SOCIAL IDENTITIES: ONLINE VERSUS REAL-LIFE

RICHARD LONGAIR


CONTENTS
1.00  INTRODUCTION
2.00  WHAT IS AN ONLINE IDENTITY?
3.00  SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF ONLINE IDENTITIES
4.00  CONCLUSION
5.00  BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES


1.00  INTRODUCTION

“Social identity is a theory used to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination.“ (Wikipedia)

A social identity, is a collection of information which we project to those around us and on which we are judged on a daily basis. It encompasses the personal information connected with us and the social groups which we are a part of. Personal information includes; an individual’s name, their age and country of origin and also one’s personality traits such as; hobbies, interests and our general persona; outgoing, shy, happy, sad etc.

Although people strive to create an impression of individuality, they also draw comfort from being part of a group. This is why individuals are compelled to associate themselves into groups, thus categorising their supposed ‘individual’ identities. We use social categories such as; black, white, Christian, Muslim, rich and poor because they are useful. Using such categories enables us to deduce certain things about the people within them. Conversely, these categories also enable us to deduce something about ourselves by examining the groups which we are associated with. We like being a part of ‘in-groups’ because we are motivated to achieve and maintain a positive self-image. Thus when our group succeeds, we succeed, which bolsters our self-image. This concept becomes more complex when we study the different sides to an individuals identity. There is a vast difference in the way an individual is perceived by his friends, family, work colleagues and acquaintances. This is why one individual could be considered to have multiple identities or at least multiple views on a single identity.

On the whole, our real-life social identity is difficult to control. Ultimately, we are who we are; black or white, heterosexual or homosexual, fat or thin. It is almost impossible to maintain a façade on a daily basis in the real world. This obstacle can be overcome by creating an online identity, the profile of ourselves which we broadcast to other people using the internet. The characteristics of an online identity are easier to falsify and the deceptions are less demanding to sustain.

This essay studies the differences between our real-life identity and our online identity and in particular the way in which the latter is used on social networking web sites. Further chapters examine what an online identity is and the social implications surrounding the use of such an identity as a façade. The essay ends with a conclusion summarising the article and expressing the author’s opinions on implications surrounding the use of online identities.


2.00  WHAT IS AN ONLINE IDENTITY?

“An online identity is a social identity that network users establish in online communities.” (Wikipedia)

Using online identities, people are free to redefine and express themselves as they wish. Internet users often include an alias or pseudonym with their profile in an attempt to mask their real identity. As in real life, when other users interact with your online identity you develop a reputation. Reputations can be in the form of a quantitative form, for example, ebay’s trust model for user accounts or more commonly reputations are just mental thoughts remembered by the user’s of other online identities. These identities can be used for a multitude of purposes, for example; accounts on trading web sites, profiles on social networking sites or players of online, multiplayer games.

Users of social networking sites, such as bebo, create online identities to associate to their real life identity. These identities can also include personalised polls or quizzes, blogs, photo galleries, images and the personal information outlined in section ‘1.00 INTRODUCTION’. Once created, it can then be integrated into the community of other identities, thus building up a network of friends. Identities can also be associated with groups e.g. Bands, clubs or other societies. Of course, there is no guarantee that the information contained within an online identity is a true reflection of the holder’s real-life identity and herein lies the greatest problem of this virtual tool.

So how do you know if the person behind the online identity that you are interacting with is really who you think they are?

The answer is that there is no way of guaranteeing the real-life identity of someone online but this is not always an immediate cause for concern. In certain circumstances, for example; online gaming, users often make up details of an online identity as a means of escaping the constrictions of their real-life identity thus enabling them to live out a harmless fantasy. Some internet users insist that their online identity more accurately reflects their "true selves" than the identity which they have acquired offline. Unfortunately this ‘weakness’ in the identity management infrastructure is sometimes abused and there are numerous cases of paedophiles who have preyed on the ignorance of young individuals and impersonators who have used fake identities to defraud others. This problem arising from user anonymity is remarked upon in Peter Steiner's famous ‘The New Yorker’ cartoon, shown below;

In their contribution to the book ‘Building Virtual Communities’, David Wiszniewski and Richard Coyne raise the concept of the relationship between masking ones details and using an online identity. They explore the philosophical implications of online identity and in particular, they examine the concept of masking identity, pointing out that whenever an individual interacts in a real-life social environment they portray a mask of their real identity. The online identity is no different and its mask can be even more pronounced as the user is not required to be in direct contact with the individual to whom they are interacting.


3.00  SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF ONLINE IDENTITIES

Online identities provide the basis for the majority of person to person communication over the internet and are used in forming the first impression of the identity holder. As in their real-life counterparts, creating an online identity usually involves a degree of pretence. This in its self is not a cause for concern but the level of fabrication and the reason for such deceits can be a problem.

