I have a clear memory of my first ‘online identity’ – the first time I was asked to choose a ‘screen name’, so I could interact online with other people, while still keeping my real identity private. It was exciting to be able to take on a different (and perhaps better?) personality than the original. When online, I did indeed feel stronger and ‘protected’ by my character.
I’m not alone in exploring new identities. No doubt you can also remember your first avatar or online identity? A recently released Foresight report on social identity for the UK Government Office for Science investigates how identities in the UK are changing – along with the possible implications for policy-making over the next 10 years, and makes an interesting read. In short, the report points out that as people have become accustomed to existing both in cyber space and in the ‘real’ physical world, social media is a must when pursuing friendships, continue conversations and making arrangements, essentially dissolving the divide between online and offline.
Rather than having a single identity, people today typically have several identities including ethnic, religious, age, family, financial status and online identities. Speaking for myself, my identity during ‘school hours’ is defined by my job as a researcher. For the rest of day it is defined by my role as a parent. When I step into a church another identity defined by religion overlaps the other identities. When I am online, depending on which social media I am using, my online identity can be more or less predominant.
What’s driving these changes? Three major and accelerating changes that are contributing to this world of multiple identities include:
- Hyper-connectivity: The use of mobile technology and the ever-expanding reach of the internet make it possible to stay connected 24/7 across a variety of platforms. This is driving social change and expectations, while bringing people together in new ways.
- Social plurality: The more we network online the more our identities will diverge from traditional social (offline) categories.
- Blurring of identities: Our attitudes towards privacy are changing; we place vast amounts of personal information into public domains along with ongoing broadcasts of people’s daily lives via mobile devices.
The growing importance of online personas has been fuelled by the rise of social media. In just a few years social networking has expanded to include professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn. Twitter is never sleeping, always commenting on everything from traffic obstacles and tennis shoes to the unrest in Syria and pregnant celebrities. And Facebook, with over one billion users worldwide, is making it possible to record your every step on your personal timeline.
But how are these personas changing us as individuals and societies? In the past, and even now, there have been widespread concerns that being online and interacting online would leave us less interested in face-to-face contact and diminish our ‘real’ identity. That could possible still be argued, but according to Nicole Ellison’s report on Social Media and Identity, there is a general trend away from ‘fantasy’ identities, with more people using online identities that are a fairly accurate representation of themselves.
Social media can facilitate interactions between like-minded individuals, and in some cases one may argue that it can open up doors that were previously closed – or at least hard to open. Take one example from Robbie Cooper’s book “Alter Ego: Avatars and their creators”: a young man from Texas named Jason Rowe, who is tied to a wheel chair. In Jason’s own words: “The computer screen is my window to the world. Online it doesn’t matter what you look like. Virtual worlds bring people together; everyone is on common ground.” Recalling one particular game, Jason continues, “They treated me as an equal, like I wasn’t even the way I am – not disabled, not in a wheelchair, you know. We were all just gamers.” I don’t think anyone can argue that social media can open new horizons for some, if not many people.
Another study on identity suggests that having an electronic doppelganger could actually improve a person’s health and appearance. The study, led by research leader Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz at the University of Missouri, asked 279 users of the virtual reality community Second Life to answer a questionnaire about their engagement with their avatar and relationships online, as well as their offline health, appearance and emotional well-being. The study concluded: “People with high degrees of self-presence in the cyber world reported that their experience with their avatar improved how they felt about themselves offline.” Further research by the team will focus on the use of avatars to encourage tolerance of diversity – which should offer some fascinating insights.
As for my own online identity, today, I try to keep my personal online presence clean, minimal and true to who I really am. As for my first online identity; knowing that nothing is ever completely gone once it is out there on the internet, I assume that my real name is still somehow attached to a little salamander with flames coming from the tip of its tail, with the size of the flame reflecting the little creature’s health and happiness… I shall leave it up the psychology savvy to analyze the deeper meaning of why I chose that particular identity!
* Foresight Report:
* Facebook stats: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook
* Nicole Ellison “Social Media and Identity”:
* Robbie Cooper’s book “Alter Ego: Avatars and Their Creators”:
* Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz: