Theory and Practice

Social Identities

I teach only the truth – but that shouldn’t make you believe it. – Martin Fischer

Source: Sean MacEntee via Flickr (
Source: Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Why Your Customers’ Social Identities Matter by Guy Champniss, Hugh N. Wilson, and Emma K. Macdonald (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2015)

Three business professors and researchers explain the importance of social identities. This concept can be defined as the personas people take on and the decisions they make based on the community or group in which they are associated with or represented by at that time. When a social context changes – for example, a couple of famillies installing solar panels in a community – this action influences other people’s behaviors that reside in this neighborhood (they are more likely to buy solar panels, too).

This phenomena relates to all communities and groups, online and otherwise. Individual interviews about how a person feels about a product or service does not necessarily equate to decisions they might make in a different context or circumstance. Also, people often have multiple social identities, especially on social media. For instance, I am more apt to share my personal life on Facebook, because my social context in this forum is friends and family. On Twitter, you see a more professional side of me.

The authors of this article note how businesses tap into this need to belong to a group. As an example, the unique look of the Toyota Prius provides a visual association with environmental awareness. There are assumptions made about people who drive a Prius. People adopt social identities on Twitter and Facebook as well. Their bios, the hashtags they use, and the posts they share all help to identify and define that person’s beliefs and dispositions.

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I am highly interested in literacy, technology, and leadership, and the connection between the three in today’s schools. It is not surprising that the vast majority of people who I interact with online also have interests in one or more of these areas. Subsequently, learning potential is increased within my personal learning network. But we are also more likely to feed into each other’s already self-determined beliefs.

Social identities are more than a lens for understanding customers’ current social behavior.

Rigor and Grit by Dean Shareski and Jon Samuelson (Techlandia Podcast, February 9, 2015)

The hosts of Techlandia invited Dean Shareski, community manager of Discovery Education, to their podcast. Dean and the group ranted about a number of words and phrases that permeate the education lexicon, such as “future ready” and “rigor”. Their biggest concern is how these terms are not context-specific. Educators latch onto them and expound their virtues in tweets and posts. But are these sound bytes relevant to the students we have today?

Twitter’s Facebook envy by J.J. McCorvey and Nicole LaPorte (Fast Company, February 2015)

Twitter executives have always preferred that you not compare their company to Facebook.

So reports these columnists about the rise of Twitter and its foreseeable future. However, Twitter has shown a desire to adopt some of Facebook’s functions, such as notifications of popular tweets. “Twitter needs to be relevant to its users around the clock, rather than solely when news is breaking.” This is a shift from the real-time information feed that Twitter is best known for. McCorvey and LaPorte note that both social media giants have found reasons to emulate one another.

Dick Costolo Thinks It’s O.K. To Never Tweet by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2015)

The CEO of Twitter responds to questions about Twitter’s future. The title of this article references the discrepancy between active and inactive users. Costello addresses this, noting that, “everyone wants to know and stay up-to-date on what’s happening in their world and be connected and know what’s going on. That’s what Twitter provides. So I think that irrespective of whether you want to tweet, everyone can get value out of Twitter right away.”

What’s trending…

People identify themselves with others based on shared beliefs and interests. The Internet, and social media specifically, have expanded these offerings. And like organizations that congregate in person, the purpose and context discovered through hashtags, Facebook groups, and online communities of practice can motivate participants toward greater levels of learning and influence.

Yet those same benefits can also create limits on a group’s thinking. When we associate ourselves with a mission or organization, we tend to own those beliefs in a personal way. So what happens when certain aspects of the group’s practices are called into question? People tend to defend their beliefs, primarily because their identities with the group are an extension of themselves.

This can happen even when evidence points otherwise. I am a prime example. When we introduced Evernote as a digital portfolio tool in my school, I was initially blind to the limitations of this software for this purpose. Only through listening to others outside of my immediate network, such as in the Google+ Community I created on the topic, did I see different possibilities. We are now exploring FreshGrade as a better option for portfolios.

When we find ourselves struggling with a principle of a community that we belong to, here are some suggestions that might help:

  • Invite divergent thinkers into the group, and encourage respectful discourse.
  • Ask thoughtful questions that do not feed back into a group’s existing beliefs.
  • Read widely. Even though I am an educator, I find that publications such as Harvard Business Review and Fast Company give me a better perspective.
  • Write about what you read and question on a blog, sharing your struggles and inviting conversation in the comments.
  • Leave a group for a while, or permanently, acknowledging the need to rethink your beliefs in order to find time for other pursuits.
  • If leaving a group is not an option, take Dick Costolo’s advice and stop posting. Maybe just read what others are sharing and reflect.

How do you gain perspective in the social groups you associate yourself with, both online and offline? Please share in the comments. 😉


8 thoughts on “Social Identities”

  1. I’ve found myself gravitating more toward Twitter these days. I wish there were more colleagues in my district who utilized Twitter and establish a PLN. My PLN is so positive, engaging, and inspiring. Facebook is pretty much personal, but I rarely post. I stalk. I like to share more personal experiences via my blog or texting those who will care the most. I love blogging for both personal and professional reasons. I would love to introduce my students to the world of blogging. Thanks for sharing, Matt. Your posts are always thought provoking.

    1. You are welcome, Amy. Thank you for sharing your self-examination of your own social identity.

      Have you explored Kidblog for your students? A number of my teachers use it and the students love it. The two most frequent topics I see them responding to are open-ended, thought-provoking questions (“Would you ever want to be a teacher?”) and Slice of Life responses.

  2. I like the concept you have used to tie these articles together, including the quote by Martin Fischer.It’s a great quote and fits very neatly with something I often say, “Question everything”. One person’s truth may not be true for another. Questioning the source, the author and the purpose is an important skill for all readers to engage in and for students to learn.
    I agree with you too about seeking out communities with whom we agree, but if we are to fully understand what we think we need to be exposed to, or aware of, alternative ideas. How can we know what we really think, if we don’t know what we really don’t think?
    I like the suggestions you have made regarding dealing with a community whose ideas you are struggling with. Questioning, divergent thinking and reading widely are all good strategies to develop ideas.

    1. Norah, I had to read the following comment you made twice:

      “How can we know what we really think, if we don’t know what we really don’t think?”

      That’s deep! I guess the more we explore divergent thinking, the more we affirm our own thinking, or make a shift toward an idea that aligns with our belief system.

      1. I’m sorry if I confused you Matt. It made sense to me at the time. And it still does, but the message reads a bit awkwardly. Thanks for taking the time to figure it out. Did you figure it out? I sometimes read material with views that are different from my own and am questioned about why I would read that “rubbish”. If I didn’t know what others think how could I argue against their position or for mine? We definitely need to explore divergent thinking.

  3. Reblogged this on Reading By Example and commented:

    Being a part of a group is an essential part of who we are as people. Many benefits derive from these associations. But when these influences also cloud our thinking about important topics that might butt up against current beliefs of the group, how do we respond? With thoughtfulness, or defensiveness? Comments are always welcomed.

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