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Online identity

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An online identity is a social identity that network users establish in online communities. Although some people prefer to use their real names online, most Internet users prefer to identify themselves by means of pseudonyms, which reveal varying amounts of personally identifiable information. In some online contexts, including Internet forums, MUDs, instant messaging, and massively multiplayer online games, users can represent themselves visually by choosing an avatar, an icon-sized graphic image. As other users interact with an established online identity, it acquires a reputation, which enables them to decide whether the identity is worthy of trust.

Online identity vs. "real life" identity

Online identity is far more malleable than "real life" identity; the latter is shaped by factors that are difficult to control (including race, class, occupation, and level of educational achievement). By means of online identities, people are free to redefine themselves as they wish. (In Peter Steiner's famous New Yorker cartoon, a canine computer user says, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.) The redefinition may involve deception: Gender-switching is common in MUDs and other virtual communities. Still, some Internet users say that their online identity more accurately reflects their "true selves" than the identity they have acquired offline.

Many Internet users have more than one online identity, a fact that is partly attributable to the lack of an identity management infrastructure that would enable a person to use a provable online identity in two or more online communities. Yet multiple online identities often arise under circumstances that raise accountability questions. For example, a person might initiate a new online identity to escape the consequences of a negative reputation, to alter the outcome of an online vote, or to provide additional support for a point made in an online discussion. At online auction sites, sellers sometimes log on with multiple, fictitious identities in order to bid prices up.

A given online identity is not necessarily tied to one actual person. A group of people can work together to establish a single online identity.

Internet users commonly believe that an online pseudonym gives them anonymity; however, a determined investigator can often draw a connection between an online identity and a "real life" legal identity. Web server and Internet service provider (ISP) logs keep a record of the IP address that is associated with a given online identity; in the U.S., an ISP must divulge this information when it is subpoeaned. In addition, users often disclose personally identifiable information in their user pages, and it is often possible to draw a connection between a pseudonymous online user's writing style and text posted elsewhere on the Web, some of which may reveal the user's "real life" identity. By means of anonymizing services such as anonymous remailers, Internet users can obtain more anonymity, but many Web sites block IP addresses of these services because they are often used by Internet trolls, vandals, and spammers.

Reputation management

Given the malleability of online identities, economists have expressed surprise that flourishing trading sites (such as eBay) have developed on the Internet. When two pseudonymous identities propose to enter into an online transaction, they are faced with the Prisoner's dilemma: the deal can succeed only if the parties are willing to trust each other, but they have no rational basis for doing so. But successful Internet trading sites have developed reputation management systems, such as eBay's feedback system, which record transactions and provide the technical means by which users can rate each others' trustworthiness.

Online identities and the market

An online identity that has acquired an excellent reputation is valuable for two reasons: first, one or more persons invested a great deal of time and effort to build the identity's reputation; and second, other users look to the identity's reputation as they try to decide whether it is sufficiently trustworthy. It is therefore unsurprising that online identities have been put up for sale at online auction sites. However, conflicts arise over the ownership of online identities. Recently, a user of a massively multiplayer online game called Everquest, which is owned by Sony Online Entertainment, Inc., attempted to sell his Everquest identity on eBay. Sony objected, asserting that the character is Sony's intellectual property, and demanded the removal of the auction; under the terms of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), eBay could have become a party to a copyright infringement lawsuit if it failed to comply. Left unresolved is a fundamental question: Who owns an online identity created at a commercial Web site? Does an online identity belong to the person who created it, or to the company that owns the software used to create the identity?

Online identities and the law

As the previous section suggests, online identities raise numerous unresolved legal questions: Is the creation of an online identity an act of speech, and therefore subject to protection under laws guaranteeing freedom of expression? Can the identity be protected by right of publicity or trademark law? Does it have rights (independent of the person or persons who created it?) Can it be defamed?

Online identity and identity management infrastructures

A problem facing anyone who hopes to build a positive online reputation is that reputations are site-specific; for example, one's reputation on eBay cannot be transferred to Slashdot.

Multiple proposals have been made to build an identity management infrastructure into the Web protocols. All of them require an effective public key infrastructure so that the identity of two separate manifestations of an online identity (say, one on Wikipedia and another on Kuro5hin) are provably one and the same.

