Week 4: Identity – E-Learning 3.0 MOOC #el30

This post is part of my reflections on week 4 topic, Identity, on Stephen Downes’ E-Learning 3.0 MOOC   #el30. Though the topic got to an end some days ago, I found writing my first blog post a bit daunting, (!). As things are, I am now ready to join in the online conversation.

 Initial thoughts

This topic reminded me of a recent visit to a portrait exhibition at a nearby museum. After the visit, I kept on thinking about what our faces told us (and others) about ourselves, about how our uniqueness and sameness interweave in creating who we are, and what made us “us”: similar to others, though unique. To use the concept on this course, I was thinking about what defines our identity.

In E-Learning 3.0 MOOC the focus narrows down to online identity. Here, the questions related to whom I am are still valid but with some adaptations. Instead of asking what our faces tell us and others about ourselves, we would need to ask what our online data, interactions with groups and communities we join, one to one exchanges, or our preferences tells us, and others, about ourselves. And how that becomes our online identity.

Introduction to the topic

The week started with an interesting introductory video with Maha Bali.

It also had a synopsis of the topic, where Stephen Downes described how our role (as online “users”) has changed through the different waves of web technologies: we have gone from clients, to product (data), and now content (the interrelated knowledge of our experiences, interactions, groups, and communities). This knowledge of our complex interactions give meaning to our otherwise isolated data. While I read this introduction, I couldn’t stop thinking how accurate I found the description. Then, I sort of remember that this knowledge about the user was what some online platforms aspired to “sell” to corporate clients 20 year ago. It seems it is until now that they are able to do it, transform the “user” into the “content”. This last idea made me a bit uneasy, though.


The recommended readings for this topic provided a wider context, as some of the concepts were new to me (not that I am an expert now😊!).

Although I had some notions of what identity was, I found two readings specially helpful to develop the concept. What is identity? A sociological perspective by Mary Jane Kehily and What Is Identity? A short course from OpenLearn.

In Kehily’s article, the reference to Bauman ideas was powerful: “developing an identity is a fate that modern individuals cannot escape” (p.2). We have freedom, but at the same time are responsible to the answers we choose to give to ourselves to the essential questions of: “‘who am I, ‘how should I live’, ‘who do I want to become’” (p.2). With these questions, our identity links past, present and future, and at the same time becomes social and temporarily based. This idea, that we actively choose our identity and the groups we decide to be linked to, is also stated in the course from OpenLearn.

Kehily also describes Stuart Hall ideas. For him, identities are a “meeting place between the subjective processes inscribed in the way we live our lives and the discourses that position us” (p.3). Our similarities and differences to others are key, as well of the temporarily of any identity, and the groups and context where we happen to be.

One last idea about identity that I found interesting is that our “identity combines how I see myself and how others see me”. Without others recognition or acknowledgement, a piece of the equation would be missing. The trick here, and when everything relates directly to the online identities is that “how I see myself and how others see me do not always fit” (short course from OpenLearn).

I also spent some time reading about blockchain, decentralized identity and cryptography. in  The Basics of Decentralized Identity . Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) v0.11 and Identity graphs and deterministic and statistical tracking IDs.

I find the idea of decentralised ID quite interesting, though I still do not understand all its implications, and will need further reading and reflection.

My conclusion

I should say that although I have begun to understand how decentralised Identifiers and some current regulation might help us to gain control of our online identity, at present, my main concern still is that “once your information gets out, there’s no way to make it private again”, as Robert Heaton wrote in Identity Graphs: how online trackers follow you across devices. And, as trackers become more robust, companies can “build up a distressingly detailed picture of us and our habits”, I would add, and our associations, groups and communities. And we do not have any power over that picture. In the end, however complex that representation is, it is still only an incomplete reflection of our online identity. It can be interpreted in different ways, because to be truth it still needs “us”.

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