Our home ‘responsible parent’ persona is different than the positively medieval warrior one that surfaces when we spectate a football game. At any given time we wear a compartmentalized face and read off the unwritten rule book that guides its conduct.
Or at least we used to.
The semantic web changes everything. When the “who” of who we are has a direct impact and influence on our working life and the ability to build a reputation, it becomes harder to compartmentalize and keep it apart. Especially when it also impacts upon how we can get jobs, meet other people and forge a career.
The value of ourselves works best when it is holistic. When our identity is always “us” as opposed to just a fragment of us, and even if that fragment is the dominant one in play within a given context, everything else we are begins to inform the conversation. This ‘simple’ activity forces the picture to change.
Every fragment of our identity is linked to the flow of information. What we transmit and what we receive become part of a constant dialogue that defines who we are and what we can do. Freed from restraints it’s easy to believe that we can be anyone and do anything but that is not quite true.
The holistic aspect of our identity now provides its own counterbalance demanding authenticity in order to generate the trust necessary to get anything done. And that’s where things begin to get interesting. When we ‘pull’ ourselves together like that we also begin to exert greater control over our identity.
What was once formerly ascribed by nation, family, profession or social circumstances now becomes a construct that is more closely suited to our own needs. The difference is akin to, as in the past, shoehorning our sense of self into what outside agencies tell us it should be, and, now, becoming what we really want to be.
The impact of this transition is so gradual it is unnoticeable. It has already began to change the nature of work, the flow of the purchase of goods, and the shape of corporations. It is changing processes that revolved around performance metrics to very human activities that involve character and reputation, trust and a sense of shared values.
Institutions, nations and ideological (or religious) organizations will be next to experience the pressure.
A study carried out on behalf of the British Government to help determine future policies highlighted video connectivity as, “The latest version of increasingly ubiquitous online activity, this is a form of hyper realist identity with unprecedentedly intense face to face communication potentially changing our offline identity through increasing self-consciousness.” The French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, saw revolution as a constant process of modernization. Our world is now facing this process on an ever accelerating basis. The revolution is truly upon us. Instead of overthrowing or destroying what is and what no longer serves us well, the unified world of online and offline is humanizing every aspect of our behaviour. It is a process that is changing our world for the better, and it’s already under way.
We can say goodbye to the acronym IRL because real life and online life are now inseparable. And it’s a good thing!
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He is the author of many books on this subject, all best-sellers. You may reach David at the following URL:
His articles and books on semantic search, online marketing, SEO and the social media revolution have helped thousands of entrepreneurs build successful online businesses. When he is not busy writing, he advises companies and start-ups on social media strategy, and gives talks about the social media revolution. He tells us he spends more time online than is probably healthy. You can follow him on G+ or @davidamerland.
Link: David Amerland
The moving photo at the opening of this article and on the cover of The Journal is of the sculpture Shadow of the Dune - Resin - H: 1,15m; W: 1,90m; L: 1,65m]