History 428: Adventures in Digital History

HIST 428: Digital Identity

The idea of maintaining a positive and appropriate digital identity has been discussed often throughout my classes at UMW, particularly in my digital studies and education classes. These classes have both placed an emphasis on the individual as part of a dynamic, online world. This week’s readings in ADH focussed again on the topic of digital identity, with special attention to:

  • Defining digital identity
  • How to keep and maintain a digital identity
  • The issue of privacy in relation to digital identities

What Is Digital Identity?

Your digital identity is the culmination of all that you do on the internet. Educator Bonnie Stewart outlines six “selves” that we portray when we we go online, including: [1]

  1. The Public Self: You are connecting with others and engaging in public discourse.
  2. The Quantified Self: Your “numbers,” that is to say, who you choose to follow or friend, and what you like or share, makes a statement.
  3. The Participatory Self: You participate in networks pertaining to your personal or academic interests.
  4. The Asynchronous Self: You have the luxury of participating in communication at your leisure. Communication is no longer an urgent phone call.
  5. The Augmented Reality Self: You are not anonymous. In fact, you are a heightened, exaggerated version of who you choose to portray.
  6. The Branded Self: You find a niche and brand yourself.

I particularly enjoyed Stewart’s delineation of online selves, as I found it to be a useful tool in understanding digital identity as a multifaceted existence. In my own experience, I can see many ways that I have portrayed all of these “selves.”

I particularly find the “branded self” to be most relevant. When people think of peer pressure online, they often think of pressure to portray a “perfect” life. This is not limited to social media between friends and family, but also, can extent into the professional or academic realms. Professional blogs or sites like LinkedIn are examples of this.

Why to Keep and Maintain a Digital Identity

Dan Cohen’s 2006 blog post “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” and Will Richardson’s 2008 journal article “Footprints in the Digital Age” touch on the reasons as to why individuals should maintain a digital identity. To an extent, individuals do not have a choice as to whether or not they have a digital identity, as an increasing amount of information is posted and tracked each year. Even though both of these articles are over a decade old, they still echo relevant sentiments.

According to Dan Cohen, many academics may be apprehensive to create and use blogs, as blogs are perceived to be mediums of low-quality, hobbyist writing. Cohen argues that in order to fix this, more voices should be added to the sphere of blogging. Further, blogging is in many ways no different than writing sections of a book, as both activities allow the author to express and organize their thoughts. [2] In many ways, keeping a blog can allow a scholar to become more accessible to their own networks. Many of my professors at UMW keep their own blogs, or at least, participate with professional networks on social media.

“Footprints in the Digital Age” discusses the importance of educators being digitally fluent in order to help their students maintain a positive digital identity. [3] Richardson argues that learners should be equipped with the necessary skills to navigate, participate in, and build social networks. To do this, learners must possess media literacy, which is the ability to assess credibility and bias in media publications. I think that this is an important, relevant issue, and it is a topic that I am interested in doing my Masters research on next year.

Privacy and Permanence

When you post online, you leave a trace. That trace does not fade over time, but rather, becomes more and more quantified by search engines and algorithms. One facet of maintaining a positive digital identity is acting as a responsible digital citizenship. That is to say, that you interact online with the same set of upstanding ethics as you would in real life. The Digital Tattoo project provides tips as to how individuals can better their online selves. [4]

Another facet however, is monitoring your privacy and ownership of data. Danah Boyd’s 2007 article “Controlling Your Public Appearance” provides tips for readers that they can use to control their own digital identity. [5] These tips are straightforward, and include recommendations such as opting out of social media search engines, expecting “any” audience,” and treating audio and video the same as text.

Since 2007 however, social media platforms have become more advanced. Advertising continues to grow as a huge source of revenue online. Not only do individuals, such as your friends and family, look at your data, but also, the websites that you visit do the same. Tim Herrera’s “How to See What the Internet Knows About You (And How to Stop It”) article features a few simulators that show what a website sees when you visit it. [6]

The site “clickclickclick.click” provides a real-time script of what this looks like. When you visit the website, it knows where your cursor is, what buttons you are pressing, whether or not you have visited the site before, and how all this data compares to other users. While I knew that websites tracked data like this, this visualization was still eye-opening.

Final Thoughts

My thoughts on digital identity have changed over time at UMW. As a freshman, I figured that the best thing to do would be to simply put my accounts on private and limit followers. Now however, I see the value in curating purposeful, public accounts. I purposefully keep an Instagram account that showcases lesson plans and activities, a Twitter account that I use for education, and this domain that I use for other UMW assignments.

There is a lot of pressure to maintain not only a positive, but an active digital identity. This requires you to interact online as though you are polishing your resume. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it can blur the lines of work life and home life. My thoughts, conversations, and interactions do not fade as my location or situation changes. Instead, they are permanently held on the platforms on which I posted them. Because of this, I have to keep many audiences in mind when I post – audiences that could potentially extend far beyond my list of followers. This is why digital identity is so important.


[1] Bonnie Stewart, “Digital Identities: Six Key Selves of Networked Publics,” The Theory Blog (May 2012), accessed March 30, 2020 http://theory.cribchronicles.com/2012/05/06/digital-identities-six-key-selves/

[2] Dan Cohen, “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” Dan Cohen (August 2006), accessed March 30, 2020 http://dancohen.org/2006/08/21/professors-start-your-blogs/

[3] Will Richardson, “Footprints in the Digital Age, Educational Leadership 66, no. 3 (November 2008), accessed March 30, 2020 http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov08/vol66/num03/Footprints-in-the-Digital-Age.aspx

[4] Digital Tattoo Project, “About,” University of British Columbia, accessed March 30, 2020 https://digitaltattoo.ubc.ca/abouttheproject/

[5] Danah Boyd, “Controlling Your Public Appearance,” Zephoria (September 2007), accessed March 30, 2020 http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2007/09/07/controlling_you.html

[6] Tim Herrera, “How to See What the Internet Knows About You (And How to Stop It),” The New York Times (July 2017), accessed March 30, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/03/smarter-living/how-to-see-what-the-internet-knows-about-you.html

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