Digital selves, digital scholars: Theorising academic identity in online spaces

Katia Hildebrandt, Alec Couros


As the digital world becomes enmeshed with our physical world, identities become public by default, and this can have disastrous consequences for those whose digital identities are deemed socially unacceptable. For scholars, considerations of public identity are especially critical, as academia functions in many ways as a reputational economy (Willinsky, 2010). Thus, while concerns over digital footprint are widespread amongst the general population, they become particularly pressing for academics, but avoiding digital spaces entirely is increasingly a non-viable option as institutions of higher education expand into digital domains. As well, there are many affordances made possible by various forms of digital scholarship (Veletsianos and Kimmons, 2012). Many scholars are therefore tasked with the necessity of navigating a digital culture that is quick to judge and reluctant to forgive.

In this paper, we theorise the ontological foundations of (digital) identity in order to better understand the complexity of academics’ online participation.  We explore the conceptualization of identity as fixed and unitary or as a coherent whole from which we might select ‘acceptable identity fragments’ to present in public online spaces (Kimmons and Veletsianos, 2014). Then, employing a poststructural lens, we theorise the effects of such a modernist epistemology on digital identity and scholarship, including the repercussions of seeing identity as fixed, unitary, and controllable on diverse digital phenomena: cultural hysteria around the permanence of digital footprints; a decreased collective capacity for forgiveness as we lose the ability to forget past misdeeds (Ambrose, Friess, and Van Matre, 2012); increasing occurrences of cybervigilantism in response to acts taken out of context (Ronson, 2015). Finally, we theorise the possibilities and challenges offered by a reimagining of digital selfhood in poststructural terms, as fluid, never complete, and conferring a constrained agency.


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ISSN: ISSN 2398-5836

Copyright (c) 2016 Katia Hildebrandt, Alec Couros