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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
Finding myself through online identities
Today's online services give us new ways to decide who we are, says Bill Thompson.

Twitter is helping people stay in touch

There's a new widget on my blog, and I'm very pleased with it.

A widget is the general term for an item that someone else provides for you to embed in a web page, and my new toy comes from the online calendar service 30boxes.

It shows the next few events I'm planning to attend, and also links to the last three photos I've posted on the Flickr photo-sharing site, my last notification to Twitter and my most recent blog post.

Twitter, for those who haven't yet fallen under its spell, is a service that lets you send short messages to selected friends over the web, via SMS message or in instant messenger.

You get their twitters, they get yours and you can look at everyone's stream of life posts on the home page. It is odd, addictive and may well be very important. Or perhaps not - it is too much fun to care for the moment.

Of course these are only a few of the places I'm currently hanging out online. In the last couple of months it seems almost everyone I know has joined FaceBook, the social network site that came out of Harvard University and has millions of users already in the US.

I'm getting two or three friend requests a day from people who sign up, look for people they know, and find me there.

And of course I'm posting photos and videos to a variety of sites and services.

I'm on MySpace, though that isn't a major part of my online world these days and I'm mostly there to see how younger people are using it. I also have an Orkut profile I rarely visit, a LiveJournal account I never update, and I seem to recall signing up with Bebo last year.

Bill Thompson
Until now my online presence has been carefully managed and controlled

I'm in Second Life, on MSN and Google Chat, have dozens of contacts on Skype and am now a part of the growing Joost community, checking out its online TV service.

There are blogs for the Cambridge Film Festival, the International Lisp Conference, the ENTER_ digital art festival and so on, where I manage the space for others and post myself.

And I'm also present in a lot of more private spaces, like the Basecamp project management service that we're using to co-ordinate Arts Council England's AmbITion project, or the wiki we use to plan each week's Digital Planet.

Many of these services link together, and with a little effort I could integrate them even more fully. So far I use 30boxes to put my calendar online and have it automatically update both iCal on my MacBook and Outlook on my desktop Windows PC.

I can post photos from my Flickr site directly to my blog. And I can Twitter through my chat client on my laptop instead of having to do it through a web browser.

It isn't easy keeping it all in sync, and sometimes I'm not quite sure what I'm doing. However it is clear to me that the nature of my engagement with the online world is changing in a very significant way.

Until now my online presence has been carefully managed and controlled, and although you can find out anything you care to ask about my views, politics, lack of religious belief and opinions on technology and the internet the persona that emerges from the last twenty years of online activity keep as much hidden as it reveals.

I rarely talk about my personal life, and reveal few details of my family or close relationships.

Now that is changing.

Facebook exposes my friendship networks to public view. 30Boxes encourages me to share my engagements, although here I do take care about what I advertise. And Twitter creates a constant temptation to reveal the minute details of daily life to the world.

Our identities are increasingly diverse online

With my calendar, my location, my friendships and my opinions all online to be read and remembered, there's little of me left to expose. Perhaps it's time to set up my own streaming video channel on Ustream.tv and broadcast my life to the world.

Of course there are limits, and part of my excitement about what is happening at the moment is that it allows us to explore the new possibilities in so many ways.

And clearly there are problems, especially for young people who may not realise just how much information they are making available, with the recent finding from NSPCC that over half of children have had an 'unwanted experience' online showing what can happen.

Of course we need to keep this in context, and it is worth watching researcher Danah Boyd talking to the US Internet Caucus about the social intelligence which young people bring to their online encounters before assuming that the situation is as bad as NSPCC paints it.

Those of us living in the west, with cheap easy access to computers and the internet and a sophisticated technological infrastructure surrounding us, are increasingly living our lives online.

This is no more frightening than any other vast social change, but it will be resisted by many who see in the loss of privacy something threatening, who believe it is dangerous or dehumanising or somehow against nature.

But we should never forget that we make human nature, it is not given to us, and we can therefore remake it.

Our modern conception of privacy and of the nature of the individual is a product of the industrial age that is now passing, so it should not surprise us that we are finding new ways of constructing an identity online.

As I spread myself around over the network, updating my Facebook profile, commenting on MySpace, flying through Second Life, blogging, twittering, updating my calendar and posting photos and videos and audio I am finding a new way to be Bill Thompson.

I wonder what he'll be like?

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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