Being myself

As a psychologist, I'm very interested in the concept of identity. I have studied it, written about it, and introspected (self questioned) on it and in particular, asked how identity can be manipulated in 'cyberspace'. This particular blog post is rooted in several others I posted in December, but notably two: 'It's only me' (which was about my Twitter and Flickr avatar @timbuckteeth) and 'The new Mii' which focused on 3D avatars such as those we create to represent ourselves when we play on the Nintendo Wii.

It all came to a head earlier this week when I mischieviously posted up on Ning that it was my birthday on 12 January (the same day the Digifolios and Personal learning Spaces online workshop kicked off). It wasn't my birthday though... mine is actually on June 16. As far as I know, only dear old Queen Elizabeth II has two birthdays (and presumably if there is a Queen Elizabeth III she will have 3 birthdays!). But I wasn't lying though. You see, January 12 is actually the day I created Timbuckteeth. And he is now two years old. So was it my birthday really? During his short little life, he has become a part of my online identity, and it has now got to the stage where not only do people address me as 'Mr T-B-T' online, I am also occasionally called 'Tim' by my f2f students. More than a dozen online friends wished 'me' a happy birthday on 12 January. I passed on the greetings to Tim of course.

The next day, when I came clean on Twitter about the birthday, Alexandra Grant-Paul (over in Canada - @AlexnWonderland) came up with a really interesting social question when she asked: How much ARE we our avatars?

Got me thinking it did. So I challenged her to write about it. She did, and her latest blog post 'Me and my avatar' is evidence of her thoughts. Alex poses some interesting questions and makes some amusing yet challenging comments about how we choose to represent ourselves to others, and how we are so good at changing our personae. It's well worth a read, and it'll get you thinking, I promise you.

So here's my closing comment: The social philosopher Erving Goffman (another Canadian!) proposed a theory of 'being' in which he likened us to actors on a stage (known popularly as the Dramaturgical model'). We manage our impressions most carefully, he claimed, when we are in our 'front stage' roles - that is, when we have an audience. This is in stark contrast to our behaviour when we are 'back stage', that is relaxed and with people we feel more comfortable with. Then we can be our true selves. In our front stage roles, we are subject to costumes, scripts, props, etc., but in our back stage roles, we can truly be ourselves.

But are we not also ourselves when we are front stage? Just a different version of the self? And when I create an avatar to 'represent' me, does the avatar change me? Or diminish me? Or enhance me.... when I am online? How much of 'me' is actually invested in the avatar? And finally, how much is my impression actually able to be managed by my avatar, when other people encounter 'him' in cyberspace. Your comments in the comments box below please (Open ID of course!)

(Image source: Rosemountgroup.com)

Comments

Sarah Stewart said…
Fascinating question, and one I would like to write a full blog post on but haven't got time. I have chosen to be known as "Sarah Stewart" as opposed to a made-up avatar, but even "Sarah Stewart" is different online to what she is in real life. She's a lot more outgoing & confident. As "Petal Stransky", my only made-up avatar (Second Life) I have chosen to represent myself physically - I have felt too uncomfortable as a young, tall, blonde with big boobs. If I had the choice, I would even be Sarah Stewart in SL as opposed to being someone else.
Steven Egan said…
This is an interesting topic. Rather than avatars I usually refer to masks, like an actor might wear for a part. Yet even then there are masks that go over masks.

In school or work, or any other place where there you wear the same outfit, speech and body language are likely to change. Partially this is for communication. It's hard to communicate an idea to somebody who has decided you are wrong.

There are two scenarios where I have taken time to observe this. The first was in school where social politics and labels define you. The other was on forums, where you usually only know the avatar, sometimes multiple avatars.
Christina Merl said…
Indeed, small things such as tone, demeanour and decor can make all the difference in the "beautiful and complicated you"... Whatever you may want to call it -- "actors on a stage", "modern way to play dress-up" -- I'm wondering how much the marketing industry has influenced our insatiable desire (or need?) for "showmanship".
And then I also would like to know in which way our online identity or avatar affects our behaviour and attitudes in good old real life?
Christina Merl said…
Indeed, small things such as tone, demeanour and decor can make all the difference in the "beautiful and complicated you"...
Whatever you may want to call it -- "actors on a stage", "modern way to play dress-up" -- I'm wondering how much the marketing industry has influenced our insatiable desire (or need?) for online "showmanship".
And then I would like to know in which way our online identity or avatar affects our behaviour and attitudes in good old real life?
Christina Merl said…
Indeed, small things such as tone, demeanour and decor can make all the difference in the "beautiful and complicated you"...
Whatever you may want to call it -- "actors on a stage", "modern way to play dress-up" -- I'm wondering how much the marketing industry has influenced our insatiable desire (or need?) for online "showmanship".
And then I would like to know in which way our online identity or avatar affects our behaviour and attitudes in good old real life?
Dan said…
Steve, both Goffman's model and Alexandra Grant-Paul's blog post consider how we represent ourselves in different situations.

However, I have found that whilst sometimes you refer to your online identity/avatar/pseudonym, Timbuckteeth, as a representation of you, other times you seem to personify Timbuckteeth, as if 'he' were a separate entity altogether.
Simon Fowler said…
Always interesting to think about this. My friend @briggzay at Indiana Uni introduces his New Media class with Sherry Turkle's "Who Am We?" article in Wired from years back. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.01/turkle.html
Anonymous said…
My thoughts on avatars have changed since I wrote this post some time back, but I think the overdirection is similar to yours.

The key there, I think, is that an avatar's a facet. We get to choose what we'd like to present, perhaps more deliberately than we generally do.

And maybe there's a connection to the question, "And who is he when he's at home?" as well.
Susie said…
I was fascinated, when discussing e-safety with a group of 14-16 year olds, to hear one girl explain how she deliberately used a variety of online personas to try out who she wanted to be in 'the real world'.

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