The Distributed Self

Every person who meets me has an image of who I am.  And in every relationship, there are things I choose to open up and things I choose to keep closed.  You can call the controls I exert here “filters” or “lenses” but they are an explicit attempt by me to influence the person you see when you interact with me.  As these relationships transition into the digital realm, similar filtering is bound to take place.  I’ve written before about maintaining separate identities in different online circles, but that’s not the truth.

The truth is that your identity is distributed among those circles.  Your “self” is fragmented and strewn about your digital footprint.

The more of these fragments people see, the more complete a picture of your identity they can gather.  Some of that is under your control (what do you share, and with whom?), and some theirs (they choose what information to consume).   A side-effect of this distribution and fragmentation of self is that some aspects of your life will only show up in some fragments.  Depending on what fragments people see, their perception of you will vary in its accuracy and completeness.  This results in situations like a casual acquaintance knowing more than your wife about your problems at work, if you’re venting on Facebook and not at home.

This is all very interesting from an interpersonal standpoint, but there’s a corporate aspect to this as well.  If you knew your manager was a regular blogger, would you subscribe to his blog?  I wouldn’t hesitate, even if I found the subject matter as boring as dry toast! I would want that level of insight.  I’d do the same for any co-worker I could.

But let’s take it a step further.  I’ve written before that corporations are “just” groups of individuals, making them fragmented and distributed by nature.  Once you consider that each individual is potentially distributed as well, it becomes very interesting to assemble a corporate identity out of the public fragments of the individuals which make it up.  The Distributed Corporate Self travels through several degrees of separation, but it does exist.

It also creates a fascinating opportunity.  You, in control of some number of those digital fragments, have an unprecedented ability to influence public opinion about your workplace, either directly or indirectly.

I think you can learn something about a company by how it deals with this.  Is it a problem to be feared or an opportunity to be embraced?  Are they focused on damage control and spin, or with letting people be themselves and letting the world make a decision?  Where would you rather work?

I want to credit my friend Clint for the title for today’s post.  It wasn’t Clint who first observed what I’m writing about here, but he was the first person to describe it to me so clearly. Clint has no twitter, no facebook, and no public blog.  His identity is distributed in a much different way than mine is.  He does write anonymously for an excellent computer gaming blog, which I won’t link here for fear of ruining that whole “anonymously” thing.