More and more of people’s everyday lives are occurring online. Unlike many previous generations, the current generations are growing up in an increasingly isolated world, with much of their contact with other people taking place through the Internet. Of course, not all human interaction will fall by the wayside as a result of this increasingly-cyber world, but now much of the human interaction that used to take place in the “real world” occurs over the Internet. Using the Internet as a tool to find a romantic partner, for instance, is one way that the Internet has changed the face of human interaction; however, there are a multitude of other ways that cyberspace has altered human relationships. The growth of popularity of the Internet and, perhaps more specifically, social networking sites has changed the way people perceive themselves and their peers.
Another growing realm in cyberspace is, of course, the creation of worlds in which people can play games and live alternate lives. Skyrim, Second Life, and World of Warcraft are all examples of these virtual realities; and it is common to hear anecdotal stories of people becoming addicted to living and interacting in these worlds (Schechtman 329-343). This raises the question of why people find the need to immerse themselves in cyber realities, rather than participating in reality as it has traditionally been known; however, it also raises the question of how identity is integrated into virtual realities, and how people present themselves over the Internet and via social networking platforms. Identity in social networking and presence in virtual worlds are two different issues, especially where creating an online identity is concerned.
Social media is a form of networking that allows people to connect with others via the Internet. Often, an individual will use social networking to connect with real-life friends, coworkers, and acquaintances; they may also use social networking sites like FaceBook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Google+ and so on to connect with friends and family who are geographically far away (Hongladarom 533--548). However, there are also alternative ways to use FaceBook and other social networking sites; as a face for one’s professional association like a business, for example, or as a page dedicated to sharing certain types of information.
However, some people choose to use social media for other methods of expression. Because social media has become so ubiquitous, some people have had to make changes to their cyber-lives as a result of potential real-life consequences for their actions on social media websites. For instance, Hongladarom writes:
We do not need to worry about his real identity here, because he does not use his real name on his proﬁle page. He also uses a picture of a koala as his proﬁle picture. The result is that, if one does not know beforehand who Burn Out really is, then there is no possibility of knowing his real identity. So Burn Out has created an online persona that does not necessarily connect with his real life person The koala apparently does not have anything to do with his personality (I know this because I know who ‘‘Burn Out’’ really is, and he is just an ordinary Thai man having no essential connection to a koala). Thus, it seems that the proﬁle page here functions only as a placeholder, a neutral platform on which Burn Out can project his thoughts and ideas to his friends most of whom already know him in real life. Furthermore, those who do not know him personally also can interact with him; they know that he is a Thai person and has certain likes and dislikes based on what he posts on his Facebook proﬁle. Since they are all Thai, they already share quite a lot in common The situation here represents Hall’s view of the ‘‘high context’’ (Hall 1976), in contrast with the ‘‘low context’’ situation normally found when people from different cultural background meet and interact with one another. (Hongladarom 533--548)
Here, Hongladarom is suggesting that the presence of the Internet and the social media platform (in this case, FaceBook) provides anonymity in some respects, but a greater sense of shared background and culture in other respects. As Hongladarom notes, a Thai person can immediately relate with “Burn Out” on their shared Thai identity, something that may or may not happen in the “real” world (Hongladarom 533--548).
Hongladarom also builds his philosophical basis for the understanding of the self on the theory that the individual is not his or her body (Hongladarom 533--548). He states that the body changes, and while the personality may change, it fundamentally stays the same; the human being’s sense of self is rooted in something deeper than his or her physical being (Hongladarom 533--548). However, Hongladarom also notes that an individual’s sense of self is not entirely tied to his or her mental state or mental events, either (Hongladarom 533--548). For this reason, the idea that one’s online identity can be as legitimate as one’s offline identity is quite compelling. Although one’s offline identity may be considered to be one’s “real” identity, because it is tied more closely in which one’s physical presence, one’s online identity may, in fact, be more true to the internal “self” that many people recognize as their true identity.
The question of where the line is drawn between one’s true identity and one’s online identity is an extremely personal one, but one’s online identity can arguably be more “true” than one’s offline identity. Because the individual’s “self” is so inherently tied into one’s mental state and mental events, it follows that an entirely cerebral experience, like the meeting of identities and minds that occurs over social networking sites, may be more of a meeting of true selves than a meeting offline. On the construction of the self and the relationship between the self and one’s physical presence, Hongladarom writes, “Furthermore, the self is not entirely constituted solely by any of my mental events or episodes, or any collection thereof. My mental episodes change very rapidly during the course of a day, but that does not mean that I become different persons each time my thinking changes. The problem of personal identity is precisely to account for the apparent existence of the self even though analysis shows that everything that constitutes it does change over time” (Hongladarom 533--548). The online identity is much more fluid than the offline identity; people are used to people presenting themselves in a specific way, and it can be very off-putting when someone experiences a sudden change in personality. However, one’s online profile and online identity can be easily altered and changed to reflect any changes in one’s personality that occur, regardless of how rapid those changes may be.
