The Identity Laboratory (July 2013)

At the 2013 annual conference for the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), Hamza Khan  and I began our discussion of technology in student affairs with a clip from Sherry Turkle’s TED talk “Alone Together”. You can view the full talk here .

Sherry’s talk covers many ideas and sparks even more questions. In particular, our session participants began a lively and ultimately insightful discussion about identity and identity development in the digital space. There were “horror stories” about students who had openly and (very) publicly shared pictures or words that predictably made a room of student affairs professionals cringe. There was debate around whether professionals should ‘friend’ students on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. There was a request for successful practices in supporting students after they have made a public “mistake” in their social networking.

The use of social media by our students, and if we’re very honest, by ourselves and our colleagues, has created what Sherry calls an “identity workshop”, a place for identity experimentation, “for trying out aspects of self that were hard to experiment with in the physical realm.” Feedback on experiments in this identity laboratory is instant, timely and, most often, copious. While perhaps not totally analogous to the more traditional scientific method we were taught in grade school, identities become hypotheses on the Internet, allowing for trial and error to occur at breakneck speed.

What does this mean for those in the middle of identity development? (Hint: that’s everyone, at any moment, all the time). Does the speed at which we try on pieces of our identity matter? Can we learn from mistakes when they can, in theory, be so easily erased? While perhaps still enduring in the infinite cyberspace, the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is even more apt with the simple click of a mouse and the deluge of new information ready to cover our digital tracks.

One major challenge with this identity laboratory is just how public our experiments in identity are. Unlike laboratories made of brick and mortar, there are no obvious caution signs or heavy doors barring entry for anyone except those specially trained and carrying letters behind their name. Anyone and everyone in the digital world is a scientist, testing theories and drawing conclusions based on evidence gathered from a series of experiments.

We demand a special level of rigor for scientific study in medicine – but do we expect this same high standard in the identity lab? How strict must our standards be in this privileged space of opportunity, where we can watch, in real time, students and colleagues form an identity from a collection of evidence and theories? If you were writing an experimental procedures manual for identity development, what would you include? More importantly, do we need such a guide at all?


– Lisa Endersby is the Manager, Student and Campus Life at Seneca College in Ontario, Canada. She is also working to connect and engage NASPA technology friends and fans in her role supporting Community Engagement in the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community.

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