Your ‘online identity’ is the sum of your characteristics and interactions with the web (Internet Society). This is not limited to social media, but also includes aspects of online shopping, banking, gaming etc. An online identity is made up of several partial identities, or personas, that represent different characteristics based on information that ourselves and others provide. These concepts are summarised below.
Figure 1. Summary of online identities.
As Blascovich (2011) expressed in his TED Talk, most of us have multiple online identities made up of several different personas, an idea he referred to as ‘fluid identities’. For example, I tend to use Facebook to keep up with friends and family, Twitter for current affairs, Instagram for all things aesthetically pleasing and Snapchat for the boring bits in between. Although my audiences in each case overlap to some extent, they are not the same, and thus I adapt my personas to suit. Whilst at first glance the idea of multiple identities may appear deceptive or manipulative, it is a multifaceted issue that has sparked a huge debate among online communities (Krotoski, 2012).
An obvious benefit of having multiple online identities is the ability to freely express personal content, whilst still having control over your professional appearance (Henry, 2012). This keeps your friends from making fun of your CV and prevents your boss from seeing those compromising night-out photos. Furthermore, multiple identities are beneficial for brands that wish to tailor their content to specific platforms and audiences. Multiple identities also allow for anonymity, enabling those who wish to hide an aspect of their identity to do so. For example, many writers and bloggers use pseudonyms in order to express themselves without being judged and to maintain a sense of privacy (Faith et al., 2011).
However, with regards to authenticity, having multiple identities may lead people to think you are untrustworthy or that you have something to hide. Due to the control we have over what we share, our online identities are increasingly curated, widening the gap between our online and offline selves (Casserly, 2011). The anonymity that appeals to many online users also creates an environment where cyberbullies, scammers and sexual predators can thrive. An example of this includes the hacking scandal where indecent images of celebrities were retrieved from Apple iCloud and subsequently posted on 4chan, an anonymous image sharing forum (Buchanan, 2015).
Overall, having online identities, whether one or multiple, authentic or anonymous, depends on our motivations and goals for using the web. Whichever side of the debate we stand, being aware of the benefits and drawbacks of multiple identities is important in our navigation of the digital world (Costa & Torres, 2011).
Blascovich, J. (2011). Digital freedom: Virtual reality, avatars, and multiple identities: Jim Blascovich at TEDxWinnipeg. YouTube.
Buchanan, R. T. (2015). Jennifer Lawrence nude pictures leak sparks fear of more celebrity hackings: ‘A flagrant violation of privacy’. The Independent.
Casserly, M. (2011). Multiple Personalities And Social Media: The Many Faces of Me. Forbes.
Costa, C., & Torres, R. (2011). To be or not to be, the importance of Digital Identity in the networked society. Educação, Formação e Tecnologias, 47-53.
Faith, J., Siren, S., Marks, A., & Lee, A. (2011). The Pros & Cons of Your Online Identity. Independent Fashion Bloggers.
Henry, A. (2012). Should I Keep My Personal and Professional Identities Completely Separate Online? LifeHacker.
Internet Society. Online Identity Overview.
Krotoski, A. (2012). Online identity: is authenticity or anonymity more important? The Guardian.
Figure 1: Self-produced using Slideshare.
Figure 2: Self-produced using Piktochart and the following images: Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Allen, Christopher Poole, Andrew Lewman, Michael Heyward.