Evolving private identity, publicly, online

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Some thoughts about identity, online.


Some netizens project their offline identity into online spaces. They mirror their so-called real lives by using their real names, writing factual and descriptive profiles, posting photos of themselves with family members, in common daily situations.


Others create new identities. They use nicknames or pseudonyms, limit information about themselves to words which are relevant to that particular online context; they use cartoon avatars or sometimes no avatar at all.


Sometimes this identity is an extension of our offline selves, a concept of who we think we are or who we want to be; while other times it is an enhancement, or partial representation, or complete fabrication.


Our identities are fluid: they change depending on external influences, such as family and friends, cultural or religious groups; the sociopolitical environment around us; our age; our personal circumstances.  They cannot be placed neatly into a box: man/woman, gay/straight, black/white, christian/muslim, young/old.


Our identities are hybrids; chimeras.


We may have a public persona, a role we play professionally, when dealing with clients or colleagues. In the privacy of our own home we might become someone else: mothers and fathers, nesters, dreamers, carers, lovers. By day we might be a quiet office worker. By night we might immerse ourselves in Latin dancing. On the weekends we might go urban exploring in abandoned factories. These three personas might never overlap in public.


Identity is a performance to many different audiences.


Usually information about our various personas is shared with carefully selected, limited groups of people. For example, while one person may dabble in Burlesque in their spare time, they may not necessarily disclose this to their colleagues at work. Some information about us is private, and often for good reason. Even something as simple as a name may not be suitable to share in certain situations.


We don’t simply give out our name to everyone we see in the street. Naming ourselves is often reserved for occasions when we want to exchange information with someone, or build a relationship with them. And yet giving our names out freely is exactly what we so often do on the net.


In online spaces, privacy is a mirage. There are countless examples of why even the most private detail of our lives is potentially at risk of being publicly exposed, like the recent news that nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities were leaked onto the net, potentially stolen from cloud storage facilities.


Many of us attempt to carefully curate our identities, yet this fails when privacy guidelines on Facebook are misunderstood or a friend publishes a photo of us online without our consent.


Every time we add a detail about us to the net, whether via a supposedly closed-network site such as Facebook, a dating site like OkCupid, on our professional LinkedIn profile, or to a cloud based family tree maker, we are making our parts of our private identities public.


Identity online is merely a facet of our identity offline. Our “virtual” and our “real” selves are different shades of the same colour. Online experiences can have the same emotional responses and social repercussions as offline ones. The medium, in this case the net, does not in itself define identity.


And so we evolve our private identity, publicly, in online spaces. The net has opened up exciting opportunities and new ways to communicate. It has expanded communities, while shrinking the globe. It has also opened up our private lives to the public eye, made microcelebrities out of us all, and allowed us to be openly manipulated by third parties who wish to profit from the intimate details which make up our identity.


Some texts which inspired these thoughts:


boyd, danah 2012, ‘The Politics of “Real Names”: Power, Context, and Control in Networked Publics’, Communications of the ACM, vol 55, no 8, pp 29-31


Haraway, Donna J. 1991, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, New York


Lister, Martin, Dovey, Jon, Giddings, Seth, Grant, Iain & Kelly, Kieran 2009, New Media: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Ed, Routledge


Marwick, Alice 2005, ‘Selling Your Self: Online Identity in the Age of a Commodified Internet’, Masters thesis, University of Washington


Senft, Theresa M. 2013, ‘Microcelebrity and the Branded Self’, in Hartley, J., Burgess, J. & Bruns, A. (eds), Companion to New Media Dynamics, Blackwell Companions to Cultural Studies, Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp 346-354.

One Comment

Pure Gin Identity building on online dating site OkCupid says:

September 22, 2014 at 4:56 pm

[…] a box to tick as seemingly straight-forward as female/male. Unfortunately straight-forward isn’t what identities are. They are ever-changing, multi-faceted, chimerical things that will not be pegged to a graph or […]


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