Multiple identities

Who am I? What is my online persona? Do I present myself as the same in every situation? What do I change about me when I find myself in an unfamiliar context? How do I act differently when I'm in a reduced social cue context such as text based communication? These and many other questions are currently being addressed by researchers who are interested in the study of digital identity. It's a growth area of research for at least one very good reason. 

Digital identity affects us all, no matter what our age or social-economic background we come from. Technology mediated communication and pervasive computing affect everyone in the Western industrialised world. Without it we couldn't pay our bills, access information or travel distances. We rely on digital media for learning, business, entertainment and a host of other daily activities. Without knowing it, when we interact with these technologies, our behaviour changes. But there are many questions: Is my behaviour dictated by my identity? Or does my identity change because my behaviour does? Does my identity change when I am on Facebook? Do I modify my speech or the way I present myself when I'm speaking on the telephone, or on Instant Messaging, or Skype, or a webcam link? When I post up a blog, how different is that style of writing to the style I would use in say, an e-mail? Or a collaborative environment such as a wiki? And does my Second Life avatar bear any resemblance to my real life persona at all?

Dave Birch thinks there is huge scope for individuals to maintain multiple identities in cyberspace. In an interesting piece called Put your game face on, Birch points out that anonymity can enable people to reveal as much or as little of their true identity as they wish, and that this kind of false identity maintenance can lead to questionable or even dangerous behaviour. This has obvious implications for child safety.

And what of the image above? Well, yes, the pictures above are of me on my Flickr site (with a little image manipulation too, for this blogpost), and some are of me with famous British entertainers such as Matthew Kelly and Johnny Ball and well known American authors and educators such as Steven Berlin Johnson and Marc Prensky. You're probably thinking now that I spend my time seeking out celebrities to have my pictures taken with them. But the truth is, I was at the same events, got talking, and it was nice to have a picture taken to mark the occasion. All except Matthew Kelly that is. We spent time at university together and we are old friends. Together, we once did a psychology field experiment where we walked Matthew (he was already famous then) into several shops unannounced, to ask for change for a £20 note, and then observed the behaviour of the shop assistants. They changed considerably, even to the point where they broke shop rules by handing over change for a £20 note when no purchase had been made. If they couldn't get the cash register open, they were opening their own purses and wallets to hand over the change. Most interestingly, when asked a question by the unknown person, the shop assistants were all observed to answer Matthew Kelly instead. Their behaviour definitely changed. We did a control experiment with two unknown people and were almost thrown out of shops or largely ignored. 

My explanation for this behaviour was based on Erving Goffman's dramaturgical theory in that we forced them from front stage (professional rule bound role) to back stage (relaxed and informal role) so that they broke their own rules because they had been pleasantly surprised. This celebrity effect is just one way we see changes in behaviour. If someone famous walks into the room, we stare. Or we purposefully don't stare. Either way, our behaviour is being modified. Whether or not this causes us to adopt different identities has yet to be established. But this we do know - everyone is capable of acting out multiple identities - to suit the changing environments and shifting contexts modern life presents.

Creative Commons Licence
Multiple identities by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Katie Piatt said…
Interesting anecdote! Not surprised by their behaviour.

I consciously try and maintain one digitial persona, so nothing you find about me should contradict anything else. My thoughts here:
P@ said…
Ah Identity, Identity where for art thou, Identity?

Come to that, what are you? French colleagues tell me that to them, the idea of les identités multiples seems impossible, as they take Identity to be similar to our mathematical sense of the word.
Meanwhile, we have many theories of identity, from psychologists and sociologists.

I think the ones which ring truest to me are Stryker & Burke's (social) Identity Theory and constructive, narrative theories (although I understand those who hold that we do not define ourselves in terms of a narrative, for various reasons).

The idea that we are each fulfilling a number of different roles, and which role we act in depends on context appears, to my subjective mind, to fit with the evidence at hand. It is a very rare person who behaves in the same way with their parents, their boss, their lover, their children, their mates down the pub.

When we interviewed people, and listened to others' stories as part of the This Is Me project, we found a few people who claimed they didn't behave differently depending on context. Amusingly, having met some of them socially, I can tell you they are wrong. But this also gives rise to the question of whether our Identity is something 'of us', a property which we are more or less in control of, or a (set of) property(ies) which are inferred by others who observe us, or evidence of our existence.

In the This Is Me project we adopted the Stryker & Burke view that your identity is what you mean to a community. I would now take that a step further and could argue that as the communities you are in change, your may identity shift - either as your role changes, or just because the observers have changed. Much of how you are "seen" by others will be influenced by narratives they have heard, experienced or related about you.

The 'personal sense of identity' is useful, and a part, I would think, of one's feeling of self-worth, but for many practical purposes, it is the outward facing identities or personae that we project which have the greatest effect.

Context is everything - nothing has intrinsic meaning (at least, I am yet to be convinced that anything has intrinsic meaning) and our identities are no different. We "are" what we mean to others, and what we mean depends on the context in which they observe us.
peps said…
Provocative thoughts, overshadowed by my confusion RE commenter identity: Piatt vs P@.

I have recently found myself in the online world, and it has stimulated my first identity crisis for some time. Beginning to use the likes of Twitter causes us to question our identity deeply, and it feels especially speculative as in the early days we have no online community in which to situate ourselves.

In such an instance, do we choose the identity first and build a community around it, or vice-versa?

I'm currently having a crack at exploring issues of identity as part of my EdD (possibly using a form of virtual autoethnography).

Would welcome your thoughts:
Simon Ensor said…
We are all actors now, with our fans, friends and groupies. Do we have a say on the audience? Have we checked out the venues? Do we share the profits? Are we clear about our image rights?

Act one scene one


I am Legion and all the world's a shop,
In which all men and women are merely consumers:
Some have their euros and their credit cards;
And one man in his time buys many tops,
Twitter, and text, and post again,
Facebook he doth at frantic pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief iPad!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his millisecond upon the net,
And then is heard for ever more. It is a post
Typed by a blogger, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

With apologies to the writer who has fallen into the dust of public domain.
Sue Greener said…
Find great difficulty accepting the idea that "identity is what you mean to a community". I'd call that a hat. I wear lots of hats, though the same old comfy ones come out frequently and my favourite is the one with the learner label. But then there's the chair-person hat, and the don't bother me now hat, they also get used a lot.
But I can take hats off. And I am still clearly me - a confused and enquiring me which is known by God and my closest family. Hatless, my identity has truth. On blog, perhaps my truth is at least a little veiled.
Cheryl Harvey said…
Coming from a drama teaching background, I prefer to think of myself playing multple roles ie teacher educator, mother, grandmother, learner, colleague, friend etc. Of course I behave differently in each of those roles but my essence remains the same especially as I have matured. My essence is not my identity and certainly not my digital identity but my essence will be revealed in what I say and do.

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