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A theatrical mask

Digital personas and performance

Personal identity is a complex and multifaceted concept (and easy, in the digital age, to confuse with multiple personalities); our identity is crafted from a number of different factors: our background, ethnic group, interactions with other, beliefs, the decisions we make…

Often we have no control over how others perceive us, or how they might interpret our interactions with them. Our personal identity is something that evolves over time and can change, sometimes drastically, throughout our lifetime as we interact with new people and gain new knowledge and understandings.

In the digital age we now have new issues to grapple with when we consider our personal identity. Philosophical questions such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘What does it mean to be a person?’, and ‘Do I matter?’ have taken on a new dimension. If we look at these questions in the context of digital citizenship, and of some of the themes we have explored in this activity so far, we can begin to see that our notions of personal identity are multifaceted: for instance, in some environments we might feel like residents, while in others we are only visitors.

Construction of personal identity

When we consider the construction of our online identity we could see this as the emergence of a new kind of self (as Hongladarom does): there is a fuzziness between the online and offline self that cannot be completely separated, but the controls that we have in the online environment offer new opportunities to construct our personal identity. Online we can be more selective about what we post; we can create a new identity in our avatar and our username. In offline interactions we have fewer opportunities to craft and reflect: people will make assumptions and draw conclusions based on our physical appearance, accent and mannerisms, which can be more difficult to mask in personal interactions.

“Pictures or it didn’t happen”

Research by Zhao, Grasmuck & Martin has shown that identities created in a named environment differ to those constructed in an anonymous online setting: “Facebook users predominantly claim their identities implicitly rather than explicitly; they ‘show rather than tell’ and stress group and consumer identities over personally narrated ones.”

‘Picture or it didn’t happen’ has become the populist mantra of the socially networked digital age. We exist now in a Facebook / Twitter / Instagram stream of pictures of workouts, steps taken, dinners, family parties (that we didn’t attend), holidays, other people’s family events, ‘milestones’… In the online world do we become, in some levels, one dimensional? Is our identity purely based on what we post, or is it influenced or contextualised by other aspects such as the specific makeup of the social networks in which we are engaging?

In the next activity we will build on some of the ideas of identity that we have considered in this activity to think about how we manage our online identity and how we protect our personal information.

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This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society

University of York