Liberal Arts

 

Identity in Cyberspace and ‘Meatspace’: How We Construct Our Identities Online and Offline

by Jessie Hanson 

People have been constructing and performing their identities as long as humans have been human. The advent of the Internet has shifted our paradigms and expanded our venue of self-expression. Most people in the developed world engage in some sort of online presence and self-expression, which stems from and expands upon their offline identities and activities. Indeed, the line between what is “real” or offline identity and what is online identity is growing fuzzier as the on- and offline world fuse together (Hongladaram, p533). Our existences are no longer divided into “real life” and “virtual activities.” Rather we live with a “life mix” that integrates both kinds of activity and interaction (Turkle, p160).


Identity lies at the core of humanity. From the time we become conscious of ourselves, we strive to express who we are. We use our identities to create our sense of “self,” our sense of “others,” and to navigate the myriad and nuanced relationships that make up our lives and worlds. Identity is not always an easy concept to, well, identify. It is a fluid and changing thing, subjective to our own perspectives and inward gaze. It is both construct and performance in symbiotic relationship (Matic, pp13, 20). For the purposes of this discussion, we have two main types of identity: primary and secondary. Our primary identity is the unchanging sense that “I am me and not anyone else.” It’s constant and part of our consciousness. Secondary identities are changeable and fluid over time and circumstance. They’re the roles we play in our lives. We will mostly be discussing secondary identities.


 The constructs of identity are continually being constructed and reconstructed as we move through our lives. We’re never done becoming ourselves; we simply rework and reinvent with the tools we have at hand (Turkle, p158). While we hold a fundamental “primary identity,”  a sense that “I am me” continually, we alter the secondary roles we play and subordinate identities we embrace over time and as the nature of our relationships develops and changes (Ribeiro, p294). For example, I am my mother’s daughter. This relationship is both static (we will always be mother and daughter) and dynamic (the way in which we perform the mother-daughter roles are vastly different now that we are both adults than they were when I was a child). The roles I play are also relative. I am my mother’s daughter, but my daughter’s mother. The same person (me) plays a different identity role, depending on who is looking at her (my mother or my daughter) (Ribeiro, pp293-294). Confusing? Maybe, but such is the nature of identity. And these few examples ignore the many other overlapping identity roles I play in my life, such as student, employee, lover, friend, scientist, comedian, producer, etc.


All identity, offline or online, is a construct. That is, it is a working hypothesis assembled by our human minds to help us navigate the world. It is how we choose to present ourselves, privately to our own selves and publicly to others. The same construct extends from our offlines lives into the identities we craft in our online personas (Hongladaram, p534). The online identities we construct are legitimate and valid expressions of our “real” selves and they remain the exact same constructs and performances that define our offline identities. 


The idea that our identities are equally constructs on and offline is easier to understand when we realize that even In Real Life (IRL), our identities are not tied to our corporeal bodies (Hongladaramladaram, p538). Bodies are malleable and easily changed. (While our identities are also fluid and changeable, these changes are not dependent on our bodies’ physical form.) Lifting weights may make my body bigger; it doesn’t make me a different person. A transgender person may choose to undergo extensive body modifications to confirm their identity, but these modifications do not change their identity. Indeed, their identity predated the modifications and spawned the desire to enact them. Since our identities are not reliant on a corporeal manifestation, as demonstrated by the aforementioned examples, they must indeed be emanations of a non-physical construct (Cunningham, p1134). Cyberspace emphasizes the non-corporeal nature of our identity constructs and how these constructs are not tied to our physicalities (Ribeiro, p294).


When we choose to use the Internet, we have a nearly-infinite variety of spaces to act in. In this vast playground, we choose and then create the roles that we wish to play (Matic, p20). This is analogous to the way we seek out and enact certain roles in our offline lives. In my offline life, I sought the roles of spouse and mother; therefore I chose to get married and have a child. In my online life, I sought a role of “droll humorist”; therefore, I act out comedic commentary through my Twitter account. Both the offline and online roles are chosen and consciously enacted.


 Identity, online and offline, is both a process and a product (Cunningham, p1133). As I began to discuss  in the preceding paragraph, we do not just feel an identity, but we choose to act it out, with the act of performance solidifying the identity itself and expressing it to others. We are our actions and interactions. Humans are by nature social creatures and our  identities of lie in our actions and our relationships with other selves, events, and objects (Hongladaram, p533).


When we construct the online portions of our identities, these actions and relationships are largely representative. We don’t actually touch or physically do anything. Nevertheless, these actions are assigned great value, which is also true of symbolic action in offline spaces. (For instance, saying “I love you” doesn’t actually change anything, but it is assigned great symbolic value within relationships.) Examples of enacting relationships online could include "friending" others, posting pictures of them, tagging others so that their profiles are called into the attention of their friends, posting links or other media to their profiles, etc. Examples of acting our own identities could include creating an online Social Networking Site (SNS) profile (and which SNS is chosen, more on this to follow), posting updates to our profile, linking to other online spaces, posting photos of ourselves, advertising our location or activity, endorsing venues by “checking in” to their locations, marking attendance at events advertised on the platform, etc (Cunningham, p1134). These “performances of selfhood” don’t just express our identities; they actually construct them. The action is the construct is the identity...an identity that is performed in a public and online space (Turkle, p160). These actions are not just a sideline; they are primary reason for us to be enacting an online persona in the first place (Ribeiro, p295).


After discussing the creation and construction of identities at some length, the question begs to be asked: How much are these online constructions true to the offline identity? The answer is, quite a lot. Humans crave being known for our “true” selves, however that identity role may be acknowledged or expressed. Our online personas are representative of our “true” selves at more or less the same level as our offline personas. The primary reason for deviating from our IRL selves is to protect privacy, not assume a wholly new personhood (Hongladaram, p534).


