Impact of the Internet on the Expression and Perception of Social Identities
potential of the Internet as a new means of communication is a theme which has
been widely discussed by journalists and academics over the past few years. Its
development has a much wider significance than in terms of a straightforward technical
progression from the telephone or postal system; the new forms of social interaction
it allows require us to reconsider the meanings of terms such as 'community' and
'identity'. The broad impact of the Internet on the expression and perception
of social identities is relatively clear: it spans cultural spheres and geographical
boundaries, and allows communication between millions, who will generally have
never met. The user can present themselves to many others with almost no restrictions,
and via various media. Significantly, the individual has much more control over
the expression of their identity than in face-to-face interaction. Users can impart
as much or as little information about themselves as they wish, and can even remain
anonymous, or create a new identity on the Net. Bearing these facts in mind, this
essay addresses some key issues concerning the Internet and identity, and, despite
the constant and rapid developments occurring within the field, attempts to come
to some conclusions about the implications of the Internet for the ways in which
we express and perceive social identities.
Before we commence a study
of the Internet and social interaction, a number of important points should be
stressed. As the phenomenon of the Net is, even now, still in its infancy, this
study takes into consideration possibilities for the future concerning the ways
in which we present ourselves. It is inevitable that any piece of writing about
the Internet at this time will quickly look dated, especially where predictions
for the future are made. However, in the future, it may be useful, especially
whilst re-examining the meaning of 'identity', to look back on the predictions
of today, as they will serve as a reminder of what people in the past considered
the concept of 'identity' to mean.
Although conventions are
beginning to take hold, a few key terms should be clarified: the 'Internet', or
'Net', refers to the technology linking computers around the world. 'Cyberspace'
is a general term for the 'alternative reality' created via the Net. The 'Web'
refers to the textual and graphical World Wide Web medium, and we should remember
that this is only one of the forms of communication possible via the Net.
Finally, it is important
to note that access to the Internet is, at the time of writing, still only available
to a relatively small proportion of society; only 16 per cent of Britons could
access the Internet from home last year, whilst only 10 per cent had access at
work [from research by the British Market Research Bureau quoted in Guardian
Online, 22/4/99, p. 5]. The cost of the equipment involved means that cyberspace
remains, predominantly, a middle-class domain. This throws into question the claim
that the Net provides a 'level playing field', giving a voice to all. Therefore,
we must take care not to over-generalise in any conclusions we make concerning
the Internet and society.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman (1969) suggested
the notion of identity as a series of performances, where we use 'impression management'
to portray ourselves appropriately in different environments. We conduct these
performances before others in 'front regions', whereas we relax, and perhaps formulate
our identities, in 'back regions', where we do not need to concentrate so hard
on giving an appropriate performance. These ideas appear to make sense when considering
face-to-face interaction. However, cyberspace forces us to re-evaluate them. Whilst
using the Net, different environments, in which we might normally use impression
management, can become indistinguishable; our detachment from a physical environment
means that it may become difficult to gauge whether, for example, the atmosphere
of a situation is formal or informal. Subtle processes which normally contribute
to our judgements of people and social situations no longer exist, such as 'civil
inattention' -- the non-verbal acknowledgement of the presence of strangers in
an environment. A notable consequence of this is that much of the content and
communication on the Net retains a relatively informal style in situations which,
in 'reality', might be seen as more formal. A broad example can be found in company
names: a recently-conceived form of Net-based currency is called Beenz
[http://www.beenz.com]. Also, would a non-Net-based
company have been likely to call itself Yahoo?
Furthermore, the boundaries
of front and back regions become less distinct in Internet communication. The
user sits at their desk, participating in a group discussion, or creating a web
page for others to read, but what do we know about the audience? How does one
know which 'performance' to project? Perhaps significantly, the content of many
personal web pages can be said to be somewhat self-indulgent -- the inclusion
of a life history of the author's cat could imply that he/she has no particular
audience in mind. In this case, can we be sure that the author is concerned with
'performances' at all? As we know so little about those with whom we communicate
online, perhaps our concern for the way in which we present ourselves will in
some respects diminish. A broad reassessment of Goffman's ideas will probably
require the luxury of hindsight. At present, while standards, technology and understanding
of the Internet are still very varied, we can observe the different responses
to the new possibilities for expression and perception of social identities. Many
of these are based on our familiarity with face-to-face interaction, and the comparative
freedom in expressing identity which the Net provides.
The sense of distance and
security which the user feels in communication via the Net has encouraged mixed
responses. Mark Lajoie argues that this perceived distance is problematic for
virtual communities, because it eliminates the sense of being in a public space.
