Me, myself and the internet: the many faces that make up my online identity

Cover image: ‘Faces’ by muffinn (CC BY 2.0) sourced from Flickr (adaptations made to size of image) 

The traditional understanding of identity is no longer the only understanding. Interaction through the internet has developed a new perspective on what identity is and can be. An exploration of my own online identity highlights the variations in defining identity online and in the physical world, authenticity in identity construction online and anonymity.

Online identity 

Up until until now, my previous understanding of identity was simply just as a person’s attributes and preferences. Internet Society very eloquently defines it as: “You are who you are and what you do…your identity is the sum of your characteristics” (Internet Society 2011, para. 3).  Some characteristics never change, such as your date of birth, nationality, and birthplace, whereas there are other characteristics that can change over time, for example your hair colour or shoe size (Internet Society 2011, para. 3).

Moving from the physical world into the online world, however, the definition of identity begins to change. Andrew Wood and Matthew Smith define it as “a complex personal and social construct, consisting in part of who we think ourselves to be, how we wish others to perceive us, and how they actually perceive us”. (Wood and Smith 2014, p. 52). Irma van Der Ploeg and Jason Pridmore also mention that it is the “outcome of processes, practices, social interactions and on-going construction” (Van der Ploeg and Pridmore 2016, p.18). The construction of online identity is an ever-evolving process that changes according to your interactions with various online platforms.

For example, the tweet below is from one of my old Twitter accounts. If find it to be an interesting observation about how my preferences and interests changed over time, which influenced the way I felt about my online identity in the past. Our online identities can change over time, just as we do in the physical world.

Twitter screenshot 5
A tweet from my a Twitter profile I no longer use (Twitter screenshot from: Anastasia Fountain)

Although both identity in the physical world and identity online both evolve over time, the two are not the same thing. The Internet Society states that “Your online identity is not the same as your real world identity because the characteristics you represent online differ from the characteristics you represent in the physical world” (Internet Society 2011, para. 5). The things you share about your identity both online and in the physical world are the same, but the process of identity construction differs.

Identity construction online is done so rather selectively. I only represent certain things about myself on some websites and not others, whereas in the physical world I can of course represent the same characteristics or attributes, but it is harder to be selective in such a process. For example, in the physical world I don’t have the ability to pause mid-conversation and consider how to alter an interaction with someone according to how I would like it to be perceived. Online, however, there is the ability to construct myself the way I like, by way of ‘stage management’ for the purpose of self-presentation (cited in Poletti and Rak 2013, p.75), with the computer or other electronic device acting as a facilitation device for construction (Wood and Smith 2014, p. 51).

The selectivity involved with online identity can also be referred to as ‘partial identities’ (Internet Society 2011, para. 5). For example, LinkedIn is like an online version of your curriculum vitae, and a representation of one of my partial identities as a teacher. In the process of creating my LinkedIn profile, I selected information to share on my profile that is specifically related to my experience, skills and strengths related to teaching and education. The fact that I like watching cat videos on YouTube or that my favourite colour is purple has nothing to do with what I am trying to achieve as a job seeker and is therefore selectively excluded because such information does not fit with this partial identity.

LinkedIn screenshot 1
The content I have included on my LinkedIn profile is specific to who I am as an employee (LinkedIn screenshot from: Anastasia Fountain)

Facebook, on the other hand, is a social media platform designed to connect and interact with others, with the ability to share digital media content. The purpose of Facebook is different to LinkedIn, and so I manage self-presentation according to a different partial identity: a more care-free, happy and relaxed persona. Through the use of digital media, I am able to select the aspects of my identity which I would like to share with people in an attempt to influence how they will perceive me.

Facebook screenshot 1.png
An image from my Facebook account conveying a happy situation with friends. (Facebook screenshot from: Anastasia Fountain)

Authenticity

There is often the discussion about whether or not online platforms are authentic representations of identity. It’s easy to take everything we see online as truth just because of the way something may appear in an image or other form of digital media, but it is important to remember the ability to ‘stage manage’ and set something up in an attempt to control other people’s perceptions. According to Richard Allen, Facebook’s director of policy in Europe, “photos are a very instinctive and powerful way to confirm authentic identity” (Krotoski 2012, para. 4). The level of authenticity can also relate to the choice of labels or names one can use to represent themselves online.

