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.