Online identity and user's rights

The future of online anonymity depends on how an identity management infrastructure is developed. Law enforcement officials often express their opposition to online anonymity and pseudonymity, which they view as an open invitation to criminals who wish to disguise their identities. Therefore, they call for an identity management infrastructure that would irrevocably tie online identity to a person's legal identity; in most such proposals, the system would be developed in tandem with a secure national identity document. Online civil rights advocates, in contrast, argue that there is no need for a privacy-invasive system because technological solutions, such as reputation management systems, are already sufficient and are expected to grow in their sophistication and utility.

Online identity and the concept of the mask

David Wiszniewski and Richard Coyne in their contribution to the book Building Virtual Communities raise the concept of the relationship between mask and online identity. In this contribution they explore the philosophical implications of online identity. In particular, they examine the concept of “masking” identity. They point out that whenever an individual interacts in a social sphere they portray a mask of their identity. This is no different online and in fact becomes even more pronounced due to the decisions an online contributor must make concerning his or her online profile. He or she must answer specific questions about age, gender, address, username and so forth. Furthermore, as a person publishes to the web he or she adds more and more to his or her mask in the style of writing, vocabulary and topics. Though the chapter is very philosophical in nature, it spurs the thinking that online identity is a complex business and still in the process of being understood.

First of all, does the mask truly hide identity? The kind of mask one chooses reveals at least something of the subject behind the mask. One might call this the “metaphor” of the mask. The online mask does not reveal the actual identity of a person. It, however, does reveal an example of what lies behind the mask, For instance, if a person choose to act like a rock star on line, this metaphor reveals an interest in rock music. Even if a person chooses to hide behind a totally false identity, this says something about the fear and lack of self-esteem behind the false mask.

Second, are masks necessary for online interaction? Because of many emotional and psychological dynamics, people can be reluctant to interact online. By evoking a mask of identity a person can create a safety net. One of the great fears of online identity is having one's identity stolen or abused. This fear keeps people from sharing who they are. Some are so fearful of identity theft or abuse that they will not even reveal information already known about them in public listings. By making the mask available, people can interact with some degree of confidence without fear.

Third, do masks help with education? Wiszniewski and Coyne state “Education can be seen as the change process by which identity is realized, how one finds one’s place. Education implicates the transformation of identity. Education, among other things, is a process of building up a sense of identity, generalized as a process of edification.” By students interacting in an online community they must reveal something about themselves and have others respond to this contribution. In this manner, the mask is constantly being formulated in dialogue with others and thereby students will gain a richer and deeper sense of who they are. There will be a process of edification that will help students come to understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Wiszniewski, Dorian. , & Richard Coyne (2002), Mask and Identity: The Hermeneutics of Self-Construction in the Information Age. In K. Ann Renninger & Wesley Shumar (Ed.) Building Virtual Communities (pp. 191-214). New York, New York: Cambridge Press.

Sexuality and Online Identity

Sexual Identity Online

A widely discussed topic regarding online identity is the exploration of gender and sexual identities. Despite growing tolerance for and acceptance of different sexualities in our society, prejudices are still very present in real life. In the online world users have the opportunity to enter the popular world of MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions) which are defined by McRae (1997, p. 76) as “text-based virtual worlds, interactive databases from which it is possible to craft highly complex, extremely vivid environments in which the user experiences a feeling of actual presence.” It is in online communities where the opportunity to redefine sexual and gender identity are particularly prevalent, with a large portion of interaction dedicated towards relationship building.

A commonly discussed positive aspect of virtuality and the presence of online communities is that people can now present themselves without fear of persecution. Whether it be the portrayal of personality traits or behaviors that they are curious about, or if it is the announcement of a real world identity component that has never before been announced, the Internet allows users to become less inhibited and fearless.

This freedom results in new opportunities for society as a whole. Of note is the ability for people to explore the roles of gender and sexuality in a manner that can be harmless, yet interesting and helpful to those undertaking the change. Online identity has given people the opportunity to feel comfortable in wide ranging roles, some of which may be underlying aspects of the user‘s life, but which are not yet able to be portrayed in the real world.