Thus the virtual persona of the user can act like a tourist abroad -- with no
'ties' to place, s/he lacks social responsibilities online (Lajoie, 1996). It
could be argued that the reaction to this new freedom depends on the intentions
and personality of the individual. However, one should stress that due to the
international nature of Internet communication, expression of the self on the
Net in terms which transcend geographical relevance seems more appropriate than
an identity referring to cultural elements which are linked to a geographical
location. Universally-recognised characteristics, such as a sense of humour, could
play an even more central role within our identities in the future. Of course,
as the so-called 'global village' develops, people from different cultural backgrounds
will accumulate more common points of reference on which to base their social
opportunity to impart information anonymously via the Net seems particularly appealing
to Net users -- we are reminded of the varied and colourful nature of graffiti,
written anonymously within public toilet cubicles, but with the intention that
subsequent visitors will see it. Many have emphasised the problems of the fact
that we can remain anonymous on the Net. There are countless anecdotes concerning
online deception, such as the story of Sue, a prominent figure on a MUD [Multi-User-Domain:
A virtual environment, within which online personae can 'move around' and interact
with others], as told by Hodge (1999). Sue, a self-confessed agoraphobic, was
a keen user of the virtual environment. One day, she suddenly announced that she
was leaving to become an aupair in Norway. When a group of her online companions
took a minibus to her home in North Wales to bid her farewell, they discovered
that 'Sue' was a man who had just been jailed for fraud.
It is clear that, with
the feeling of distance and security maintained in Net communication, people are
more likely to 'take risks' in their portrayal of themselves -- not necessarily
with the intent to give truthful impressions. Online relationships are thus often
based very much on trust. We instinctively want to find out more about those with
whom we communicate online, in order to match what they write to a face, and to
an identity. This is reflected by the modern trend in newspapers and magazines
of putting a photograph of the journalist next to an article, and occurs especially
in connection with subjective writing. Also, the media were dumbfounded by Internet
marriages between couples who had met on the Internet. Research has suggested,
however, that Net users are actually more sociable than non-users, and that many
online friendships lead to face-to-face meetings. [A survey by Katz and Aspden,
reported in Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (December
1997), was carried out on 2500 Internet users. The sample was diverse in terms
of race, gender, religion, geographic location and financial status, and included
Net novices and long-time users. Results found that in comparison with non-users,
Net users belong to more, not fewer organisations that involve face-to-face contact.
Also, sixty percent of those reporting that they had formed friendships on the
Net said that this led to a face-to-face meeting].
Methods of gaining impressions
of identity on the Net are clearly required. John Suler asked a group of thirty
women to suggest questions they might use to ascertain whether a user was genuinely
female. These were, predictably, based on biological issues (Suler, 1999). But
this approach is only useful to determine sex; we need other methods in order
to gain broader impressions of people on the Net. An interesting aspect of cyberspace
is that it allows us to present ourselves via various means: within a few clicks,
a user in New York might discover the personal web pages of someone in Japan,
be directed to a newsgroup where that person posts, discover a topic of mutual
interest and discuss it with them in real-time. Thus a relatively comprehensive
impression of that person's identity is constructed. Perhaps we will eventually
reach a time where the majority of people have a significant and diverse presence
on the Net, allowing others to form fairly thorough impressions of them.
With time, the advance
of Internet technology will also probably facilitate our formation of impressions
of others, and maybe even make it more difficult to remain anonymous. For example,
when bandwidth allows, video-based conversations are likely to become much more
common -- as we have discussed, we instinctively want to visualise the people
with whom we communicate. It will thus become more obvious when someone is being
selective about the identity they portray -- for example, if they leave their
video camera switched off.
implications of the Internet in terms of expressions of the self should not be
cause for concern; indeed, they should be viewed with optimism. Nancy Baym (1998)
points out that most Net users in fact use an online identity which is consistent
with their offline one. Furthermore, regular Net users will agree that most people
do not relish anonymity -- the majority of users are keen to express themselves
as widely as possible, hence the existence of devices such as email signatures
and 'emoticons', which give an individual feel to potentially impersonal modes
of communication. Esther Dyson (1997) maintains that we should protect the right
to anonymity on the Net for "precisely the reason governments fear it -- that
it provides protection for the powerless against the powerful". If anonymity is
abused, the perpetrator should be blamed -- not anonymity, or the Net itself.
