Raining cats and dogs: identity online

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).

It’s hard work keeping up all of these online identities (used under CC non-commercial)

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.

Some ideas for different online identities (self-produced graphic)

Word count: 399


Fleishman, 2000 ‘Cartoon Captures Spirit of the Internet’ 

Gibbs, 2014 ‘The return of the YouTube troll: Google ends its ‘real name’ commenter policy’

Hardey, 2002 ‘Life beyond the screen: embodiment and identity through the internet’ 

Krotoski, 2012 ‘Online identity: is authenticity or anonymity more important?’ 

Milian, 2010 ‘Online personas rarely match real-life behavior, observers say’ 


14 thoughts on “Raining cats and dogs: identity online

  1. Hi Mark, this was a great read!
    I really like how you’ve tied the discussion with your previous post on visitors and residents.

    The growth of social media services such as Facebook has been immense and as you mentioned they have built a business on promoting authentic identities. As discussed in my post, services such as Facebook have taken drastic measures to promote authenticity including shutting down profiles. I agree that the use of multiple online identities is and should be a choice. Do you see this choice being taken away from us in the future as a result of such measures being replicated elsewhere?
    If this is to happen how would you feel about this?

    Whilst I understand authenticity is essential for some services, I feel sticking to one identity can be extremely restrictive and so I’d probably be against such developments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Callum,

      Thanks for a kind response to my post.

      You raise an interesting discussion around the extent to which service providers enforce authenticity (or not) on their platforms. The example of Facebook that you describe of course has some commercial undertones (Facebook wants as much real data about you for us in advertising, it’s primary source of revenue). However, as you point out, this raises wider questions if such an approach is taken more widely. I do feel that the choice for how much and what to share should be left to the user, whether they are a visitor or a resident. Therefore, it would be a bad thing if this were to happen.

      However, I feel if this were to happen new online services would appear (such as 4chan, although not new) that would cater to users wants. If this did not happen then one would have to conclude that users simply lack enough information to properly understand their privacy online. A major component of the digital economy is using data to ‘pay’ for services and I don’t feel that it is as well understood as paying with money is.

      All in all, I have no concrete answers for your questions. However, in the example referenced in my post above about YouTube and real commenter names I’d like to think that people would be able to stand up to profit-seeking online providers. What do you think?


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mark,

        I agree that Facebook’s actions are largely motivated by their business model. I also agree that new services like 4chan would pop up if such behaviour was replicated elsewhere.

        In addition, as outlined in this article (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/apr/19/online-identity-authenticity-anonymity), I think it’s likely that we’ll see an increase in the use of anonymous tools such as TOR. This could give people more freedom with regards to their identity, though a lot would need to be done to change the negative perceptions of such a tool.

        Thanks for the discussion

        Liked by 1 person

      2. O simples facto de se ponderar sobre a renovaçao desse maldito contrato é absolutamente vergonhoso.Nao deveria existir qualquer hesitaçao, seja por parte da Admnistraçao seja por parte dos sócios do Benfica.Olivedesportos é para ABATER.O gajo do roupão é para ABATER.O polvo azul é para ABATER.Já bastaram os "apoios inequívocos" ao fe–cndordasnfaaturas.E vimos nós depois a queixarmo-nos do "sistema", dos roubos dos árbitros e das linhas editoriais da Sport Tv, etc.A esses benfiquistas digo: TENHAM VERGONHA NA CARA.


  2. Hi Callum,

    Interesting that you bring up TOR, I agree that more needs to be done regarding perceptions of it as a tool (although I would point out a lot of TOR use isn’t exactly legitimate, even though it was developed by the US Government…). However, I don’t see how this work affect, say, the Facebook real name policy as they want to verify your identity using offline methods such as passports. Therefore the use of TOR etc. wouldn’t make a difference.

    Thanks again,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed reading your post and particularly liked the cats and dogs metaphor used throughout.

    In your post, you stated that “In different social contexts different identities are shown, is the Web merely one or maybe several new identity contexts?” To help answer this, I found a useful article elaborating on Goffman’s work. Goffman argued that the world is a stage and we all take on the role of actors. Depending on the audience (i.e., social context), we act in a certain way to portray a particular aspect of our identity. However, when this theory translates to the online world, it becomes complex because stages merge and audiences overlap.

    What does this mean in terms of multiple identities? Do you think we can segment our online identities and present different aspects of ourselves to different audiences? Or do you think, despite having multiple online identities, because the web is vast and audiences overlap, a single overarching online identity is inevitable?


    Link to article: http://sites.stedwards.edu/socialmedia/2011/11/16/negotiating-multiple-identities-on-the-social-web-goffman-fragmentation-and-the-multiverse/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Patricia,

      Thank you for your kind comments about my post. There’s loads to say on this interesting topic but we’ve only got 400 words!

      I have heard of Goffman’s actor on a stage analogy but hadn’t thought of applying it to this area, thanks for bringing it to my attention, very interesting! One of the big things I find about studying the Web etc. is that space is transformed. So although Goffman’s ideas of actors is still relevant, the types of space are vastly different and hard to portray. How would you apply Goffman’s ideas in this new world of technology?

      In terms of how this impacts on online identities, this has some profound effects. Some quick thoughts are that it is possible to segment depending on context for two reasons. Firstly, different services contain different people, therefore, are a different ‘stage’ or context. Secondly, and I think more helpful, is that when using a different online identity we can put on a different ‘mask’. If we choose a different pseudonym it allows us to seem to the audience that we are a different person, even in the same ‘stage’ context. I’m not sure if those ideas make sense, but just a couple of quick thoughts. What do you think?

      Thanks again!



      1. Hi Mark,

        I agree that this was a hard post to keep to 400 words, considering it’s such a wide topic with so many different facets to it.

        The ideas you propose are very intriguing and have helped me to get my head around how context works in terms of the web. It makes sense that, not only can we portray different aspects of our identity to different audiences on different stages, but we can ‘put on a mask’ and portray an identity that may not even be closely linked to our own identity. Through the anonymity and pseudonymity that the web allows, actors can give a convincing performance, on various stages, without the audience ever knowing their true identity.

        If you’re interested, this video provides a great visualisation of Goffman’s concepts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Z0XS-QLDWM
        The ending leaves a huge question as to how these ideas translate into the digital age. Perhaps there is room for future research?


        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Mark, thanks for the great post! I meant to comment earlier but as I said in the reply to your comment on my blog, I was having some difficulties. Hopefully these have been resolved now.

    You made a great point when stating that a person’s use of the web will dictate their online identities. Do you think that Facebook’s attempt to bring offline identities online will in turn cause some visitors to become residents? Personally I think that it makes it easier for residents to build an online identity, which in turn could encourage them to use the service more often and therefore possibly expand their web usage.

    My second question was, do you think that by moving towards the so called ‘real name’ web, we are slowly losing our privacy? I can see how having our browsing habits linked to our names is definitely an invasion of privacy, however users are able to choose how much they share with the rest of the world, so in a way, their level of privacy is still in their hands.

    Thanks for the post,


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