Identity is a complex concept to grasp, but is essentially the different features that make people who they are. We ‘perform’ and ‘project’our identity by the clothes we wear, music we listen to, who we are friends with, and so on. We are not able to choose all aspects of our identity, such as our age, gender, and nationality. People interpret our identity by observing how we present it, but we are not always in control of their response to it. Since the introduction of social networking services, the way in which we ‘construct’ our identities has changed, our online identities often affecting our offline ones and vice versa as people may observe both. To be a social media user one must construct their online identity. How we are presented online is particularly of interest to teenagers.
We are free to construct our identity however we would like on the internet. On some websites such as Reddit most users are anonymous, however on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, we generally use our true names, pictures of ourselves, and our friend lists or followers are predominantly filled with people we know outside of the internet. Livingstone (2008) says “Despite the potential for global networking, most people’s contacts are local, with stronger ties centred on pre-existing study or work contexts” (pg. 395).
The statuses or tweets we post, videos and photos we share, and groups we like, all assists in building our online identity. More personal information which we choose to share or not share, such as our religion, relationship status and birthday is also a way to express ourselves online. In Livingstone’s (2008) study of several teenagers’ social media habits, she found that they were selective in sharing certain information, making “thoughtful decisions about what, how and to whom they reveal personal information, drawing their own boundaries about what information to post and what to keep off the site” (pg. 404).
Constructed identities on social media are interacted with by other social media users, or ‘friends’. Chambers (2013) states that on social media, “unlike an ordinary webpage, the identity might be contested and modified by interactive onlookers” (pg. 62). So in the same way that others affect our offline identity, they can also influence our online one with their comments on our posts, public messages to us and things they tag us in.
For most people, becoming a Facebook friend with someone does not mean that they know them particularly well, they may have just met or have a mutual connection. Because there has been minimal time to make an impression of identity offline, one often makes sure their profile and online interaction with others portrays the desired identity. Chambers (2013) explains that “individuals invest a great deal of time and effort in forming and managing impressions, particularly during the initial stages of interactions” (pg. 63).
Users of social networking services carefully construct their online identity by what they post and what information they share. Social connections, or other users, interact with this online identity and partly help form it by being ‘friends’ with, or ‘following’ the person, and through their contribution of comments and posts.
The Guardian article – How free are we to choose our online identities?
Livingstone, S. (2008). Taking Risky Opportunities in Youthful Content Creation: Teenagers’ Use of Social Networking Sites for Intimacy, Privacy and Self-Expression. New Media & Society 10(3), 393-411. doi:10.1177/1461444808089415
Chambers, D. (2013). Social media and personal relationships: online intimacies and networked friendship. Palgrave Macmillan