Online Identity or Online Identities?

My degree subject, Psychology, refers to identity as a collection of ways we think about ourselves, with some thoughts more central, important and pervasive than others (Gregg, 2014). In many ways, I think that’s a good place to start thinking about online identity, as online, while still being the same people, we can choose how we display that.

It’s almost paradoxical, but the real truth is that the ability to have more than one identity, or none at all, is one of the reasons that makes the internet so fantastic and also the largest source of problems for it. In transactions, for example, maintaining security and collecting enough reliable data to prevent fraud is incredibly difficult and complex, and we only do it by maintaining links to the real world (Smedinghoff, 2012). It’s one of the reasons the value of Bitcoin, the largest online currency, is so volatile.

Let’s take an exemplum from my own life as to the benefits of multiple online identities. I had a Facebook account in my real name, my first identity, and other identities in different worlds, one in online gaming, and one in forums. As a teenage geek, being able to use a pseudonym with strangers gives a fantastic veil of confidence. Research from Bullingham and Vasconcelos shows that people tend to largely recreate their offline selves in these situations, although they do edit small parts of their personalities, like my confidence, which in real life was low, but online could be artificially raised. (An interesting aside here is that research by Vasalou and Joinson shows that bloggers tend to portray themselves as closer to their offline selves when using a picture of themselves as an avatar. Psychology, eh?)

From personal experience, I’d say that in general the number of online identities people have is gradually converging toward one. The proliferation of smartphones in the modern age mean that one online identity is the easiest number to maintain, with contacts/phone numbers etc. automatically synced from various servies, and the number of sites that allow an anonymous user to access their full service on the fall. The ‘Connect via Facebook/Twitter’ button is always more appealing and less time consuming than setting up something new.

Time is a finite resource.


Bullingham, L., & Vasconcelos, A. C., 2013. ‘The presentation of self in the online world’: Goffman and the study of online identities. Journal of Information Science, 39 (1). doi:10.1177/0165551512470051

Gregg, A. P., 2014. PSYC3014 – Self and Identity Lecture Material.

Smedinghoff, T. J., 2012. Solving the legal challenges of trustworthy online identity. Computer Law & Security Review, 29 (5). doi:10.1016/j.clsr.2012.07.001

Vasalou, A., & Joinson, A. N., 2009. Me, myself and I: The role of interactional context on self-presentation through avatars. Computers in Human Behavior, 25 (2). doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.11.007

P.S: ‘Computer Law & Security Review’ sounds like the kind of journal I should immediately be signing up to receive. Thrilling.


8 thoughts on “Online Identity or Online Identities?

  1. Your psychological perspective in defining ‘online identity’ was useful in reiterating my understanding of whether we have the same identity online as offline.

    You similarly identified the ‘internet age paradox’, in which there are endless possibilities to re-create ourselves, yet we are more likely to converge to one. While you agreed, I instead argued that the internet provides a “gateway for unitary or multiple identity creation” but it’s dependent on the person and others perceptions.

    You seem to suggest the benefits of having multiple online (anonymous) identities in your game and forum accounts, but also maintain a genuine/authentic Facebook account.

    With this in mind, and taking a psychological perspective, if possible, perhaps you could explain why you have chosen to remain authentic on Facebook (agrees with paradox) but able to adopt/claim (my research) multiple anonymous online identities in the artificial communities of gaming for example? Perhaps it’s a division between real/known and virtual people versus reputation?


  2. From my experiences, as a 15/16 year old I was not a confident person in real life, had few friends and did few things outside of school. I think you’re right about the difference between my interactions with known and virtual people here; the person I was being with people I newly met online was the person I wished I was in real life (the ‘ideal self’, from a psychological perspective), whereas I felt I could not be this person on Facebook as the people on there already ‘knew’ I was a ‘loser’.

    I think that the less inhibited personality was me, just in a way that didn’t feel scared of the world around him, and I’d say I’m a lot more similar to that identity now than I am to my ‘real life’ identity at the time. Meaning maybe those experiences (successfully) trying different traits has meant I’ve been able to see what works, and then apply those when I’ve met other new people. It takes a while, but one can eventually learn to make oneself less of a loser by being a loser.


  3. Hey hey,

    I liked your angle of pseudonym accounts, and how many people use their online profiles to present their opinions and feelings, which they might feel reluctant to express, offline.

    However, do you think there is a a boundary as to where people can use such pseudonym accounts? Take online dating sites for example. You can get quite a few false users, who may have gone to the extreme of impersonating someone else! Either way, its that concept that they are using that profile to express themselves, which they feel they cannot do in person.

    And if you think there is a boundary, what is the difference between having a pseudonym account on a gaming website, as opposed to an e.g. dating website?

    Thanks, I enjoyed reading your blog 🙂


    • Thanks for that interesting thought – I think for me the key here is that the anonymity in a game, say, takes place in a realm where everyone is anonymous, meaning there is no distinct disadvantage to any one party. In this example, as I have done previously, one can reveal a real identity when one feels confident enough talking to a person. I made a couple of very good friends this way as a 16 year old, who I still talk to regularly, 4 years on.

      On a dating site, a choice to assume a fake identity shows a severe deficiency of confidence, probably to a clinical level, as opposed to someone unconfident but ‘normal’, who would simply choose to behave slightly differently or present themselves in a different way. It also disadvantages the other people using the site, who are effectively misled by the fake profile.

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂


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