The Impact of the Internet on the Expression and Perception of Social Identities

By Daniel Littler

The 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.

In 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 identities.

The 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.

The 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 it.

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 logged out.

This 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 boring.

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 Butler:

"[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).

Our 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 MUD:

"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.

References

Baym, N.K. (1998), 'The Emergence of Online Community' in Jones, S.G., ed., Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, Sage, California.

Butler, J. (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, London.

Donath, S.J. (1996), Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community, at http://judith.www.media.mit.edu/Judith/Identity/IdentityDeception.htm

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.

Hodge, K. (1999), 'Worlds of Words', in .net magazine (Spring 1999), Future Publishing, Bath.

Jones, S.G., ed. (1998), Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, Sage, California.

Lajoie, M. (1996), 'Psychoanalysis and Cyberspace' in Shields, R., ed., Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies, Sage, London.

Liberty (eds): Liberating Cyberspace: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and the Internet, Pluto Press, London 1999

Silver, D. (1999), Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies (updated regularly), at http://www.otal.umd.edu/~rccs/

Suler, J. (1999), Do Boys Just Wanna Have Fun? Gender-Switching in Cyberspace, at http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/genderswap.html

Turkle, S. (1996) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Newspapers and Magazines:

Guardian Online

.net magazine


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.

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