A large number of internet identity research which has been carried out by academics focuses on the creation of self-identity in anonymity, more recently, researchers have began to move beyond anonymity, recognizing that there is a cultural and technological shift from the long standing claim that internet identities are always anonymous.
This article will explore how self-identity is constructed by users of facebook, a social networking site originally set up for college students to be able to keep in touch with other college students and high-school friends, anonymity is not the watchword. It will go farther to raise issues on the possible effects and implications for the wider society.
The following is a review of eight academic works comprising books and journal articles which would be used in the final construction of the article which shall be written in the coming weeks and made available on this site.
Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everday Life
Goffman provides insights on how an individual constructs and presents self-identity in a physical social environment, with a level of consciousness which may seem trivial but is actually very high.
From relationships between husbands and wives, to salemen and prospective buyers to nurse-patient, teacher-student relationships and a whole lot more, he expounds on how individuals put on a performance for the purpose of impressing an audience. With effective impression management, the individual will be able to influence and obtain the type of response he wants from his audience.
However, sometimes a faux-pas occurs, a situation where a performance falls through as a player unintentionally disrupts the status quo and the performer is unable to safeguard his role. The resulting feeling is one of deep embarrassment for all concerned but more so for the person putting on the show
Goffmans’ insights are germane to our focus in this paper, even though this book was first published in 1959 even before the advent of the internet and definitely before the world wide web, he addresses the creation of identities in the physical world, a fore-runner to construction of online identities. His ideas are valid to my article as basically, it addresses the human condition, a condition which cannot be removed from the construction of self-identity in non-anonymity.
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday life. USA: Anchor books
Sherry Turkle: Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
Changes in the functionality of computers as evidenced by a shift from calculation to simulation has affected how people relate with computers and how this in turn affects the way they think about themselves.
Turkles’ research subjects were mainly college students in virtual communities called Multi-User Domain. She argues that as users create different anonymous identities in different MUDs simultaneously, and spend more time in these online environments, the distinction between real life and their online identities get blurry. Real life becomes just one more segment of the fragmented self.
Anonymity of virtual identities features prominently in Turkles’ work.
Although some of the ideas put forth by Turkle have become stale due to the passage of time and the frequently changing face of technology, my final article would nonetheless have been missing a vital part of earlier literature without its inclusion in the work.
Turkles’ work in ‘life on the screen’ has been celebrated for more than a decade, and has often been regarded as the starting point for research focused on online identity and virtual communities.
Turkle, S. (1996) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Great Britain: Weidenfield & Nicholson
Joshua Berman and Amy Bruckman: The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment
The paper is based on the game called the Turing game which was developed for the studys’ particular purpose, that of exploring identity in an online environment.
The context of the article was a detailed presentation of the game on one particular evening and its outcome.
Ten players were involved, a moderator who was in charge, three subjects and the rest who were audience-members. Gender games were the generally preferred game within the Turing environment and not surprisingly, it was chosen as the theme by the participants that night. Age, race, nationality and other cultural concepts are examples of other possible themes for the game.
The aim of the gender game was for the audience-members to spot who the impostors were among the subjects, who all claimed to be men, although some were actually women. Questions were thrown at them by the moderator and audience-members and based on their response, audience-members tried to figure out who the imposters were among them.
At the end of the game the subjects revealed their true gender and to the astonishment of the audience-members, the two subjects who they most believed to be males were actually females and the lone subject who was believed to be female was in reality male.
The Turing game is one that can be used as a basis for reflection on identity issues, both online and off. I was excitedly looking forward to having a go at it myself but sadly, the link to the game at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/elc/turing is closed and no longer accessible to the public.
Berman, J. and Bruckman, A.S. (2001) 'The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment', Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 7(3), pp 83-102. Sage Premier [Online] Available at http://0-con.sagepub.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/content/7/3/83.full.pdf+html (Accessed 22 March 2011)
Elizabeth Reid: Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination in Steven Jones (ed.) Cybersociety
Reid approached virtual reality as a cultural construct, away from the common perspective of technology. In her view, the relationship between the users’ internal mental construct and technological representation of these constructs makes for the illusion of reality in virtual worlds.
Her focus however, was on the nature of the user’s experience while in MUDs (Multi-User Domain). Users are less inhibited on MUDs, showing more affection or hostility to people they are barely acquainted with than they usually would in face-to-face communication. Contrary to earlier studies which claims less inhibitions are a product of lack of social control which nonverbal cues provide, the author opines that nonverbal cues are in fact present though not in the traditional fashion that we are accustomed to offline. It is the nature of MUDs instead, that account for less inhibition in users.
Reid further expatiates that users, through anonymity, explore what it feels like to be taken and treated as a person of the opposite gender. Men, she says, are more likely to switch gender roles because male to female characters ratio on MUDs are about equal but since there are arguably more actual males on MUDs, it follows that they engage more in cross-gendering.
Reids’ theme of self-identity in an online environment is parallel to our paper although it differs to the degree that it focuses on self-identity within the particular context of gender and anonymity. This work will form part of the literature reviewed in setting the tone of my final article.
Reid, E. (1995) 'Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination' in Jones, S. G. (ed.) CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. California: Sage Publications pp, 164-183
Charles Cheung:Identity Construction and Self-Presentation on Personal Homepages: Emancipatory Potentials and Reality Constraints
Charles argues that contrary to the suggestion by some internet commentators that personal homepages only function as narcissistic and exhibitionist platforms for users, therefore adding more trivia to the internet, homepages need to be taken more seriously to fully understand it.
