Web 2.0: December 2008 Archives

My Ongoing Identity Crisis

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Cole Camplese's word of the week is identity, which is an interesting follow-up to community. As I commented in my posting on the word community I believe that each person is actually a member of multiple communities and may have multiple "identities."

The next question is how does the community define identity? For me, I think the key point is what beliefs commonly shared by the community are also shared by you. Even though I've been an instructional designer for almost a decade, I still feel connected to an "inner linguist" because I feel that many of the values of that discipline are still important to me that aren't always expressed in instructional design (e.g. the need for exact phonetic transcripts).

On the other hand, I do have an instructional designer identity (especially in terms of project planning and course development). If I'm feeling like a lost linguist sometimes at ETS, I know I would be in conflict with my inner instructional designer at a linguistics presentation (the land where we don't use PowerPoint only because we don't use any classroom tech at all).

I know I can define my identity by the communities (or communities of practice) I participate in, but I also seem to define identity by where I'm NOT (a way to contrast myself with others). Although contrast is vexing, I would say that it can be interesting for defining your internal identity. For instance, I didn't really feel like a full-fledged member of the American community until I had a long summer trip to Europe.

Defining "Community" vs Diversity

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Cole issued a challenge for the community to define "community". As it turns, out this question is also relevant to discussions we have been having about whether there is a divide in our community.

I think everyone agrees that "community" is some sort of group, but which kind? The main problem in defining "community" is that "community" is so widely used, it now has a variety of meanings some of which may contradict each other. Some communities interact voluntarily (e.g. my embroidery group), others semi-involuntarily (e,g, the contestants on most reality shows) and others just share just one trait in common (e.g. the American community).

In terms of identity also, most people are members of multiple communities. Even a woman in a "simple" nomadic tribe is both a woman and a nomad. Which community is more important to her? It may depend on the situation.

Are there any generalizations about multiple configurations of communities? I think for me it's important to remember that any community is really a group of individuals, each with the potential for unique quirks and needs. Sometimes each member of the community wants the same thing (more Christmas vacation!), but not always (or even frequently).

And not every member of a community has to share all the traits. A community of students is defined only by student hood, but other traits such as iPod ownership, Windows usage and so forth are up for grabs. You can design a course for the perfect Windows user with an iPod, but don't be surprised if you get a question from a Mac user with a Zune player.

In the rush towards more community engagement, I hope we don't forget the individual aspect. There is a fine line between reaching consensus (healthy) and group think (not so much). Community conflict is an inevitable byproduct of diversity within the community, but I'm learning that this may be a good thing.

Although few people like conflict, I think it's the real strength of what diversity brings to us. I think a lot of us think of "diversity" as the side dishes different regions or cultures choose to eat with their Thanksgiving turkey. That is, minor differences which mesh together and enrich everyone, but don't necessarily force us to change our own behavior or attitudes.

But diversity also means conflicting points of view, often within the same community. Understanding and accommodating divergent points of view necessarily means that a person has to challenge an assumption somewhere, and we all know how painful that can be.

People who argue on behalf of a divergent point of view may actually benefit the entire community. I am constantly amazed at how many of my individual civil rights have been protected by members of the American community I otherwise cannot stand. Larry Flynt of Penthouse fame ensured the right of parody as free speech. Communities wanting to teach creationism in charter schools ensure that we can also teach environmentalism or an indigenous heritage in other charter schools. Strage consequences indeed.

I've talked about how communities can split apart, but can communities also come together? I certainly hope so, because being involved in a functioning community is great thing. But I sometimes think it's something to be earned, not necessarily assumed.

P.S. Aren't you glad you were able to skim this lengthy passage instead of reading ALL of this text?