The Internet has fundamentally changed how people think of themselves and how they relate to one another. Social networks and online communities can extend the reach of real-world groups, but people can also form communities and close friendships with people they have never met in person. The concept of identity is a complicated one. Identity marks the way we think of ourselves, but on the Internet and in social networks, we do not always have to be truthful about who or what we are. In a famous New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner published July 5, 1993, one dog says to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon became a popular meme that often explained how the Internet could be used to trick someone, or hide one’s identity. At about the same time, one of the emerging social networks, MySpace, allowed users to create their own online identity that did not have to be an authentic identity, further giving credibility to the idea that the Internet could be used by people who were not who they really were.
The concept of identity on the Internet and particularly on social networks or social media goes much further than a person representing themselves in the most accurate way, or in the ways they use online media for purposes of self-expression. Some sites help people explore their identities through blogging, participating in communities that have self-actualizing principles, or experimenting to see that elements of their life are really important to them. Think, for example, of the way people define themselves on Facebook, or an online dating site. Chances are, if the social media user is engaging in online activities as an extension of one’s self, his or her descriptions (and pictures) are probably accurate. But, at the same time, if people want to experiment with being someone of another race, gender, ethnicity, or even species, an avatar or a pseudoidentity is possible in some of those same sites as well as in gaming and role-playing venues. Online identities do not always have to be the same as a person’s real identity, and therein lies some of the fascinating features of real world and online world dichotomies.
The term given to the identity/ies one creates online is called a digital presence. What this means is that people might describe themselves and manage their digital presence in different ways over social media depending on the type of identity they wish to express for that particular site or technology. For example, Facebook profiles generally show people at their best. This has led one researcher to surmise that because celebrities have become such powerful heroes in contemporary culture, Facebook actually allows everyone to be a celebrity, and those who use social media aspire toward celebrity status. “A part of their identity is defined by how many friends, or fans, they have” ( Cirucci 2013 , 47). In the same vein, when the same people play an online game like World of Warcraft (WOW), they can craft their avatar to be like themselves, or like someone else. “After creating an avatar in WOW, a gamer has many in-game options that continue to form the avatar’s identity … the avatar undertakes and chooses the professions in which the avatar will excel” ( Cirucci 2013 , 47). These projections of self in two different online worlds show that one person can take on multiple “selves” when they immerse themselves into the culture of the site.
Sometimes, though, acting out a different identity online can be harmless. It can allow someone to feel what it’s like to be someone else for a while, and as long as the intention isn’t malicious, the freedom afforded by having a different identity online can give someone a different perspective. Issues of gender, race, and ethnicity can be supported online, but they can also raise questions of how people see their identity and describe themselves online. Psychologist Sherry Turkle has written that the Internet has allowed people to think of identity as “multiplicity.” As she stated in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, “On it, people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves” ( Turkle 1995 , 178). By this she meant that we can have one identity while talking to friends, a professional identity when talking to bosses or teachers, and a more playful self when involved in a chat room, or we can even be more overtly sexual while engaging in a site that is more “adult oriented.”
While people may choose to use a false name (pseudonym) or describe themselves differently, or even choose an avatar to mask their real self, issues of identity go beyond representation of self to the world of privacy and security. Some people post significant amounts of personal information about themselves online that they think may be secure but can easily be stolen or sent to others. Because the places where we use social media or social networking are often private places like one’s home or even bedroom—it is easy to think that we’re engaging in personal communication that is meant for only the person to whom we’re corresponding. But even sending a personal message on e-mail or Facebook can easily be forwarded to someone else. ISPs can typically trace online activity to a home address, which has made it possible for predators to target children and find out personal information, then confront the child at home when no adult is present. Posting pictures of your vacation in real time can be a signal to thieves that no one is home.
Identity theft is also a significant problem that has become a concern for individuals, law enforcement, and governments. Criminals can often gain a lot of information about a person by sending out messages as spam that look real but are designed to trick someone into giving up a lot of personal information. Sometimes the target is to find out someone’s password or bank information but the possible number of ways criminals trick people into giving up personal information is growing. The U.S. Department of Justice has advice for people, who think or are sure they have been the targets of identity theft, on their website: http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/websites/idtheft.html .
Increasingly, some parents are establishing digital presences for babies when they are born. Some parents register their babies for things like About.me pages, Instagram feeds, Twitter handles, Tumblr accounts, and e-mail accounts on Yahoo and Gmail, all within hours of their birth ( Wood 2014 ). Some even post pictures of sonograms, giving the baby an ambiguous digital presence before they are born! But starting a digital presence for a newborn even before they have any sense of who they are comes with some theoretical problems: “Should you post photos of your children on sites that can be seen by anyone, or even on private profiles? If you give them Facebook accounts or email addresses, are you starting a data record for them before they’re old enough to know any better? Are you signing your child up for targeted advertising at age zero?” ( Wood 2014 ).
But in terms of traditional ideas of identity that call into question issues of race, ethnicity, class, and ability, online worlds provide users a chance to be someone who they are not. On some sites like gaming sites, there seem to be few problems with a person expressing themselves as they are, or as they would like to be. When we think of the capability of social media to allow us to explore from the relative safety of a non-face-to-face encounter, the choice of identity can be liberating.
For many though, getting lost in an alternative identity on a social media site can lead to problems. Accountability for one’s actions, honesty, and the forthrightness expected of people engaging with others online is assumed, but obviously, not always what occurs. The psychological aspects of how people express themselves online with social media have filled volumes of books and journals dedicated to the understanding of a person who communicates over social media. At the same time, social media validates the idea of who and what some people are.
Cirucci, Angela M. 2013. “First Person Paparazzi: Why Social Media Should Be Studied More Like Video Games.” Telematics and Informatics, 30: 47–59.
Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wood, Molly. 2014. “How Young Is Too Young for a Digital Presence?” New York Times. Accessed May 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/15/technology/personaltech/how-young-is-too-young-for-a-digital-presence.html?_r=0 .
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6485200099