Even when a superficially-different persona is constructed online, it is likely to share “deep-seated metaphysical affinities” with the offline identity of the person constructing it (Hongladaram, p546).  [Aside: this continuity of identity expression is the reason criminologists can profile serial killers. People’s actions are consistent with their deepest identities, even when the actions are highly deviant.] These fundamental characteristics of identity tend to be expressed in equal measure (although perhaps in different manners) in both offline and online identity constructs. We all inhabit multiple identities (roles) and this does not interfere with the baseline “personal identity” we preserve (Ribeiro, p292). In fact, the online personas we enact are very often strongly correlated and even overlapped  with the multiple offline personas we enact. We end up being ourselves “in the most revealing ways” (Turkle, p153). (For example, we may be busy raising young children and have a website to blog about the experience.) (Ribeiro, p293, 301).


The alert reader may questioning the validity of these previous statements. After all, isn’t the Internet famous for being anonymous? Can’t anybody masquerade as anybody else? And don’t they do so? Isn’t this dangerous? The answer is yes...sort of. Anonymity on the internet is easy (Turkle, p169), but the huge majority of people who engage in creating anonymous personas are not doing so with the intent of harm.


Most anonymous personas are constructed for the purpose of exploration or entertainment, for the fun of “identity tourism” (Cunningham, p1134, Rebeiro, p296). Adolescents can use anonymous personas to explore identity and/or sexuality is low-stakes ways (Turkle, p169). Sexting, flirtatious messaging with known or unknown partners, or seeking out forums and SNS groups can be a way to learn about their own sexualities and preferences with a distance and safety that “real life” does not offer (Turkle, p152). This can be particularly important to LGBTQ youngsters, especially those in rural or socially conservative areas. Finding role models to emulate or simply knowing that other options for identity exist can be lifesaving (Cunningham, p1136). Even for straight youth, online personas are a way to learn and practice social skills that carry over into offline scenarios. It makes learning valuable skills a no-pressure game that they are willing to play (Ribeiro, p299-300) (Gui, p172).


Identity tourism can benefit adults as well, giving them the safety of anonymity to explore or enact private aspects of their identity (Rebeiro, p301). Escaping the limitations of the body and geography can lead to discovering new facets of personality (Ribeiro, p295). For people with physical disabilities or other limitations, this escape can be especially valuable. Anonymous online personas can also be a reprieve from the restricting roles of “real life.” They’re a pressure valve (Ribeiro, p298). Importantly, exploring another identity allows us to experience and foster empathy. We can begin to answer the question, "What would it be like to be someone else?" (Ribeiro, p300).


The ability to enact a fantasy and disconnect from the pressure and encumbrances of real life is important (Ribeiro, p299). We do this all the time, through many platforms. The desire to escape from our pedestrian lives is not the novel gift of the Internet; we’ve been doing it forever (Turkle, p159-160). We play out sexual fantasies in our heads. We read and watch escapist adventure books and movies. We play role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Primitive cultures embody the stories and personas of heroes and creatures in dance and ritual. We attend masquerades and Carnival/Mardi Gras festivals and dress up in costumes on Halloween. Enacting personas and fantasies is old stuff. It’s usually fun, usually harmless and often helpful (Ribeiro, p297).  Why do we do this? We do it because we find it useful and enjoyable. We do it because it’s fun! Basically, we do it because we can (Ribeiro, p299). Anonymous internet usage is simply the latest iteration of this ancient practice.


It would be remiss not to admit that anonymity can also be dangerous. Scams, stalking, distribution of personal information or exploitative media and other forms of victimization certainly do occur over the information highway. Ironically, one of the ways we protect ourselves from this stranger danger is to create personas that are more distant from our “real” selves than we otherwise would. We decide how much to reveal or conceal based on our own experiences and expectations (Matic, p15).  We construct a persona that may lie anywhere on the spectrum between “real,” “partially real,” or “invented avatar,” depending on how threatened we feel by the others who populate the shared online space (Matic, p15-16). This behavior is not unique to online identities, though. We all do this every day. We reveal certain information to some people and not to others. We might decide not to reveal aspects of our medical history, relationship history, financial status, etc. to any particular acquaintance. Women will frequently falsify the existence of a husband or boyfriend in order to avoid the advances of an aggressive man. What we do offline, we do online, too.

 

Let’s also remember that anonymity that raises the specter of danger can also be part of the appeal. People engage in all sorts of risky behaviors in no small part because of the thrill of courting danger and (usually) escaping harm. (Bungee jumping or skydiving are excellent examples of this. And who of us hasn't been on a blind date?) Anonymous online interactions are an extension of this human habit. Let’s also remember that of the billions of people creating online identities, a tiny minority are actually harming others. The absolute numbers may be large, but the relative value is quite small.

 

We have seen that the behaviors that we use to construct our offline identities are the same ones we use to construct our online identities. The online experiences we have are so vivid as to become embedded in our offline lives (Ribeiro, p293).  In fact, the difference between these two things, offline and online identities, is becoming negligible (Hongladaram, p533, 534). As larger and larger portions of our daily lives have moved online (gathering information, communicating with others, engaging in financial transactions, etc.), the contexts have collapsed and it’s impossible to maintain strict segregation between cyberspace and “meatspace,” as computer programmers refer to offline existence (Hongladaramladaram, p547, Cunningham, p1134).  If you cannot separate them away from each other, then they are one thing. Both our offline and online identity constructions are real and legitimate expressions of “true” self. No matter how we define what is “real” or “not real,” the way we define, construct, and express our identities remains constant, online and off. Since our online lives comprise such a large proportion of our total lives, our online identities are equally valid to our offline ones. In fact, they are one and the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Citations

 

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