Sunday 17 July 2011

The Online and Offline Self

Cyberspace is viewed by many critics as a utopian, consequence-free playground where people can experiment with their identity, and the recent case of Tom MacMaster, the male, married, mature American student at Edinburgh University who was posing as the young, lesbian, Syrian blogger, Amina Abdullah Arraf al-Omari, demonstrates this to a certain extent.

One of the earliest academics writing about technology and self identity, Sherry Turkle, published a book in 1995 in which she explored the psychology behind creating different lives online; the practice behind her ideas is perhaps best demonstrated by the interest the virtual world, Second Life, received when it was launched in 2003.

However, Turkle has now abandoned her 1995 position and she takes a far less utopian position as the boundary between the online and offline lives of the permanently connected individual has become increasingly blurred. We are no longer in a position to create the online identity we want by choosing only the best pictures or only making the wittiest comments in a public forum, and gone are the pre-digital camera and webcam days when the response to the chatroom’s opening question ‘a/s/l?’ would determine the course of the conversation.

Beyond what we chose to share, our online identity now is shaped for us by other people posting pictures of us (which do not always show our best side), and commenting on what we post; it is important to note that this is a reliable shaping as the online connections we make on social networks today are primarily with people with whom we have genuine offline relationships. The ability of our online persona to influence our offline character is reflected in a line I heard recently (and I cannot remember where) thinking about the night before the morning after: ‘If it’s not on YouTube, it didn’t happen’.

The academic and Guardian columnist Aleks Krotoski wrote recently that she adheres to Turkle’s original 1995 view; while I agree that it is still possible to create an experimental online identity, I cannot subscribe to it being consequence-free. With the quantity of publicly available personal data that exists, and is continually being generated, and the connections that are made, keeping genuine and playful online identities separate is not straightforward.

I have been reading Turkle and Krotoski’s work recently as part of my own studying, but it was made more personal for me this week when I signed up for Google+. I dutifully filled in the basic details required by profile and found a couple of friends; then standing (metaphorically) surveying the website I realised how empty it was. For a moment, I felt like an explorer coming upon a new land and standing on the shore looking around somewhat bewildered. And then I felt a shudder of fear.

The fear was not of an attack from a extended metaphorical native, but from the realisation that I have spent the past four years creating my online identity on Facebook and the prospect of starting in a new land was too onerous. Before that moment, I had not realised the time or unconscious effort that has gone into making my online Facebook presence reflect the reality of my life and suddenly the thought of the status updates which I have mentally composed but not posted made me wonder how far my online identity is shaping my offline identity.

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