The Complexity of the Online Self

On: October 14, 2009
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About Rutger van den Berg
Rutger is a 23 year old New Media student living in Amsterdam. In March of 2009 he graduated in communication science at the University of Amsterdam, During his master he specialized in Popular Culture & Media Entertainment. Currently He's deepening his knowledge of New Media, studying for his second masters degree at the University of Amsterdam


Cyberspace can both be considered a communication medium for “real” people and a place for people to take on different roles, for experimenting with different ways of behaviour, maybe even different identities. This possible online identity experimentation could change the way people think about the concept of identity. Sherry Turkle[1] considers the Internet as an element of computer culture which has contributed to the thinking of identity as a plural phenomenon. The Internet is used to experiment with the different sides of an identity. Virtual identities inspire to think about your own ‘real’ identity because the creation of an online role takes introspection. In the modern digital age it is impossible to speak of just one definite identity. The concept of identity must both personally and culturally not be considered as a definite fact.

Identity in cyberspace is an ambiguous notion. In real life an identity is mostly considered singular, belonging to a single body. In a virtual world, body and identity can be separated. This realization brings along a lot of new opportunities for experimenting with identity. Still it doesn’t really matter how many online identities one creates, because they all belong to the same body and mind sitting in front of the computer screen[2]. From this point of view identity is still considered singular and the internet is a tool to further develop this single identity. This notion doesn’t seem to stroke with Turkle’s idea of the plural identity. It’s interesting to give this contradiction a moment’s thought.

Anthony Giddens[3] claims that the late modernity (the time we live in right now according to Giddens) confused the way we think about identity. This confusion appears to give us the opportunity to create a new own identity. Because of the twentieth century increased individualism people started to consciously search for their own identity. Only when someone is aware of his/her present identity it’s possible to further develop this identity to the desired identity. To clearly define the road to the desired identity there’s a need for introspection and self reflection. Self reflection offers the opportunity for the fragmented late modern identity to re-shape itself, or at least some part of it. In this late modernity people are (being made) aware of their need for a clear identity. Because of this awareness they employ a continuous mode of self reflection concerning the own identity and its representation. According to Gidden’s theory the creation of an identity is a personal choice, people create their own identity. In my opinion Giddens puts to much emphasis on the individual. Giddens theory supports the theory of contra-essentialism, which is the idea of identity as a social construct, an decentralised identity. Contra-essentialism is opposed to essentialism, which is the idea of an established identity. Giddens talks about identity as a project under development, which clearly is opposed to the theory of essentialism, but he doesn’t say much about the social influences on that project, he concentrates on the inner processes of the individual. Another academic supporting the idea of contra-essentialism is Stuart Hall[4]. According to Hall the modern view on identity is one of constructionism, mobility and multiplexity. He claims identity isn’t an established objective fact, but a process shaped by subjective impulses, which originate from a persons discursive activities. A persons environment and context have a big influence on identity construction. Hall says “We are defined by who we are not”, identity originates from being different then the other and because of that is determined by others. Introspection concerning an individuals own identity creates a need for thinking about other individuals.

The idea of contra-essentialism and its constructionist approach to identity gives the concept of identity an interesting meaning in our digital age. As said before, the Internet is a great platform for experimenting with identity. When we adopt Gidden’s and Hall’s ideas the internet can be very helpful for creating the desired identity. The continuous need for analysing and developing the current identity fits perfectly inside the online worlds possibilities for identity building and experimenting. SNS sites, online communities and other internet applications based on social contact have proven to be playgrounds for self presentation. The online interaction also gives opportunity to define the own identity through the identity of others, which according to Hall is important for identity construction. This enormous opportunity for potential identity development takes us back to the question concerning Turkle’s plural identity. Could experimentation with different kinds of self presentation be an argument to speak about a plural identity. Is it possible for someone to have more than one identity? It could be said it is easy to have several different identities in different online environments, but are these identities really different? The notion that these different identities come from the same mind, makes me think they are just part of one reigning identity. An “online identity” might simply be a way of self presentation, not really an entire personality comprising identity. When thinking about identity from a constructionist view, it is hard to think of identity as possibly plural. I’m inclined to think of the internet as an enormous stimulus for identity development, but not as giving opportunity to employ multiple identities.

[1] Turkle, S. (1995) Life on the screen: identity in the age of the  Internet. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster

[2] Donath, J. (1999) Identity and deception in the virtual world. In Kollock, P. & Smith, A. (1999) Communities in cyberspace. London; New York: Routledge

[3] Giddens, A (1991) Modernity and self identity; Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity press

[4] Hall, S. (1995) in Bell, D. (2001) An introduction to cybercultures. New York, NY: Routledge

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