For the majority of internet users’ making use of social networking sites, this fabrication is completely innocent and only provides an avenue for people to escape some aspect of their real-life identity. This could be a middle aged person trying to relive a misspent youth or a married man or woman enjoying socialising in single circles once more.

Another advantage of online identities is the lack of, or at least the reduction in face-to-face contact on the internet which removes most prejudices present in the real world, for example; racism, sexism and ageism because there is no requirement to disclose your skin colour etc, to other internet users. The typical minimum requirements for creating an online identity are a pseudo or user name and a password.

Despite the fact that social networks play an important role in the lives of an increasing number of people today, there are still many concerns which have yet to be properly addressed. It is the anonymity and unpredictability of socialising online which his blamed for its obsessive draw.

“Computer activities are showing signs of dominating lives to the point where there is an addiction. When an individual's identity is hinged, for example; on a game, an unhealthy imbalance occurs and an addiction to the second identity takes place. The second identity is recursive, exciting, unpredictable, self created and ongoing. The 'real life' identity is discarded and disappointing” (Crawford)

This quote backs up the theory that rather than enhancing their existing identity with an online presence, people are replacing aspects of the former by creating a completely separate identity online. This trend when stretched to the extreme can yield worrying results, with peoples online and offline identities becoming completely disjointed. In situations like this, the quality of an individuals ‘real’ life must be brought into question, when an individual is drawn to spend more time communicating with fabricated identities in a virtual world than the more accurate real-life identities. If left unaddressed these problems look likely to escalate with future generations, as the internet and social communities take an even greater significance in our daily lives.

Fictitious elements within online identity are often tied to the quest for the achievement of the unattainable and this creates another problem. If an individual spends too much time ‘living’ within their online identity they can become obsessed, thus believing it is in fact real. Crawford identified an associated issue with this problem and the ‘exchange’ of information between users and their associate online identity:

“Individuals gain meaning from the exchange; however it is a meaning steeped in unreality. Because people create their own character and identity, the relationships that are built are based on fantasy.” (Crawford)

When the use of an online identity reaches obsessive levels and becomes an addiction then negative impacts often occur. The anonymity of online identities also creates another opportunity for abuse from individuals preying on the innocence or over-trusting nature of others. As mentioned in section ‘2.00 WHAT IS AN ONLINE IDENTITY?’ paedophiles use this weakness to abuse the young but any ignorant user can be exploited by a fictitious online identity. Elderly internet users are just as likely to be duped because of their general lack of computing skills and knowledge of the online environment, resulting in them handing over large sums of money to fraudsters.

There is a major social benefit of using online identities for people lacking self-esteem, suffering from disabilities or those who have disfigurements. Individuals with low self-esteem can use their online identity as a relatively safe means for building up confidence and a network of friends. People with disabilities who can not express themselves fully or maybe even venture out into the real world, for example; people with stammers or paraplegics, can use online identities on social networks to interact with others and eliminate any feeling of isolation. Likewise individuals suffering from disfigurements who may feel too self-conscious to meet others in the real world can also benefit from the use of this indirect means of communication.

As this section shows, there are many implications, both positive and negative, in using online identities. The next section summarises this report and includes the author’s opinion on the use of online identities for social networking.


4.00  CONCLUSION

Online social communities are used by a wide range of demographics and online identities have created different issues for each group. This report has highlighted some of the major advantages and disadvantages arising from the use of online identities by different types of user.

The area for greatest concern surrounded the anonymity of people with online identities and the possibility for abusing this when communicating with vulnerable users, in particular children. A method of verifying the real identity of an online user is urgently needed but this authenticated information does not necessarily need to be made publicly available to all users. If the social network, privately, stored verified details of the holder of an online identity, then it would discourage the abuse of such communities without compromising the users’ right of privacy. In cases of abuse the online identity could then be looked up by the social networks’ staff and the authentic details of the user’s real identity could then be passed on to the proper authorities. The protection of vulnerable members of society must be paramount in such circumstances.

However, online identities do provide a useful barrier between an individual and other users. The use of pseudo-names is already widespread and is a valuable means of escaping from one’s real-life identity, enabling someone to live-out a fantasy in the relative safety of the internet. Online identities are also extremely useful for people with weak socialising skills or those who feel isolated geographically or socially in the real world.

On the whole I believe online identities are an invaluable tool for services such as online social networks and assist the interaction between users. There is incredible potential for such a device but there are still major areas for concern which must be urgently addressed.


5.00  BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES

WEB SITES

 
Northeastern University Social Identity Theory
http://www.psych.neu.edu/Courses/PSY1271/LT5a/tsld016.htm
Wikipedia Social Identity
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_identity
M/Cyclopedia Virtual Identities - Social Impacts
http://wiki.media-culture.org.au/index.php/Virtual_Identities_-_Social_Impacts

BOOKS

 
Building Virtual Communities Wiszniewski, D. and Coyne, R.
2002
Online Games Have a Powerful Draw Crawford, E.