Online Identity

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Online identity is the persona that a user develops to represent themselves in an online community which is viewed by others. Paralleling real world communities, individuals can assume many different types of identities in an online community. An online identity is unique because it does not necessarily reflect the identity of the individual in real life, and is easily changed or manipulated due to the flexible nature of online representation. This, in turn, facilitates anonymous behavior within online communities.

Construction of Online Identity

There are two primary sources that influence the construction of online identities: external sources and internal sources.

External Sources

External sources are factors that influence an individual's identity outside the scope of his own natural actions. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Other Users - How an individual is perceived by others plays a significant role in determining how the actions the individual will likely choose to perform while in their presence.
  • Types of Virtual Environments - The type of virtual environment an individual exists in determines the types of customs and values he is likely to adopt, which affect how the individual will choose to represent himself while in the environment.

Internal Sources

Internal sources are factors that influence an individual's identity based on his identity developed prior to his immersion into a virtual environment.

  • Inherent Personality - An individual's inherent personality can influence the type of environment the individual chooses to inhabit and his actions within that environment. For example, someone who has a tendency to make people laugh may exhibit similar behavior within a virtual environment. He may also seek out online communities that encourage him to exhibit this type of behavior so as to satisfy this niche.
  • Online Intent - An individual's initial intentions for immersing himself in a virtual environment can affect how his online identity is constructed. A user whose intentions for diving into a virtual environment as a way of connecting and communicating with others in new and innovative ways will likely construct his online identity much differently than a user whose interest in exploring a virtual environment is based on his intent to identify vulnerabilities in the environment so as to exploit it through malicious activity.

Representation of Online Identity

Online identities are represented through the incorporation of avatars. These representations not only allow individuals to identify themselves within an online community, but more importantly, allow others to associate specific characteristics or personas with the individual when viewing the avatar. The type of avatar used to represent an individual can also help to influence the construction of identity for that individual. Since an avatar can be anything from a virtual object like a dog or a person, to a name or description, there are many ways an individual can interact with his avatar and with other avatars depending on the type of online community the avatar exists in.

The Multiplicity of Identity

Individuals actively engage in processes of selectively representing aspects of self in the real world according to social context. Interaction can be considered as a concurrent process of expressing these aspects and interpreting the overt and passively expressed aspects of self projected by others in negotiating relationships.[1]. By framing the selective representation of identities as belonging to specific social sites (work, home, golf course, etc.), the theory easily moves into the online environment by considering online activity as occurring in a number of discrete sites in itself, allowing for further opportunities to experiment with multiple self-representations[1]

Plural Identities in the Online Environment

The implications of utilizing the internet as a site for multiple selective representations of self has several implications: teenagers can experiment with identity on many more fronts than possible pre-internet, for example. A potentially negative implication concerns the overrepresentation of desired aspects; online, it's much more difficult for others to analyze your behavior for the passively transmitted social cues that can inform relationship development.[1]. Additionally, the low investment in each identity and ease in creating/deleting them has suggested to some that those who engage in deliberate multiplicity of self-portrayal will consider relationships as temporary and episodic, reducing the frequency of long-term, complex relationships[1]

Online Identities in Marketing and Media

Because online communities themselves greatly influence the development of identities, many similar identities can be found within a single community. This is a convenient metric for defining online community demographics through the clustering of specific types of identities. This is a potential strategy for marketing and advertising companies, because once an agency begins to understand the types of identities associated with specific communities, it is then possible to predict what sort of things a community of a specific type of identity would value. For example, people who play Club Penguin are probably more likely to enjoy other types of Disney based products rather than those who play Starcraft or World of Warcraft. On the other hand, The Pirate Bay community is probably less likely to purchase new music or videos than most other Bit Torrent communities due to the values associated with identities found in that community.

Ethical Implications


Trolling is a method of online abuse. Trolls are Internet users who post inflammatory and inappropriate remarks in online forums in order to provoke and insult others. Most often, these offenses occur in interactive forums online such as blogs, message boards, and through social media. Trolls usually are not providing any useful commentary, they are only posting to get a reaction from others. The most notable cases of trolling occurred on memorial pages, where the trolls dishonor and deface the page. Trolling is entirely based on anonymity, which online identities often provide. Without online identities, most trolls would be reluctant to perform their harmful actions as everyone would know their true identity. The versatility of online identities is one of the main reasons for which trolls can still exist in our online communities.


Cyberstalking is the use of any internet or online resources to conduct research, gain knowledge, or otherwise collect information about a specific person for no other reason than one's own enjoyment and fixation. There have been documented cases of cyberstalking in which an individual stalked a young girl, then was caught and arrested before causing any real life harm because he posted on a separate site about his plans to injure the woman. Cyberstalking is looked upon by some as harmless because often times the victim of the stalking has no knowledge of the events taking place. On the contrary, most stalkers in the real world do eventually attempt to make contact with their victim either to scare or attempt to befriend them. In this same mentality, regardless of the face that the stalking may be in the cyber realm, most offenders will eventually want to make real-world contact with the victim, eventually causing real world harm.

Online Identity Theft

There has been a growing issue of online identity theft. People are now shopping, bill-paying, and banking online, submitting their credit cards numbers and social security numbers. It has become increasingly easy for Internet abusers to gather personal data and use it for their own benefit or to resell for profit.

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Cocking, Dean. Technology and Moral Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. 2008.

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