We must remember that technology is controlled by people; the Internet is a part
of society, and it will evolve to serve the functions we demand -- technology
will never replace contact between humans, but will continue to enhance and facilitate
In fact, the opportunity
for Net users to take on radically different identities to the one they present
in 'real life' could have positive consequences, as we will see later. The fact
that an individual has so much selective control over their online identity, particularly
in the case of personal web pages, can be of great interest to researchers --
we can study a person's online persona in comparison to their identity in 'real
life'. We can thus suggest which aspects of their 'real-life' identity the individual
would like to actively project, and which they would rather suppress, based on
what they display (or don't display) on the Net.
As gender tends to be a
fairly clear-cut aspect of identity, it is an interesting area to study when attempting
to come to conclusions about the impact of the Net on the portrayal and perception
of identities. As recently as 1998, Nina Wakeford could claim that the Internet
was still a male-dominated domain -- a notion that is supported by running a search
on the word 'woman' in a search engine. However, such reactions against a perceived
male-dominated environment, and the consequent 'call to arms', are reminiscent
of the feminism of the 1970s, which separated women into a distinct group. The
possibility that such distinctions are detrimental has often been suggested. The
initial domination of the Net by men seems to have been due to the technological
advantage of male IT experts; as the Internet enters the mainstream consciousness,
sexual equality has increased. [This claim is supported by research by the British
Market Research Bureau, in which 23 percent of people surveyed said they were
"unconvinced" by new developments in information technology, 20 percent were "concerned"
and 20 percent felt "alienated". The concerned and alienated people "tend to be
female, over 45 with a DE socio-economic profile". In the future, Internet users
are likely to be increasingly evenly distributed between the sexes. Research results
quoted in Guardian Online, 22 April 99, p. 5].
Despite this, the security
and distance provided by Internet communication means that men and women often
interact differently with each other than they would in a face-to-face situation.
In a university seminar about the Internet and the portrayal of identity [Communications,
Media and Identity], a female student described an experience she had
whilst participating in an online conversation with a young man in Canada. She
was with four or five male and female friends, but they had logged in as two girls.
The man offered to send them photographs, which turned out to depict him in various
states of naked arousal. When the group revealed their true nature, he immediately
incident brings up a number of interesting points. The user felt that he could
send the photographs because he was communicating with two girls. One could claim
that the Net offers men the opportunity to be more openly sexist and aggressive
towards women, because they cannot be reprimanded, and also because they can rely
on deception -- it is difficult for a woman to use her intuition during online
communication to determine the intentions of a male user. However, this would
suggest that men have an underlying will towards sexism which is muted in 'real
life', a theory which would demand an entire separate essay. Also, we can assume
fairly safely that the man would be unlikely to give photos of himself naked to
two girls he had met five minutes previously in a bar -- the sense of distance
permitted him to do so. We have considered that advances in, for example, video-based
Internet technology may cause this sense of distance to be decreased. But this
individual felt comfortable in sending potentially embarrassing images of himself
to strangers -- perhaps we will become more comfortable with the idea that no-one
can touch us within the safety of our own homes, no matter how much of our own
identities we reveal. Finally, we should note that, contrary to real life situations,
individuals such as our Canadian can be cut off if they become threatening or
As we have seen, people
instinctively want to find out about the identity of those they encounter online,
and the determination of sex is often top of the list of priorities. When Sherry
Turkle logged in to a chat room with a name which did not specify her gender,
she was almost immediately asked: "Are you really an 'it'"? (Turkle, 1996, p.
210). One could, however, argue that such questions stem from our traditional
priorities in physical environments: gender-related considerations are often of
central significance in our formation and perception of identity in face-to-face
situations. Perhaps, therefore, the sex of those we meet on the Net will, like
geographically-based points of reference, with time become less relevant in the
formation of identity, especially as long-distance Net-based relationships become
more common. An environment where gender-related performances were of diminished
relevance would help us to come to conclusions about the extent of innate differences
between men and women.
For the time being at least,
the potential for anonymity on the Internet means that users can assume a new
gender in their online personae. This is a new phenomenon, and offers those individuals
whom might not normally be so bold the chance to experiment with gender at will.
Turkle noted that on a Japanese MUD called Habitat, with an estimated 1.5 million
users, there was a ratio of four men to one woman. However, in terms of online
characters, the ratio of males to females was three to one. Turkle concluded that
many players were "virtually cross-dressing" (Turkle, 1996, p. 212). What is the
attraction of such gender-switching? Among the reasons suggested by John Suler
(1999) include the opportunity for men to explore their feminine side, unhindered
by external pressures, and the possibility that they may be acting on unconscious
homosexual feelings. Assuming the role of a woman may also be a way of attracting
attention, and of experiencing power over other males. Experience of power is
also suggested as a reason why women assume male personae, as is the opportunity
to find out how other women act around 'men'.
