Online Identity – I am who I am

One of the superior factor of Internet is its ability to link things and people through an immensely large number of devices subscribed to the world wide web. In order for these nodes to be connected, online identity is mandatory. At the most effortless level, it is someone’s profile which contains most of the background info from age, gender, education to family, occupation. However, online identity not only refers the demographic information but also embraces the meaning of self, who you are as a person. The dynamics of any online conversations are lying within the understanding created among the speakers that go beyond the limited features of non-face-to-face interactions. Virtual identity helps users to convey their self in a clearer and more controllable manner. For many, the question is whether real identity is represented consistently in both online and offline ¬†worlds. It seems that the answer is no, thus, the arguments over online identity have been under heated debates without any signs of discontinuation.

The preferred self

Like most of the friends at my age, my roommate and I sometimes have some kinds of selfies, in which we always discuss how to choose the angles, the lighting and even the apps (Instagram or Camera360 to name a few) that we are going to use. So basically, we try to make sure that it’s gonna be a nice and beautiful photo for both of us (if you ask, I am not feeling embarrassed about it!). Similarly, I have seen quite a number of friends put a lot of efforts in taking selfies, deleted and retook if it was found disqualified until they satisfied with the final products. The ultimate purpose of this phenomenon is the showcase of one best self in every picture, which I guess may not be fulfilled in FtF interactions.

With the advent of technologies, users have the tendency to creating and maintaining an ideal or at least preferred self that would be hardly found in real life. Online activities like facebook-ing, tweet-ing, blogging, joining online forums or anything that you do online requiring a certain level of self-expression are integrated elements of identity building. Additionally, people can understand more about a person through these types of online non-verbal interactions. For me, unlike the offline world in which the non-verbal part is the body language, online non-verbal cues are coming from how you interact with people and what kinds of activities you are often do. To put it simply, liking a photo on Facebook is not merely a reactive action but a sign of approval that doesn’t require explicit explanation.

I am who I am

For many, Internet is the tool for creating a different identity cultivated from the desire to look good in the constant pursuit of social approval. For others, Internet is simply a the platform for them to be themselves. A friend of mine who has an Instagram account only allows certain people to have access to it despite her popularity that can be seen from her Facebook number of friends. There is a guy that I know having 2 Facebook accounts, one is for his parents, the other one is for his friends to reveal his homosexuality. Two of the cases that I have come across proved my beliefs in the impacts of SNSs on encouraging people to show who they are. Both are sharing their deepest thoughts, personal opinions, life events or true sexuality.

Internet becomes the therapy whereby the true or genuine self can be showcased clearly with the emphasis on aspects that they cannot easily thrash out in offline world. In this sense, people are not trying to build a favorable image but making an effort to be at least once who they really are without fear. They are simply seeking for a place where they can freely tell their deepest thoughts, weird opinions, personal problems or even their secrets with the hope that their voice will be heard. Needless to say, Internet empowers people to find solutions for all their needs.

Social judgements are on the way

For both cases mentioned, whether it is made subconsciously or is a representation of real self, there are always social approval and judgments involved.

Since users know someone is watching over them, sharing some news or personal updates, uploading a photo, or more subtle activities such as liking and commenting on a post or photo will lead to a better representation or impression of themselves as friendly, constructive, easy-to-approach, caring, considerate (and the list goes on) people. With the advance in privacy settings, the friends mentioned above could choose to share their stories only to a particular group of people. For both cases, people are seeking for social approval of their self, so in one way or another, social judgments have made its way into online sphere without any obstacles. In other words, online users have been internalizing a number of factors inherent in offline interactions. And whatever they are, there are still a lot of changes going on until people completely adjust themselves to the virtual world of communications.

Going social – the nature of online relationships

So why does social networking sites (SNSs) become so such a technological breakthrough with unprecedented popularity around the word these days?The question has struck me deeply since my first day in NUS and like any of my CNM fellows, I found a great deal of answers for this phenomenon which are listed in many academic papers, news or even casual blog posts. From my very own point of view, the interesting part of all lies within its ability to blur the lines between online and offline world at the most unconscious level, thus, coming with this trend is the dynamics of constantly changing relationships. This post is merely subjective observation revolving around my friends’ interactions as well as my own ones.

The ironies of being intimately online and distantly offline

Many of SNS users may not have realized it but for me it has become somehow undeniable that we are maybe not considered “friends” in real life but definitely we are “friends” on Facebook. Years ago, I was pretty curious about how close my girlfriend to this particular guy. As a silent observer, I often saw two of them commenting and liking each other post on Facebook in ways that can be seen as “close.” The fact that she was quite close to me and I knew for sure that she didn’t have good impressions about him motivated to ask, her answer surprised me. Beside Facebook activities, they two had nothing to do with each other. Similar stories for many other friends who I knew well enough to ask. They all gave me more or less the same replies.

I wouldn’t say that all of online relationships hold this types of patterns, I myself have a number of friends that I truly believe in their genuine intention when interacting with me over SNSs. But I just started to realize the hard truth of relationships on Facebook as well as many other SNSs. At first, I thought it gave me false perceptions of closeness when it comes to online and offline relationships. In academic terms, it is said that these types of communications lack the “social cues” played as a compass for you to understand and predict the behaviors of the speakers, which I guess, may lead to inaccurate assessments into the depth of the relationships. I believe these explanation can still be applied to a large majority of online interactions whereby all the hidden emotions and judgement can be covered perfectly by normalizing, amplifying or downplaying the conversations as per the users’ preferences.

Yet, whether it is still the case?

The changing nature of relationships

When Facebook was first introduced, it exploited the term ” friend” as a representative node in your networks of connections, unlike Twitter which used “followers” and LinkedIn with “connections”. The word “friend” in the first place connote a deeper nature of any relationships, it doesn’t simply mean an acquaintance or some random people who are interested in particular topics. Thus, I would assume that Facebook aims to develop completely different experience for those whose purpose is to bring their offline friends online or even put aside the offline elements, “giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”. Thus, online friendship isn’t necessarily being attached with physically social interactions, which inevitably shapes a whole new meaning for “friendship” in general.

People’s subconscious acceptance of absence from offline world is the core of newly-created definition for “friendship, followership, connections.” ¬†Users can freely expand their networks to those beyond their immediate locations or those without any mutual interests. And with the advanced algorithms from brightest minds, users can easily track their level of connectedness, a social map that helps them to visualize who they are in the complicated, overlapping and interconnected networks of connections. Overtime, the needs for physical meet-ups with be replaced by perhaps desire for expansion and possibly popularity.

Back to my stories that I have mentioned in the beginning, now I believe it is me to hold so tightly onto my beliefs in deep and trusted connections without the essential realization needed to understand the underlying complexion of online interactions. With the new platforms, chances for networking are being widened exponentially without doubts but the more relevant question now is how. As the expectations are redirected into a different path, the question of why people connected has been somehow altered to how the connections are different and which opportunities it can bring about.