Online with multiple parts of your identity

I made the point at the Govloop conference on last Wednesday that unlike the model of Facebook that people have one singular identity online I, as other social scientists, predicate on the idea that individuals have lives in which we have a variety of identities. By identity I mean the way that each person understandings of who they are and what is meaningful to them. We all posses social identities which are the characteristics that others attribute to us as individuals based on the place they perceive us as holding in relation to them or others who share those attributes. Examples of social identities are boss, co-workers, friend, organizer, parent, and child. In other words we as social individuals do not exist as one individual identity but hold a multiplicity of identities. Let me be clear that this doesn’t mean we have multiple LEGAL identities, or are “faking” identities in front people or are posing to be something we aren’t, on the contrary based on our interactions with different individuals in groups and organizations we deploy different parts of our identities or parts of our self. These identities allow us to be members of groups, this is true in real life as it is in the social media world.

Identities in the modern multimedia world are conditional, flexible, and multiple (for more on this read Anthony Giddens 1991 and Zygmunt Bauman 2004), we are actively producing and performing different identities online based on the medium or the audience that we are trying to communicate with. For example we don’t interact the same way with our friends as we do when trying to communicate in a business transaction (or one would hope that you don’t), in one interaction you hold the identity as an employee in the other you hold the identity of peer. These identities don’t have to be in conflict, they are complimentary. What is undeniable is that social media has blurred the lines between the private and the public thus we end up seeing pieces of individuals private lives spread over our screens with their personal views. The idea of creation of several social identities online, I believe, emerges from the need to maintain some of the boundaries that we recognize and want to have.

In a 2009 PEW survey half of all Social Network Site users (52%) reported they have restricted what they share by keeping some people from seeing certain updates in their profiles or on different sites, with younger uses reporting a higher rate of actively curating their online profiles. This curating process is in fact a way of creating online identities – showing only one part of who you are to a group of people: family, friends, co-workers, twitter followers, professional contacts, those who rely on your expert opinion or information. Each of these groups and the way we present ourselves to them is an online persona. The fact that Facebook does not allow you to have more than one profile is not the determinant to reality in which we live our professional and private lives. Ultimately it’s not hard to figure out with internet searches and the availability of electronic records about people, thus my point is not that individuals should create “fake” personas to show on their internet spaces. On the contrary each of the pieces of our personalities that comes across in the different mediums online is part of the whole that makes up a person – a whole multifaceted person.

Read more about Social Media and Sociological Theory

Guy Merchant. (2006). Identity, Social Networks and Online Communication. E–Learning, Volume 3, Number 2, 2006. Available at http://bit.ly/nFAKX9

Karen Sternheimer. (2009). Social Networking Sites and Social Theory. Available at http://bit.ly/qfJULU

Mary Madden and Aaron Smith. (2010) Reputation Management and Social Media. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Available at http://bit.ly/9N51DA

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Dannielle Blumenthal

Great post. My question is, could we handle seeing all facets at once? I am not sure. Maybe the so called need for boundaries stems in part from a realistic fear of having some aspects of the self be seen as offensive.

Pat Fiorenza

I think this is a really fascinating discussion – thanks for posting. I’d agree that we have different personalities that make up our whole personality – but with Google+ the ease to segment out each identify makes me uncomfortable. I don’t feel like the web should be a spot to restrict the flow of information to different users. As I mentioned in my original post, there are always exceptions, no right or wrong, just a really interesting discussion on how we choose to represent ourselves online and share information. Kids are an interesting case, I remember reading an article about teens choosing to deactivate their Facebook profiles while they were away from the computer, in an attempt to control their identity online. Thanks again for posting.

Anna B. Sandoval

@Danielle – I’m not sure how to answer your question of handling all facets at once. But the need for boundries is something that many of us seek, the data is pretty clear on that, the tools to create the boundries are there via groups on facebook and by making twitter accounts private.

Jay Johnson

The closest one would come to see all facets at once would be an extremely close relationship – spouse, parent/child, friends & roommate? I think you’d have to live with someone to know all of someone’s facets. Most everyone else probably wouldn’t want that kind of close-ness. We’ve all experienced someone over-sharing on soical networks. Personally, I’d be more comfortable with someone filtering their output to me than feeling cheated that they weren’t sharing everything.

Anna B. Sandoval

@ Pat I agree that anyone can find out what you have posted online, especially for those of us that have highly specialized jobs and names that are not common in a field (I speak from experience!) That said we are still managing how we want to be viewed by those whom we post information to, the pictures we choose to put out there, the people we follow on twitter, the language we make comments on (which specifically targets a population of followers or friends), all of that is a way of constructing an identity. Youth online behavior is fascinating and I can’t really claim to know a whole lot about it because it’s an ever changing group – completely fascinating.