It is widely acknowledged that the take-up of digital technologies is on the increase, and that more and more people are interacting digitally. But how does this change our sense of community – of how and where we belong? And might it affect also our sense of identity – do we need to re-think how we define ourselves in a digital age?

In our review of what’s being written and what’s being said on how our relationships are being shaped in the digital age, under this heading, we posed two main questions to our experts: firstly, how do we define and authenticate ourselves in a digital age? And secondly, what new forms of communities and work emerge as a result of digital technologies?

Findings from our initial survey of experts – drawn from academia, the public, and the private sector – reveal that this domain shares concerns with some of the other domains, particularly with ‘Citizenship and Politics’ and ‘Communication and Relationships’.  This initial expert survey highlighted some important questions and raised some issues that have helped shape and influence future reviews in the domain of communities and identities.

One key issue that has emerged is that not enough research has been done to date on how linguistic and cultural specificities affect communities and the ways in which they engage with and utilise digital technologies. For instance, variances in language may affect the choice of interface; or search engine recognition may be less successful at reading some languages than others.

A further issue highlighted was that of access. We know that some individuals are at risk of being left behind in the digital age but what about whole communities? What exactly are they missing out on and are there ways of ensuring equality of access? Our experts highlighted here issues of infrastructure and digitisation as crucial, and mentioned community broadband initiatives, as well as urban/rural digital divides. These issues can’t be ignored when addressing the conceptual concerns such as how digital technology mediates social cohesion within communities, or whether it potentially widens existing divisions.

Other key areas flagged up by respondents included:

  • Workplace communities (which also links into our workshops on the digitisation of the workplace), and how the digital age will impact on organisations.
  • What will happen to community boundaries?
  • Will traditional identities be maintained as new digital diasporas, communities and identities are formed?
  • How might individuals express different overlapping identities digitally?
  • How might these identities exercise a powerful influence on the health and wellbeing of communities, and the degree to which they can build up social capital?
  • How might we understand the continuing evolution of these communities and identities, and what might the policy implications be?

To conclude this blog post, one particularly revealing response drew all of these issues together: if recent ESRC-funded research has  demonstrated that the greater the number of social groups (e.g. family, local community or a leisure group) one identifies with, the lower the odds of being depressed and the greater the likelihood of feeling satisfied with life, then research into communities and identities is indeed fundamental to understanding how we live in the digital age.