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Jul 10 / Christine Illichmann

Managing Digital Identity: Why Digital Identity Matters

Dr. Timothy Bowman, SLIS assistant professor, will be contributing a series of blog posts on the topic of Managing Digital Identity. Dr. Bowman draws on his research related to the presentation of self in online environments to help students and alumni understand the impact of digital identity on professional life.

Your Identity, Defined.
In today’s world, our identity may be spread across multiple avenues of interaction and can be absorbed by different audience at various times. We may know the audience or we may not. What we choose to reveal in one context may be hidden in another and this also may change across time. With the advent of the internet and the subsequent integration of the web and mobile technology into our daily lives, some scholars have suggested that we have both an offline identity and an online (or digital) identity (Camp, 2004). We may be defined simply by distinguishing attributes, such as those used to define our unique presence in a computer application or legal record, but is this digital identity a way in which we would define ourselves?

How do you define one’s identity? It’s a question that has been discussed across multiple disciplines, including information science, sociology, psychology, law, business, and health, and defined in a variety of ways. Identity, as defined by the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) What does it mean to identify the “objective reality of a thing?” How can we identify the “distinguishing character or personality of an individual?” How do context and time fit into the equation? These questions have driven scholars to search for answers across various contexts, which has undoubtedly led to more questions than answers.

Online you + Offline you = ?
When you create a new account on a social media platform such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter, what information do you enter? Do you identify the unique characteristics of your personality and/or self? Is the profile a way others can understand the objective reality of who you are and what you are? What about offline: Do you introduce yourself to a potential employer and describe your distinguishing characteristics or personality objectively? Some of these distinguishing characteristics may be inferred through a photo, media, or legal document that your audience may have access, while others may not.

I would predict that, either offline or online, you present yourself in ways that are appropriate for the context and the time of interaction. This is where presenting one’s self and identity differ. What is the difference between identity and the way you present yourself? We may consider identity to consist of managing those legal and factual attributes of our lives (such as our birth date, height, weight, eye color, etc.), whereas presenting our self to others can be thought of as managing the information we reveal about our self to audiences in varying contexts at different times.

In my own research on identity and self-presentation, I primarily utilize theories and frameworks from sociology and social psychology to investigate the ways in which social media participants represent themselves in these online contexts. Erving Goffman is a prominent sociologist who spent his academic life studying self-presentation. His book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) was one of the first studies to examine aspects of self-presentation from a sociological perspective. Goffman developed a framework to describe this activity in terms of dramaturgical concepts (i.e. actors, audience, stage, props, etc.). One of his primary ideas was that one must maintain their role during a presentation to an audience, else the actor will be embarrassed when the audience no longer believes them. His work has been used across multiple disciplines to describe how actors represent themselves to audience in different contexts.

Why Digital Identity Matters
Whether we are discussing identity or self-presentation, what does it mean for you? As you know, the way you represent yourself to others can have an impact on what you can accomplish personally, socially, and legally. If you represent yourself as speaking French and as a programmer in a resume to an employer, that employer will understandably expect those skills to materialize once you are hired. If you apply for a passport to visit another country, those who process your application will expect that the information you provide be accurate and legally factual. Taking it one step further, if you are working the reference desk in a public library and you are performing a reference interview with a patron, how you present yourself will have an impact on the success of your ability to understand and successfully fulfill the patron’s request. If the patron believes you are knowledgeable, trustworthy, and open to the patron’s questions, you will have a better chance of finding the proper resource they require. However, if the patron sees you as standoffish, uninterested, and snobbish toward their request, the patron will most likely not receive the resource they require.

How you act and what information you choose to share about yourself in a specific context will typically be how your audience identifies you. This can be extended further when we consider the online context and the information you provide about yourself; what you place online is permanent, can be copied, taken out of context, and is available to an invisible audience (boyd & Ellison, 2007). This may present us with potential problems, as future employers, organizations, friends, and legal entities may find something you shared (or a friend shared about you) years ago and use that to identify you and judge you in some way.


boyd,  d., & Ellison, N. (2007). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. JCMC, 13 (1). Retrieved from

Camp, J. L. (2004). Digital identity. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 23(3), 34–41.

Goffrnan, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Retrieved from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Identity. Retrieved June 22, 2017 from

Photo Credits:

People Walking Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash
Computer User at Coffee Shop Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash