Some Thoughts on Identity

The topic for Week 4 of Stephen Downes’ E-Learning 3.0 MOOC is Identity. The focus of this topic is on digital identity – exploring questions such as:

  • ‘How do we know who someone is?’,
  • ‘How do we project ourselves on the internet?’ and
  • ‘How can we be safe and secure?’

Stephen also writes on the course site:

Our new identities have the potential to be an enormous source of strength or a debilitating weakness. Will we be lost in the sea of possibilities, unable to navigate through the complexities of defining for ourselves who we are, or will we be able to forge new connections, creating a community of interwoven communities online and in our homes?

Looking back through this blog, I see that I have written a few posts about identity, the first about ‘Identity in the Network’ in 2008. It has been interesting to read back through these posts and I am not surprised to see that the biggest influence on my thinking about identity has been Etienne Wenger’s book: Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, which is one of the best thumbed books on my bookshelf.

Back in 2011, I attended a talk given by Etienne Wenger at Lancaster University, where I heard him say:

‘The 21st century will be the century of identity’ and ask ‘How do you manage your identity in a world which is so complex and in which there are so many mountains to climb – in which there are too many places to invest in who you want to be?’  which relates to Stephen’s question – ‘How do we project ourselves on the internet?’  There is quite a bit of overlap between Stephen’s writing and what Etienne has written.

According to Etienne, identity is a negotiated expression of the self and there are many landscapes and communities in which to do this, which means that we have to manage multiple trajectories all at once. On page 5 of his book, he writes that identity is ‘a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities. It is not just what we say about ourselves or what others say about us. It is not about self-image, but rather a way of being in the world – the way we live day by day – He expands on this on p.151 of his book, writing:

An identity, then, is a layering of events of participation and reification by which our experience and its social interpretation inform each other. As we encounter our effects on the world and develop our relations with others, these layers build upon each other to produce our identity as a very complex interweaving of participative experience and reificative projections. Bringing the two together through the negotiation of meaning, we construct who we are. In the same way that meaning exists in its negotiation, identity exists – not as an object in and of itself – but in the constant work of negotiating the self. It is in this cascading interplay of participation and reification that our experience of life becomes one of identity, and indeed of human existence and consciousness.

Etienne’s book from which this paragraph is quoted was written in 1998. There is no mention of the internet or online learning in this book. But in 2009 he turned his attention to Digital Habitats in a book he co-authored with Nancy White and John Smith. I am again going to quote a paragraph from p.180 of this book. I am quoting it in its entirety because it seems particularly pertinent to our thinking about identity for the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC.

Our engagement with the socially active medium created by new technologies leaves traces each time we do something on the web. These traces become an impressionistic picture of the self – one that is scattered like dots of paint in a networked canvas, which includes discussions, product reviews, blog posts, pictures, podcasts and videos, instant messages, and tags, as well as comments from other people posted on our traces and comments we add to others’ traces.  This “digital footprint” [my bold] is an evolving (but enduring) image of ourselves over which we only have very partial control. Admittedly, we have always participated in many conversations and interactions; we have always had multiple means to store our memories; our identities have always combined what we produce ourselves and what others reflect and project on us. Recorded in a socially active medium, however, our traces are searchable; they can be found and reassembled dynamically; they are inspectable, manipulable, and remixable. Even when we think we have deleted them, they are found again. Scattered and computable, our footprints create reconstructable trajectories in a public space, largely out of our control. Who are we in this mirror that remembers and talks back with a voice that is only partly our own? Does the potential to remember so much mean that we know ourselves and each other better? Or could our digital footprints hide as much as they reveal, as if their very transparency only added to the mystery of identity?

I can relate to Etienne’s writing. I have questioned in the past, and continue to question, whether I have one identity or multiple identities, how I can know who I am, how I can and whether I should try and keep knowing who I am separate from what others say about me, and how I can know whether the perceived identity of myself, by myself or by others, is ‘true’.

Stephen’s questions (below) are new to me and I’m looking forward to hearing how others on this course react to them. I will need some time to think them through.

  • What do we become in a world of artificial intelligence, linked data and cryptographic functions?
  • We were the client, we were the product – are we, at last, the content?
  • Will we be lost in the sea of possibilities, unable to navigate through the complexities of defining for ourselves who we are, or will we be able to forge new connections, creating a community of interwoven communities online and in our homes?

At the moment, I would like to think that I am, and always will be, more than ‘content’.


Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press

Wenger, E., White, N. and Smith, J.D. (2009). Digital Habitats. CPsquare:

Posts relating to identity on this blog –

Source of image 

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Identity

  1. vahidm November 15, 2018 / 8:22 pm

    Thanks for bringing in a perspective that connects to other authors. It makes me think i want to write a bit around the ideas of “digital footprint” and “personal online brand”.

  2. jennymackness November 16, 2018 / 5:13 am

    Thanks for your comment. I suppose the Identity Graphs we have been asked to create as part of this course could be thought of as a representation of our digital footprints.

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