The tweet below is from my current Twitter account. I have included my actual name both in the Twitter name and handle, with a clear image of my face. I choose to do so because I prefer to present myself online as ‘authentically’ or as genuinely as possible in relation to who I believe I am. I also feel comfortable with publicly owning the things that I share.

Twitter screenshot 3
The content shared in this tweet relates to my interests, an aspect of my identity as a teacher (Twitter screenshot from: Anastasia Fountain)

I also choose to use my real name because that is part of how I view authenticity in relation to online identity. It was not always the case, however, for me to use my real name, as I sometimes chose to remain anonymous.

Anonymity

Global perspectives

When using the internet, people can choose whether or not to reveal who they are. The tweet below is from several years ago when I preferred not to use my name for online accounts where I shared some of my writing and photography. Of course my nickname is included in my Twitter name, but aside from the name and my Twitter profile picture, I preferred to remain slightly anonymous.

Twitter screenshot 6.png
Changing names with identities (Twitter screenshot from: Anastasia Fountain)

This tweet also highlights the ability to ‘choose’ who we want to be online according to how we construct out identities at a certain point in time. I no longer feel the same about those old usernames because I don’t feel that they are an accurate representation of my identity as I see it today.

However, when I did function online with a ‘hidden identity’ or pseudonym, the ability to remain anonymous but still interact and share things online as I normally would enabled me to interact online with the knowledge that the perceptions of other people had no effect on who I really am in the physical world; “Because [pseudonymous users’] handles aren’t based on real names, they can deliberately delineate their identity accordingly, and reinstate anonymity if they wish” (Krotoski 2012, para. 11).

Overall, however, the thoughts and opinions I express, the digital media I share, and the interactions I have (anonymous or not) – and whether or not these things change over time – is all a part of what makes up my identity online: “the result is that you have one true identity and many partial identities” (Internet Society 2011, para 6). Some things I can control in relation to my online identity (the things I share or post), but others I cannot (others’ perceptions of me).

(Word count: 1,184. Captions and citations not included)

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My broader online activity in relation to the unit: 

The activity I have conducted online in relation to the ALC708 unit began slowly. I was hesitant at first to post things on my Twitter account because I was unsure about how to best get involved. But over time, I gained the confidence and understanding of the unit and have posted multiple blogs on my WordPress site relating to various weekly topics, including Creative Commons, social media and identity, identity construction and exploring the process of making a podcast. Most of the content that I have shared or created myself has focused on the issue of online identity because I think it’s an important thing to be aware of when using the internet and digital media.

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Resources and references:

Internet Society 2011, Understanding your online identity, Internet Society, retrieved 7 April, 2017, https://www.internetsociety.org/sites/default/files/Understanding%20your%20Online%20Identity%20An%20Overview%20of%20Identity.pdf

Krotoski A, 2012, Online identity: is authenticity or anonymity more important?, The Guardian, retrieved April 8, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/apr/19/online-identity-authenticity-anonymity

Poletti A, Rak J 2013, Identity technologies: Constructing the online self, The University of Wisconsin Press, retrieved 7 April, 2017, Ebook Library database

Van der Ploeg I, Pridmore J, 2016 Digitizing identities: doing identity in a networked world, Routledge, Taylor and Francis group, retrieved 7 April, 2017, Ebook Library database

Wood A, Smith M 2014 Online Communication: Linking technology, identity and culture, Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis Group, retrieved 8 April, 2017, Ebook Library database

Youth IFG Project, Global perspectives on online anonymity, Youth IFG Project, retrieved 8 April, 2017, http://www.youthigfproject.com/uploads/8/5/3/6/8536818/global_perspectives_on_online_anonymity.pdf

Images: 

Cover image: ‘Faces’ by muffinn (CC BY 2.0) sourced from Flickr (adaptations made to size of image)

LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter screenshots from the accounts of Anastasia Fountain

Infographic created by Anastasia Fountain. Information sourced from: The Youth IFG Project 

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