It has often been observed
that people usually find it difficult to maintain the role of someone of the opposite
sex, for various reasons -- for example, the founder of the LambdaMOO (a MUD)
says that female characters with names such as FabulousHotbabe are almost always
actually men (quoted in Turkle, 1996, p. 211). This either appears to defy Foucalt's
vision of an entirely fluid identity, or suggests that people instinctively conform
to the expectations of their gender, even within the freedom of the Internet.
As not everyone finds it impossible to maintain an alternative persona, it seems
that the latter is true; with time, conformity to such gender expectations may
diminish. The nature of the Internet, whereby the boundaries of gender are blurred,
thus provides an ideal opportunity for 'gender trouble' as called for by Judith
"[We should be finding
ways of] subverting and displacing those naturalised and reified notions of gender
that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power, to make gender trouble,
not through the strategies that figure a utopian beyond, but through the mobilisation,
subversive confusion and proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories
that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions
of identity" (Butler, 1990).
experimentation with gender roles on the Internet could lead to a reassessment
of what constitutes gender, and to the breakdown of stereotypes on a wider scale.
However, others believe the freedom to decide what information we receive can
have negative consequences: as the Net does "not oblige…participants to deal with
diversity" (Healy, 1997), prejudices of a user are reinforced. I would argue,
however, that 'obliging' people to deal with diversity implies a clampdown on
individuality. Furthermore, the fact that the phrase is concerned with obliging
people to act in a certain way suggests that it alludes to the mass-media, which
purports to represent diversity, but is criticised by Adorno for producing a largely
unquestioning population. People have already rejected Internet 'push' technology,
whereby 'appropriate' information is presented to the user; in support of Foucault's
theory of the perpetual rejection of power, we welcome the opportunity to make
our own decisions about the information we obtain. In my opinion, this is healthy;
it does not mean that people are inclined to retain prejudices, but that they
are keen to make up their own minds. The reaction to gender-switching, then, also
depends on the individual, and the long-term consequences remain to be seen. In
the meantime, 'virtual cross-dressing' provides us with a useful arena for research.
Perhaps the final word should go to Richard Bartle, co-author of the first ever
"The fact that researchers
always write about crossing gender as if it were something amazingly special,
whereas playing a ninety-year-old ninja elf is something people have no trouble
with, continues to bemuse me". (Interviewed in Hodge, 1999).
The nature of the Internet
means that we can experiment with identity -- anonymity allows us to switch gender;
to take risks; to deceive. The global reach means that we potentially have access
to people whom we have never met, and to those from different cultures from our
own. Consequently, it is difficult to ascertain how identity is to be projected
-- if we are all actors on a stage as Goffman suggests, which 'performance' is
appropriate in cyberspace? These new implications for identity can be viewed cynically,
as they are ripe for exploitation. However, the nature of the Net means that it
cannot take the blame -- it is created and developed by society, and simply presents
new issues for society to address. We should in fact be optimistic about the blurring
of the established concept of identity -- experimentation with new personae could
lead to the reconsideration of the ways in which we perceive others.
Internet technology is
progressing rapidly; three or four years ago, users were seen as 'surfers', randomly
exploring a new virtual world. The term is heard noticeably less often now, as
our relationship with cyberspace has already matured. We are heading towards a
more organised (but not more restricted) online environment, where communities
and relationships within cyberspace will become stronger and more coherent. This
will have further implications for the portrayal and perception of social identities.
Finally, we must hope that the future will also bring far greater access to Internet
technology to all sectors of society, so that more people have the opportunity
to experience the effects of cyberspace on the concept of identity, and to participate
in the formation of online communities.
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Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London.
Donath, S.J. (1996),
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Dyson, E. (1997), 'Who
are you? And does it matter?' in Guardian Online, 4 December 1997, p. 11.
Goffman, E. (1969), The
Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Penguin, London.
Healy, D. (1997), 'Cyberspace
and Place: The Internet as middle landscape on the electronic frontier', in Porter,
D., ed., Internet Culture, Routledge, New York.
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of Words', in .net magazine (Spring 1999), Future Publishing, Bath.
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Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community,
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and Cyberspace' in Shields, R., ed., Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces,
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Newspapers and Magazines:
This essay was writen in
April 1999, when Dan Littler was a Level Three student on the elective
module Communications, Media & Identity
at the Institute of Communications Studies, University
of Leeds, UK.