A prime example of these opportunities is the establishment of many communities welcoming gay and lesbian teens who are dealing with their sexuality. These communities allow teens to share their experiences with one another and older gay and lesbian people, and they also provide a space that is both non-threatening and non-judgmental. In a review of such a community, Silberman (in Holeton, 1998, p. 118) quotes an information technology worker, Tom Reilly, as stating “The wonderful thing about online services is that they are an intrinsically decentralized resource. Kids can challenge what adults have to say and make the news.” If teen organizers are successful anywhere, news of it is readily available. The internet is arguable the most powerful tool that young people with alternative sexualites have ever had.

The online world provides users with a choice to determine which sex, sexuality preference and sexual characteristics they would like to embody. In each online encounter, a user essentially has the opportunity to interchange which identity they would like to portray. As McRae argues in Surkan (2000),

"The lack of physical presence and the infinite malleability of bodies complicates sexual interaction in a singular way: because the choice of gender is an option rather than a strictly reified social construct, the entire concept of gender as a primary marker of identity becomes partially subverted."

This issue of gender and sexual resignification raises the notion of disembodiment and its associated implications. “Disembodiment” is the idea that once the user is online, the need for the body is no longer required, and the user can participate separately from it. This ultimately alludes to a sense of detachment from the identity defined by the physical body. In cyberspace, many aspects of sexual identity become blurred and are only defined by the user. Herein again questions of truth are raised, particularly in reference to online dating and virtual sex. As McRae(1997, p. 75) states, “Virtual sex allows for a certain freedom of expression, of physical presentation and of experimentation beyond one’s own real-life limits.” At its best, it not only complicates but drastically unsettles the division between mind, body and self in a manner only possible though the construction of an online identity..

Ultimately online identity cannot be completely free from the social constraints that are imposed in the real world. As Westfall (2000, p.160) discusses, “the idea of truly departing from social hierarchy and restriction does not occur on the Internet (as perhaps suggested by earlier research into the possibilities presented by the Internet) with identity construction still shaped by others. Westfall raises the important, yet rarely discussed, issue of the effects of literacy and communication skills of the online user.” Indeed, these skills or lack of, shape one’s perception in the online community in a similar way to that of the physical body in the “real world.”


Primarily, concerns regarding virtual identity revolve around the areas of misrepresentation and the effects between on and offline existence. Sexuality and sexual behavior online provide some of the most controversial debate with many concerned about the predatory nature of some users. This is particularly in reference to concerns about child pornography and the ability of pedophiles to obscure their identity. Additionally, the idea of each and every user’s ability to portray themselves has resulted in much discussion about the validity of online relations.

Finally, the concerns regarding the connection between on and offline lives are challenging the notions of what constitutes as real experiences. In reference to gender, sexuality and sexual behaviour, the ability to play with these ideas has resulted in a questioning of how virtual experience may affect one’s offline emotions. As McRae (in Porter, 1997, p. 75) states, At its best, it [virtual sex] not only complicates but drastically unsettles the division between mind, body, and self that has become a comfortable truism in Western metaphysics. When projected into virtuality, mind, body and self all become consciously manufactured constructs through which individuals interact with each other.

Sources and further reading:

M/Cyclopedia of New Media:

Online Classes v. Traditional Classroom: Online Identity


Online identity in classrooms forces people to rethink what they think and fell about classroom environments. It was once a face-to-face period with a set time and place, where people came to visually and physically learn at the same time. Yet, with the invention of online classes, classrooms have changed and no longer have the traditional face-to-face communications; these communications have been replaced with a computer screen. Students are no longer defined by visually characteristics unless they make them known. There are pro’s and con’s to each side, in a traditional classroom students were able to visually connect with a teacher who was standing in the same room. While going through class if questions arise, clarification can in most cases be given at the same time the question arose. Students have the access to create face-to-face connections with other students, which can help the student identity the person if they were to meet outside of the classroom. However, if students are timid or feel uncomfortable speaking in front of others the appeal may reside in online courses, where it is through a computer screen that communications are made through. There are many outlets to communication via the internet that are commonly used in online classes such as email, discussion boards and chat rooms. Through these methods of communications students communicate without the knowledge of visual cues. People do not have an initial impression based on what the person looks like or how a person talks to judge, students and teachers form impressions based on what information you present to them (Chamberlin). This is a way in which some students feel more comfortable with since the intimidation of public speaking is removed. Students, who do not feel comfortable stating their ideas in class, can take time to sit down and think through exact what they wish to say. Although it maybe interpreted differently, revised are always possible, though not as quick as face-to-face conversation. Communication via written sources has led to the thinking that students are actually taking time to think through their ideas since what they say is in a more permanent setting (online) than most conversations carried on during class (Smith).