Although changing one’s personality and identity in the “real world” may be something of a task, it could very well be too easy to change one’s identity online. There are many different stories of people taking on other personas online, whether they are the persona of a sick person to garner sympathy or perpetuate fraud, or if they are taking on another identity to hide from their true lives. Lying on the Internet is as old as the Internet itself; the reason parents warn their children about the Internet is because of the high potential for people lying about their identities for one reason or another. Social networking allows people to connect, but the connections exist between online identities. Some people connect their online identity closely with their offline identity, while others build new lives for themselves on the Internet.
When a person decides to build a new or different life for him or herself on the Internet, it is often a form of escapism. The individual may be choosing to escape for only a short time-- this is a relatively healthy way of using this form of escapism, and everyone escapes from their “real life” for a brief time. However, some people immerse themselves in these online identities, allowing their online identity to become bigger than their offline identity. Striking a balance can be difficult, especially when one’s offline life is full of difficulties, and one can adapt one’s online life to be whatever is desirable at the moment. This is why games that offer world-building tools-- like Second Life, MineCraft, and World of Warcraft-- have been so popular.
In regards to Second Life, Schechtman is quite clear that there are many people who engage more fully with the game than they do their real lives off the computer and off the platform provided by Second Life. Schechtman writes, “The user has control over the screen name, gender, species, and overall appearance of his or her avatar, and for the most part controls the avatar’s motion and speechThe world of Second Life is a complex one, determined mostly by its users” (Schechtman 329-343). A person can construct whatever identity he or she chooses to construct within the confines of the program; for this reason, people often construct their ideal version of themselves. Second Life is also home to a number of niche communities, especially niche communities that share a type of sexual proclivity (Lane). The world of Second Life provides a type of safe harbor for people who are part of traditionally frowned-upon niche communities, like those who participate in activities often considered by society to be sexually deviant (Lane).
For introverts, Schechtman suggests, the world of Second Life gives them an opportunity to live out their internal fantasies without the fear of aggression, derision, or embarrassment that they may face in their everyday lives (Schechtman 329-343). Introverts may live a very varied, colorful inner life that they are afraid to express outwardly; virtual worlds give people the opportunity to express themselves without the fears and anxieties that they would normally face when trying to express themselves in front of other people in the “real world.”
This does not mean that living vicariously through an avatar is completely healthy or completely devoid of risk. Immersing oneself too heavily in a virtual reality has very real consequences; it can lead to extreme loneliness, for instance, as the individual may begin to neglect his or her offline friends to participate in online activities. In addition, spending too much time in front of a screen can cause eye problems and even sleep problems, as the brain is not designed to handle this type of light source for long periods of time.
Perhaps the biggest problem with identifying too closely with one’s avatar is the loss of participation in reality. When one begins to identify too closely with the online construction of self, the offline version of that self begins to suffer. One’s body may begin to weaken and become unhealthy as a result of all the sitting, and one may lose the ability to interact with people outside of the computer. Work and social lives may suffer as a result of the individual’s excessive reliance of the online identity as a means of expression. Like many things, participation in an online identity-- whether through social networking or a true virtual world-- is not a negative thing in moderation. However, an individual’s mental state can make it difficult to use things like Second Life in moderation; the platform itself lends itself to the creation of excessive fantasy worlds. When an individual in a certain frame of mind becomes too enamored of the fantasy world and the avatar that he or she has created, it can almost certainly mean that the individual will become too intertwined with his or her avatar to leave the virtual reality that he or she is participating in and maintain an identity in the offline world.
Hongladarom, Soraj. "Personal identity and the self in the online and offline world." Minds and Machines, 21. 4 (2011): 533--548. Online.
Lane, Andrew. "The Narrative Self-Constitution View: Why Marya Schechtman Cannot Require it for Personhood." Macalester Journal of Philosophy, 20. 1 (2012): 6. Online.
Schechtman, Marya. "The Story of My (Second) Life: Virtual Worlds and Narrative Identity. Philosophy and Technology." Philosophy & Technology, 25. 3 (2012): 329-343. Online.
Schechtman, Marya. The constitution of selves. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. Online.