The question of identity, what it is and how it is constructed, is difficult to answer in everyday life. How does the process of identity construction change when the complexity of online social structures are added? This paper will address the idea of identity construction and how, if at all, the online world changes our perception of identity and its construction.
Thoughts on Identity
The Enlightenment gave the Western world the idea that human identity is a simple, straightforward matter and that an individual’s identity is “unitary, fixed and stable” (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004, p. 97). This idea is prevalent in modern society and can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. People often try to concretely say this is who I am as though a person is just one thing.
Actually, identity is much more flexible than previously thought. Often the thought of playing multiple roles is presented as a way of explaining this flexibility. I have my identity, but I have different roles: husband, father, student, brother, son, teacher, employee; and I simply modify my identity to fill the role that I am playing at the time. This method of thought follows George Herbert Mead’s theory of Symbolic Interactionism (Griffin, 2009). A second way of describing the flexibility of identity is that people have multiple identities, in a non-schizophrenic sense. One proponent of this theory is Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and philosopher. In his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Sen (2006) explains that people have many identities but choose to “present,” or handle a situation through, one or several identities. This means that person has a family identity (or several), political identity, religious identity, spiritual identity, and various social identities as they relate to friends and work.
Sen’s explanation is closer to the mark, I feel. While the difference between playing a role and presenting an identity may appear to be verbal semantics, the difference lies in the accountability of the person. Playing a role is victim language for doing what others think should be done. Presenting an identity places the person in control of their actions and also holds them accountable for their choices. Presenting an identity also allows people to accept or reject identities that are given to them by others.
Identity Construction Online
How does the online world affect the construction of identity? Early computer mediated communication scholars appeared enthusiastic at how this new tool called the internet would liberate people. “You can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want to. You don’t have to worry about the slots other people put you in as much” (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004, p. 99). The internet would be the great equalizer in our biased and prejudiced world. Yet, “the trouble with much of the early excitement about identity play in cyberspace is that it tended to exaggerate the realities of online communication in terms of what people actually do and what they actually want to do” (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004, p. 101). The internet originally offered a certain level of perceived anonymity to users. But with the advent of social networks like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, and the ease of creating personal blogs via sites like Blogger and WordPress, the perceived desire for online anonymity has appeared to diminish.
Just as identity is affected by the groups with which we associate in the offline world, I feel it is much the same in the online world. Internet culture has evolved so that online identities mirror offline identities. Any group, idea or fetish can be found online. Traditional time and space constraints become moot and any person can find a group online with which to associate, thus allowing an individual to explore and create an identity associated with that group. The internet does not change the way that identity is created, it simply provides another avenue through which identity creation can occur.
Griffin, E. (2009). A First Look at Communication Theory (Seventh ed.). New York, New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.
Sen, A. (2006). Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., & Tomic, A. (2004). Computer Mediated Communication: Social Interaction and the Internet. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.