Are Online Classes Worth It?

Arguments are made in both directions however, it seems to be moving towards the middle grounds that online classes are better for certain students. Those who feel more comfortable with a computer screen in between them and the class allows for participation from their comfort level. Online classes have been questioned as simply a fad, but the numbers point to this trend making itself a permanent part of the educational system. ”In 2001, online higher education for adults (not counting the millions of K-12 students) was a $4.5 billion market. In 2005, it grew to $11 billion. And that's just in the United States.”(Dean).

Perception of Professor

It is important for the professor to have an identity within the classroom as well. The students should feel that their professor is ready to help whenever they may need it. Although students can not meet in person, emails and correspondence between student and professors should occur in a timely manner. Without this students tend to the drop online classes since it seems that they are wandering through a course without professor to guide them (Smith).

  • Chamberlin, W. Sean. “Face-to-Face vs. Cyberspace: Finding the Middle Ground.” Campus Technology. 1 December 2001. 18 July 2006. [1]
  • Dean. “Online Education is Not a Fad.” Dean’s World. 18 July 2006. [2]
  • Smith, Glenn Gordon, David Ferguson, Mieke Caris. “Teaching College Courses Online vs Face-to-Face.” CareerOneStop. April 2001. 18 July 2006. [3]

Online Identity: Blogs

While blogs have been around for a while now blogging did not “officially” began until the release of Xanga in 1996. Blogging then was not as nearly as popular as it is now because before it consisted of starting threads in messages, but today these online journals allow people to create an online identity in no time. All a person has to do is sign up to create a blog on a certain website with some of the most popular being: Livejournal, Xanga, and Blogger. After one has created an account for themselves they are free to post whatever they would like. Creating an online identity is simple. Through their computer one can be whoever they wish. Some people choose to use their real name so others will be able to tell who they are and if they are reading the correct blog of a friend for example, but often people choose to use a pseudonym to protect personal information. However, it is easy for people to post a lot of personal facts while blogging. It is easy to overexpose oneself as this online journal acts as a personal diary, but in fact is available to people all over the world with the click of a button. An individual can be as open about information as they wish or some may even hide behind their blogs as strangers will not know the difference. Like John Grohol explains, pseudonym allows users to hide their identities online, but still lets them build reputation with their username. Users can hide behind their computers saying whatever it is they want to say with little consequences. These days it is easy to maintain blogs and by doing so one is creating an online identity for themselves whether intentional or not.

Online Identity: Myspace & Facebook

The creation of Myspace and Facebook allows people to create a social network while maintaining an online identity for themselves. One can post their personal profile telling as much about themselves as they would like in the given space. Myspace is available to everyone above the age of 14 whereas Facebook is limited to those with an email address at a university or college and most recently, those in high school. These friend networks allow one to search and add people to their friends list whether they know them or not. So what is the thrill of these two social networks? Some may say, including Danah Boyd, it is the identity one creates for themselves. Users can manage their pages and make it fit their personality. Also, on both networks friends can leave comments on their friends’ walls, some note that the more comments one has on their page, the more popular they are. The attention one gets as a result of their page also makes signing onto the networks daily even more addicting. Unlike registering for a blog an individual using these two networks must make their identity known, no pseudonyms are allowed. In fact, most people include pictures of themselves on these networks. Myspace users have the capability to maintain blogs on their page so their friends can keep up with what they are up to unlike facebook. The drawback to this is those who are not your friend can view your page as long as they are a registered user, but there is the option to make your profile private. On Facebook the only people who can see your profile are those at your school and those friends you have listed, no one else has access. What is the point of creating an account if you do not want people to view your profile though especially in the case of Myspace where access is much easier than on Facebook? It is all a matter of preference and a privacy issue, one that user’s control. They can choose what kind of online identity they have, either very open and revealing or keeping personal information to a minimum.

