Identity has taken on a strange stage with its relationship to the internet. It’s as if you can be anyone. Who you are can change as quickly as the clothing you wear everyday. For some even more. As well as how many identities you become, and how different they are from each other, seems to be totally in your control. Whether it be an alias, some anonymity, an avatar, or a mask you can take out because you’re in a certain mood. It can even be the styles and how you express your identity in cyberspace. It is without a doubt that the malleability and diversity of identity in cyberspace far outweighs the potential in real life.
Human identity is a complex thing to understand already. Sometimes I feel I wake up every morning with an existential crisis, wondering “well who am I and where am I going”. However it is even more curious on the internet. With the huge proliferation of internet identities, social network sites, and collections of community based websites all around the idea of an identity, what exactly is an identity? Or rather, to push the hard problem of identity aside (sorry any philosophy buffs reading), what is the current state of internet identities and where may it be going?
Connectivity on steroids
This “hyperconnectivity,” by many sources, is considered to be one of the roots of the modern internet identity. That is, more and more people are uploading, sharing and distributing more data everyday. We also know data is being collected and used by private and public sectors. But, how does this affect identity? Research in the UK has shown identity in cyberspace is really different form the classical visions of identity we usually catalog: race, age, religion, job, etc. According to the study, hyperconnectivity changes the way identity operates. For young people, a “true” identity is said to emerge, versus something fictional, around interactions in social media and role playing video games. Immediately a red flag goes up, and I think “wait a second, how can a non-fictional identity come from role playing games?” However, the study argues that people feel more freely to express themselves and it seems “exfoliate” their identity. Especially with social activism…
…in fact the increase of radicalization and extremism in the fight for social identity seem to be contingent on this social plurality. A result of connectivity on steroids. Virtual and physical environments both have become a battlefield for political struggle. The attacks on privacy and ownership of digital identities is something that is changing the struggle and shape of youths’ internet identity. These effects of hyperconnectivity are also creating challenges for marketing firms to understand their consumer. With the rise of distortion in internet identities, in conjunction with social plurality, a real identity is proving sometimes hard to put together. We see these splits of offline and online identity. Digital and real life. Maybe right now at this step we don’t know where hyperconnectivity will take internet identities. However with all this curiousity and mystery behind “true” identity online, what happens to identity in reality? How does identity online impact identity in reality, and vice versa?
The split: online vs. reality
I think its no elephant in the room that real life and virtual environments are blurring together with this immense amount of hyperconnectivity. When someone can just go to your Facebook page, read that you like watching X-men, and then BAM “surprise” you irl with the X-men series. One thing we got to ask is: does everyone who “likes” watching X-men really identity with watching X-men irl? That is, how much does an online identity share with a real-life identity? Turns out psychologists discovered that personality traits inferred from a social profile match pretty closely to that of. Using sample of individuals on social media websites in a cafe. They even found that people who played the online role playing game World of Warcraft didn’t think their online identities matched their irl ones. When in fact they matched more closely than the players actually self-perceived.
Another way to look at it is like a battle or tension between online and offline identities. To return to a political note again, anonymity is really important when it comes to internet activism and organizing. Now when we think anonymity on topics like this I always think about the virtues of online anonymity. However with identities reaching so closely together, its not longer online but offline anonymity that may be exacerbating. With facial recognition and spatial tracking technologies developing, collecting and cataloging information irl about a stranger in public space may no longer be anonymous. It’s as if the transparencies of online identities want to sublimate offline identity into being transparent. Virtual literally prying open the doors of information in reality.
Even when I think deeper into this tension between online and offline identities, I sometimes feel at this point in time we’re having trouble scientifically coming up with an explanation. Some have argued that the tendencies or types of media we use with our online identities can take control and subvert our offline ones. Others have gone as far as saying that how we use our virtual identities physically impacts all parts of our lives including our offline identity. Sometimes I feel our offline and digital identities are tangling. By this I mean, even in our attempts to pry them from each other, we’re always left with fragments of our identity manifesting either on the web or irl.
So if we admit that we’re all connected together, very, very, intensely. As well as see that virtual and real-life identity are tangling very, very, close together. How does this impact the ownership and control of identity? If an identity in cyberspace has value, what happens? When the law and legal relations of identity adapt to a virtual world, so too do the types of crime. Identity theft is amoung these crimes to hit cyberspace. This is when someone literally takes on the identity of someone else online, and tries to use it for gain or harm. An identity thieve can do this 2 basic ways: hack into a service and controlling your identity, or pretending to be you in your online relations. Thieves do this for a number of reasons: monetary gain, social status, practical jokes, etc.
Unlike other types thefts, identity theft is one of the most invasive and disrupting experiences to deal with as the victim. I remember falling for one of the oldest tricks in the book back when Myspace.com was a big thing. Phishing. Not fishing. Phishing is when a thief captures your username and password through an assortment of methods. The most classical method is pretending to be the service you’ve built an identity on, and prompting you for your username and password. Without checking the url or carefully looking at what you’re about to do, trigger-finger keystrokes may lead you astray!
Wrapping things up
In today’s day who we are in cyberspace are many things. We are an identity or identities. We are incredibly connected, from our real world identity to our online world identities. Cyberspace provides more freedom to express how we identify, but also changes the ways we act in identifying. It isn’t always the safest place either. The fluidity between offline and online identity can create problems. Like legal problems or impersonation. However at the end of the day we are still seeing what cyberspace has in store for who we are in terms of identity. One day we may even end up tossing terms like ‘internet identity’ or ‘physical identity’ or ‘online vs. offline identity,’ and just be left with identity. On that note readers, I leave you with a video with similar ideas and personal identity discoveries to ruminate on. Enjoy!