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The Complexity of the Online Self

Cyberspace can both be considered a communication medium for “real” people and a place for people to take on different roles, for experimenting with different ways of behaviour, maybe even different identities. This possible online identity experimentation could change the way people think about the concept of identity. Sherry Turkle[1] considers the Internet as an element of computer culture which has contributed to the thinking of identity as a plural phenomenon. The Internet is used to experiment with the different sides of an identity. Virtual identities inspire to think about your own ‘real’ identity because the creation of an online role takes introspection. In the modern digital age it is impossible to speak of just one definite identity. The concept of identity must both personally and culturally not be considered as a definite fact.

Identity in cyberspace is an ambiguous notion. In real life an identity is mostly considered singular, belonging to a single body. In a virtual world, body and identity can be separated. This realization brings along a lot of new opportunities for experimenting with identity. Still it doesn’t really matter how many online identities one creates, because they all belong to the same body and mind sitting in front of the computer screen[2]. From this point of view identity is still considered singular and the internet is a tool to further develop this single identity. This notion doesn’t seem to stroke with Turkle’s idea of the plural identity. It’s interesting to give this contradiction a moment’s thought.

Anthony Giddens[3] claims that the late modernity (the time we live in right now according to Giddens) confused the way we think about identity. This confusion appears to give us the opportunity to create a new own identity. Because of the twentieth century increased individualism people started to consciously search for their own identity. Only when someone is aware of his/her present identity it’s possible to further develop this identity to the desired identity. To clearly define the road to the desired identity there’s a need for introspection and self reflection. Self reflection offers the opportunity for the fragmented late modern identity to re-shape itself, or at least some part of it. In this late modernity people are (being made) aware of their need for a clear identity. Because of this awareness they employ a continuous mode of self reflection concerning the own identity and its representation. According to Gidden’s theory the creation of an identity is a personal choice, people create their own identity. In my opinion Giddens puts to much emphasis on the individual. Giddens theory supports the theory of contra-essentialism, which is the idea of identity as a social construct, an decentralised identity. Contra-essentialism is opposed to essentialism, which is the idea of an established identity. Giddens talks about identity as a project under development, which clearly is opposed to the theory of essentialism, but he doesn’t say much about the social influences on that project, he concentrates on the inner processes of the individual. Another academic supporting the idea of contra-essentialism is Stuart Hall[4]. According to Hall the modern view on identity is one of constructionism, mobility and multiplexity. He claims identity isn’t an established objective fact, but a process shaped by subjective impulses, which originate from a persons discursive activities. A persons environment and context have a big influence on identity construction. Hall says “We are defined by who we are not”, identity originates from being different then the other and because of that is determined by others. Introspection concerning an individuals own identity creates a need for thinking about other individuals.

The idea of contra-essentialism and its constructionist approach to identity gives the concept of identity an interesting meaning in our digital age. As said before, the Internet is a great platform for experimenting with identity. When we adopt Gidden’s and Hall’s ideas the internet can be very helpful for creating the desired identity. The continuous need for analysing and developing the current identity fits perfectly inside the online worlds possibilities for identity building and experimenting. SNS sites, online communities and other internet applications based on social contact have proven to be playgrounds for self presentation. The online interaction also gives opportunity to define the own identity through the identity of others, which according to Hall is important for identity construction. This enormous opportunity for potential identity development takes us back to the question concerning Turkle’s plural identity. Could experimentation with different kinds of self presentation be an argument to speak about a plural identity. Is it possible for someone to have more than one identity? It could be said it is easy to have several different identities in different online environments, but are these identities really different? The notion that these different identities come from the same mind, makes me think they are just part of one reigning identity. An “online identity” might simply be a way of self presentation, not really an entire personality comprising identity. When thinking about identity from a constructionist view, it is hard to think of identity as possibly plural. I’m inclined to think of the internet as an enormous stimulus for identity development, but not as giving opportunity to employ multiple identities.

[1] Turkle, S. (1995) Life on the screen: identity in the age of the  Internet. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster

[2] Donath, J. (1999) Identity and deception in the virtual world. In Kollock, P. & Smith, A. (1999) Communities in cyberspace. London; New York: Routledge

[3] Giddens, A (1991) Modernity and self identity; Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity press

[4] Hall, S. (1995) in Bell, D. (2001) An introduction to cybercultures. New York, NY: Routledge

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Social Networking Sites: to type oneself into being

Profiles are unique pages where one can “type oneself into being[1]. “Typing oneself into being” sounds like a great way to summarize a person’s motive for online exposure. When you’re not online, you seem to be nowhere at all. Creating an online profile on a social networking site is an easy way to develop an online identity. This online profile is the basis for creating an online network. Social networking sites show enormous potential for their users to meet new people, but according to Boyd[2] social networking site users don’t really try to meet new people online, they rather use the websites to articulate and make visible their social networks. The online networks are being used to confirm already existing offline connections. At this moment most of the online networks within social networking sites are a prolongation of people’s offline lives. They don’t seem to be autonomous networks standing on their own.

But there are signs of a kind of correlation between the online and offline networks. In some examples online networks are being used to try and stimulate and expand the offline networks. An interesting example can be found in this (Dutch) article. It’s about an interactive divine service organized by a protestant priest from Amsterdam. According to the priest it is the first LinkedIn divine service ever. It will be the first time all the people who are part of the online protestant LinkedIn network are able to meet in real life. Besides that, for the people who can’t make it to the meeting there’s the alternative to contribute to the meeting through the showing of their live messages on LinkedIn and twitter on a big screen. This is a good example of an online network giving an impulse to an offline network. The protestant church is using the new medium to support their offline community. Online social networks clearly can be used as a tool for support of their offline counterpart.  On a more individual level, the creation of a personal online network also seems to be supportive for a person’s offline network. Adding an offline contact as an online “friend” to your network is a very easy way to not forget about that person and by that is a perfect motivation to keep in touch. For instance Lampe, Ellison and Steinfield[3] found that Facebook users engage in searching for people with whom they have an offline connection more than they “browse” for complete strangers. Boyd[2] also argues that Myspace and Facebook enable U.S. youth to socialize with their friends even when they are unable to gather in unmediated situations, she argues that social networking sites are “networked publics” that support sociability, just as unmediated spaces do.

Looking at it from this perspective, individual online networks can give a strong impulse to a person’s offline network. But because of that, the online network could also be considered as a  simple tool to support someone’s offline social life. When considering this supporting role of online networks I started wondering whether it is really necessary to “type oneself into being”. An online identity doesn’t necessarily lead to a new or bigger network, so why would you put in the effort to construct one? Of course the motivation can be found in the increasing digitalization of society. The online and offline networks seem to be highly intertwined and maintaining each other. In this digital age a large amount of our time is spend surfing the web and using all kinds of other Internet applications. Social networking sites give us the opportunity to expand our social activities to our online world and because of that give us the opportunity to spend more time maintaining our social relationships. Social networking sites are really helpful in keeping in touch with everyone you know and deepening your relationships with new people you meet. Despite this valid motivation for using social networking websites as an extension of our offline social lives, it would be interesting to see whether it is possible to create a valuable social network inside a social networking site totally depending on online contacts, without a direct link to offline life. Right now this doesn’t seem to be the case, but with the increasing digitalization of society it might become a real possibility in the future.

[1] Sundén, 2003, in Boyd, D. (2007) Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 13(1)

[2] Boyd, D. (2007)Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 13(1)

[3] Lampe, Ellison and Steinfield, 2006. in Boyd, D. (2007) Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 13(1)

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