  • Boyd, Danah. "Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart Myspace." American Association for the Advancement of Science. 19 February 2006. 17 July 2006. [].
  • Grohol, John."Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters." 4 April 2006. 17 July 2006. [].

Online Predators

There is an element of secrecy and deviancy that comes along with online identities. Not everyone is the same online as they are in person. Some people may use the internet to cover up who they really are in order to get something they want. Unfortunately, online predators have come along with the technology of the internet. The internet is extremely useful on an everyday basis for most people and helps them to do decent, respectable things such as e-mailing, shopping online, researching, and other normal activities that the internet was invented for. However, there are some people who have taken advantage of the secrecy that the internet provides to develop identities that will lure people into a trap. It is incredibly easy to create an identity on the internet that attracts people that would not normally be involved with the predator. Online predators are extremely dangerous and have become a real hazard to our society.

Just think about how easy it would be to disguise yourself over the internet, especially to someone that you have never met face-to-face. One could be a 40-year old man and convince someone online that he is a 14-year old girl. He could easily “talk” online like a young girl since no one has to hear his voice. They just have to read his words on the screen. He could go even further by sending his prey a picture of a girl that he found on the internet. Maybe he would create a MySpace account and elaborate more on his 14-year old girly interests. The man could then engage in many conversations over a period of time so that he could become friends with his prey and develop some kind of trust with them. “Over time—perhaps weeks or even months—the stranger, having obtained as much personal information as possible, grooms the child, gaining his or her trust through compliments, positive statements, and other forms of flattery to build an emotional bond” (Net Safe Kids). The victim would not even suspect anything was wrong since he or she would be convinced that they were talking to someone their own age. On the other hand, in some cases, the men will come right out and say who they really are and what they want. One example is with the NBC’s “Dateline” investigations.

The show “Dateline” on NBC has conducted three investigations into this dark side of the internet. Each time they have people posing online as young teenage children who will engage in a conversation with the predator. The predator will then go to meet the “teenage child” for sex or some kind of planned sexual act. Instead, when the predator arrives at the house, he is face-to-face with Chris Hansen, an NBC News correspondent. “Dateline” held investigations in five different locations catching about 129 men in all. This proves how simple it is for people to disguise themselves online. In this case, the individuals disguising themselves were the investigators. The men admitted to their age and immediately talked about sexual acts that they wanted to do with the “child.”

New laws have been created in order to control online predators. Federal laws have been passed that are supposed to help and protect children from online predators. There are also federal laws that allow wiretapping so that online offenders can be caught before something bad happens to a child. In California, where one “Dateline” investigation took place, it is a misdemeanor for someone to have those conversations with a child online and the men who came to the house were charged with a felony because their intent was obvious.

  • Hansen, Chris. "'To Catch A Predator' III." NBC News 04 Feb 2006 17 July 2006 [4].
  • "Internet Laws." Net Safe Kids. 2003. National Academy of Sciences. 17 Jul 2006 [5].
  • (2004) Retrieved September 5, 2004, from [6], Jordan, T.
  • (1999) Cyberpower-The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet, London:Routledge., McRae, S.
  • (1997) "Flesh Made Word: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body", in D. Porter (ed.)Internet Culture, New York: Routledge., Surkan, K.
  • (2000) "The New Technology of Electronic Text: Hypertext and CMC in Virtual Environments", retrieved September 2, 2004, from [7], Westfall, J.
  • (2000) "What is cyberwoman?:The Second Sexin cyberspace", Ethics and Information Technology, no.2, pp.159-166. Judge, P.
  • (1997) “Is the Net Redefining Our Identity; Sociologist Sherry Turkle argues that online encounters are reshaping human relations,” Business Week, iss. 3256, retrieved August 10, 2004, from [8], McRae, S.
  • (1996) “Flesh Made Word: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body,” in D. Porter (ed.) Internet Culture , New York: Routledge, pp. 73-86. ISBN 0415916844 (Paperback) Silberman, S.
  • (1994) “We’re Teen, We’re Queer, and We’ve Got Email,” in R. Holeton (ed.) Composing Cyberspace: Identity, Community and Knowledge in the Electronic Age, Boston: McGraw Hill, pp. 116-120. ISBN 0070295484

See also

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