How truthful about yourself are you online? I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, ‘on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog’ (coined by Peter Steiner in 1993, see Fleishman 2000). Academic research has also highlighted how people can remain anonymous online (for example, see Hardey 2002). But more recently doesn’t it feel like we’re putting more our offline selves online? Does this mean we should segment our online identities?
To answer this, it’s important to understand how and why identities are used online by different people. Visitors and residents, covered in last topic’s post, might well approach this in different ways. A resident is likely to build a consistent online ‘brand’ across the websites and services that they use. This is in contrast to visitors who only have online identities that are required to use tools on the web. Therefore, depending on your use of the Web the amount of and use of any online identities varies.
Watch Geoff & Fred Atkinson’s take on the makeup on online identities
The drive towards more of your offline identity being brought online is, in part, advocated by online service providers. Facebook (other social networks are available) has built a business around digitalising your identity (see this discussion comparing Facebook and anonymous 4Chan).
This can also be seen in how YouTube handles account handles. When YouTube began users signed up with a handle (i.e. macole111). But a few years ago Google integrated its social network profiles with YouTube, causing real names are displayed (i.e. Mark Cole). This was then later made reversed due to a public backlash (see Gibbs 2014).
In light of this, how can we understand these forces in the context of our own online and offline lives? Some say that even when we put more online it is rarely who we are offline. So even if people do know that you’re a dog, you might actually be a cat. I also argue that offline identities complex and multifaceted. In different social contexts different identities are shown, is the Web merely one or maybe several new identity contexts?
In essence, it becomes a personal choice. Do you want to use the Web in visitor mode? Hidden behind pseudonyms to ensure your privacy while using the tools of the Web. Or do you want to promote yourself online with one consistent identity? Even if it is not the ‘real you’. Foremost it is you who decides your online identity, despite Web companies’ efforts.
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Fleishman, 2000 ‘Cartoon Captures Spirit of the Internet’