Michelle Carter: New assistant professor is pioneering work on 'IT identity'

Not long after moving to the US from her native England to work on her PhD. At South Carolina’s Clemson University, new iSchool Assistant Professor Michelle Carter found herself driving along back roads in an unfamiliar part of the south—with no car charger and a dying phone giving her directions to her destination.

How she chose to solve this minor dilemma triggered an observation that’s blossomed into a novel area of inquiry: how IT becomes part of identity.

“The only thing I came up with was to look for a garage where I could buy a charger. It was only later I realized I never even thought about the possibility of buying a map. It was a reminder of how, almost imperceptibly, technology changes the way we think.”

Carter, who earned a BA in English and MS in Computer Science at Anglia Polytechnic in Cambridge, an MS in Information Systems at Georgia State, and served as an Assistant Professor of Information Systems at the University of Nebraska, points out that most people her students’ age wouldn’t find anything unusual about the story or her solution. But for “digital immigrants” like herself, who grew up when using printed maps was a given, and before things like smartphones or even home computers existed, the moment provided food for thought. Something fundamental about her behavior and thought process had changed—and that something was founded on her relationship with technology.

Not long after, Carter conducted a study on young adults and their smartphones, to look more deeply their relationships to the devices. For 24 hours, 72 participants gave up their smartphones completely. During that time, they kept logs of what they were doing and how they felt. Afterwards, they wrote reflection essays on their experiences.

“They weren’t just dependent on their phones like we thought they would be,” Carter said. “They felt energized by them. They felt connected with them. When they didn’t have them some felt like they literally lost a part of themselves. That’s when I started to think about how we incorporate the capabilities of the technologies we use into how we actually define ourselves as individuals.”

Currently, Carter is working on a theory paper explaining this new concept of IT Identity—how people identify themselves based on their IT use, and how that identification impacts individuals and society.

One example Carter cites is how some people identify as “Mac people” while others identify as “Microsoft people.”

“You put Mac people and Microsoft people together in a room at a party and the Mac users will go to one side of the room and the Microsoft users will go to the other,” she jokes. “Similarly, people often identify with their smartphone, and the software that’s specific to Android devices or to the iPhone, for instance. This has implications for all sorts of things.”

One obvious implication is for developers of software, Carter said. They could strongly benefit from giving serious thought to how updates to their products might either reinforce or adversely impact the IT identities people have created around their products and how they use them in their everyday lives.

User uprisings over relatively minor changes to Facebook, for instance, or the large negative reaction to a novel redesign for Windows 8, clearly demonstrate how strongly people can react to changes in software that run counter to their accustomed ways of using it and how they identify with it.

There are also important social justice implications associated with this way of thinking about technology—which is something Carter cares deeply about.

“As more and more services are digitized and put online, people who don’t use technology in the way we expect them to are in a real danger of becoming more and more marginalized,” Carter said. “We tend to think everyone is using technology in the same way we see it from our privileged point of view. But a lot of people aren’t. We need to aware of this and do what we can to help people build relationships with technology that are relevant to who they are.”

Carter feels the iSchool is the perfect environment for pursuing this line of study.

“For me, it feels like a wonderful, enriching place to be, because there are so many different areas that people are concerned with that align with my concerns. Professors and students here are looking at issues of technology and social change, information and society, digital youth, user experience, and more traditional aspects of information management. These are all things with which identity issues align. When it comes to identity there are always going to be more things to look at and think about. I’m absolutely thrilled to be here.”