Interestingly, he posits that homepages are a tool of emancipation for many users, a space where individuals, to a large extent can indulge in their interests and feel free to explore who they are as they are more in control of their self presentation and the pressures and interference of face-to-face communication is minimal.
He however, assents to the fact that as an emancipator tool, personal homepages may not have reached their potential as evidenced by the high number of homepages that have been abandoned by users. Apart from that, constraints such as gender, age and level of income amongst others, affect internet access.
If the authors argument on homepages being an emancipatory tool is brought to bear on facebook, it could be argued facebook (and homepages) as an emancipatory tool has limitations and not absolute. This is so because although it is computer-mediated communication, since it is not within anonymity, users may still tend to stay within limiting socially acceptable boundaries.
My final article would partially agree with the ideas of this author.
Cheung, C. (2004) 'Identity Construction and Self-Presentation on Personal Homepages: Emancipatory Potentials and Reality Constraints' in Gauntlett, D. and Horsley, R. (eds.) Web Studies 2nd edition London: Arnold pp. 51-68
Matt Hills: Case Study: Social Networking and Self-Identity in Glen Creeber and Royston Martin (eds): Digital Cultures
This book explores a myriad of issues relating to new media in a straight forward and easy to grasp manner.
The authors interestingly balanced out their work by having a case study attached to each chapter. These case studies were dedicated to emerging technologies, trends and the issues cropping out of them. Our interest is however, limited to the above titled case study attached to chapter 7, Participatory culture: mobility, interactivity and identity.
Hills' main focus was on facebook as a social networking site, recognizing that not just college students but a whole generation of other users are now on the network.
He draws a correlation between the rise of digital mobile media and increase in users construction of self-identity.
He also noted that, because facebook was originally meant for college students, the nature of the application is such that it offers a viable platform for experimenting with identities and engenders narcissistic behaviours among users.
Through profile information, videos and pictures which users upload to the site, they tend to carve a model of who they are or how they want to be perceived by other users. Hills drives home his point with examples which almost everyone who has had anything to do with facebook would be able to relate with.
This case study provides useful insights into the formation of self-identity on facebook, I consider it relevant to my final article.
Hills, M. (2008) Digital Cultures. Dawsonera [Online] Available at: http://www.dawsonera.com/depp/reader/protected/direct/AbstractView,readerButtons.eBookView.sdirect?state:reader/protected/AbstractView=BrO0ABXcMAAAAAQAABWVpc2JudAANOTc4MDMzNTIzNzU0OA%3D%3D (Accessed: 24 April 2011)
Helen Kennedy: Beyond Anonymity, or Future Directions for Internet Identity Research
This article is positioned within the debates of the continuing importance of identity as a starting point in internet related research. It deviates from most earlier works of internet identity research as it examines and explores opinion that a perspective other than identity should be employed in future research.
The author is of the opinion that the general claim of virtual identities being anonymous is not absolute as he argues that, sometimes, online and offline identities are interwoven, so it is necessary to study offline identities in order to fully understand online identities.
The article goes on to give a detailed presentation of an empirical research on internet use by a group of minority ethnic women in the UK on a project called Her@ which took place in the 1990’s. Its findings reveal that the concept of anonymity online is not fixed, it makes a distinction between the research subjects being anonymous and feeling anonymous. This distinction was drawn based on the observation that subjects sometimes adopted an overly honest and open stance in communicating how they felt on their homepages, which was equated with feeling anonymous and on the other hand, they declined to give away personal information, thereby being anonymous.
The author suggests that new tools of conceptualizing identity online need to be formulated, taking offline identities into cognizance. Furthermore, that anonymity as a concept is varied, hence the need for more complex tools in studying it.
The issues raised, the findings of the research and suggestions proffered in this article is refreshing as it adds an interesting angle to online identity research. Its ideas would be very useful in the construction of my final article.
Kennedy, H. (2006) 'Beyond anonymity, or future directions for internet identity research', New Media and Society, 8(6), pp. 859-876. Sage Premier [Online] Available at http://0-nms.sagepub.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/content/8/6/859.full.pdf+html (Accessed: 2 May 2010)
Patti M. Valkenburg and Jochen Peter: Adolescents' Identity Experiments on the Internet: Consequences for Social Competence and Self-Concept Unity
The authors sought to find out to what extent adolescents’ experiments with online identities had an effect on their interaction in real life social settings, termed ‘social competence’ and how they perceived themselves offline, termed ‘self-concept unity’.
They state that there were optimistic and pessimistic variants of the hypothesis, the positive variant being that a greater opportunity for experimenting with identity online, positively affects adolescents conception of self and their social relationships in real life situations. On the converse, the argument is that an increase in computer-mediated-communication decreases adolescents social abilities in face-to-face communication and destabilizes their self-concept unity. The mediating factor between these two variants being the tendency to communicate with a wide variety of people.
On the overall, the study suggests there is a positive correlation between adolescents online experiments and their social competence and self-concept unity.
This article was chosen for its forward-looking approach on the consequences of exploring identity online, it provides a base for the projection of the issues I will be raising in my final article.
Valkenburg, P. M. and Peter J (2008) 'Adolescents' Identity Experiments on the Internet: Consequences for Social Competence and Self-Concept Unity', Communication Research, 35(2), pp. 859-876. Sage Premier [Online] http://0-crx.sagepub.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/content/35/2/208.full.pdf+html (Accessed: 24 April 2011)
I really do hope you are looking forward to reading the final article as much as I am looking forward to writing it!
Observations, constructive criticisms and suggestions are highly welcome, do please leave a comment.