Online identity

As a parent of a pre-teen I’ve been reading with interest the commentary over the last few days with regard to the different way in which teenagers typically relate to their online identities. In common with most of my peers I have used the same online identity for years, so if you come across a rachelandrew online it is likely to be me. It feels odd to me to have different identities when using different applications – so actually having multiple ‘personalities’ in the same application just feels wrong.

Research undertaken by Danah Boyd and picked up in Bill Thompson’s recent article on the BBC News Website indicates that young people have a very different attitude to online identity. Teens are happy throwing away identities when they just ‘don’t feel right’ anymore, or using multiple identities for the same site.

Both commentators point to the fact that this constant turnover of identities makes understanding the number of individual people engaged in a social network difficult. It is a good point, anyone who has built or worked on an online community knows that there are a large number of people who sign up and then never return. It is however technically easy to spot the ‘never log in’ people amongst your user base and be able to count active users as opposed to registered users. A statistic of ’1000 individual members logged in during the last month’ means far more than ’1000 registered users’.

The ‘forgetful teens’ who lose passwords and usernames and so simply sign up again are therefore easy enough to pick up with the above type of information gathering. Once the user stops logging in they will eventually drop off the ‘during the last month’ statistic and into the ‘registered users’ pile – which we know will be far larger. What is impossible to identify however, are the multiple account holders who do use these different identities. Four ‘unique users’ during the last month could easily be the same teen, logging in to interact with a particular group of friends or to be a certain part of their personality.

In addition to making user statistics unreliable this leads to another issue for those of us involved in any way in creating or moderating online communities. We tend to assume, because of our own experience, that people have an investment in their identity meaning that being blocked from a site under that identity would be painful. This is certainly the case within the business social networking world. A recent spate of bannings at business networking site Ecademy was covered by The Register and other news sites, with the members concerned that the bannings would effect their professional reputations.

When identities are disposable then the one sanction available, that of removing the user from the site, is of little concern. Where young people are involved, preventing issues such as the use of the internet for bullying becomes very difficult indeed.


Jesse Rodgers January 12, 2007 Reply

I have thrown away more identities than I can remember. If I am trying out a site I usually just make something up along with a password I quickly forget and usually attach it to one of a couple hotmail addresses I never use. If I am joining a site that I think I will stay for a while I use jrrodgers or jrodgers… I always assumed that was normal behaviour which is why I never trust stats from those sites.

David Niall Wilson January 30, 2007 Reply

I’ve been involved in a large number of online communities…some professional, some recreational, and the one thing that has been standard across the board is the disassociation of reality and “cyber” reality.

I don’t believe that it is so much that teens, or adults, do not invest themselves in their online identities…they often invest more than they do in their own lives. The power they feel by stepping into the shoes of their online personality magnifies if they can be more than one person, or if they can get away with something by simply ceasing to exist, and reappearing as someone else.

I can imagine the nightmare this provides to statisticians, but on the other hand…most uses of statistics are questionable in any case. I don’t see a way in the near future of controlling the identity dumping and jumping unless you are involved in a community where the members are likely to interact in the real world as well as online, and are “known” in some way other than their nicknames.


Black Phoebe :: Ms. Jen February 23, 2007 Reply

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Megan February 28, 2007 Reply

This is interesting to me too, because I have always used one identity online as well. I’ve been part of a lot of communities over the years but have always used some variation of my real name. I always attributed that to lack of creativity more than a desire to be transparent though 🙂

I think these online communities are an interesting way for young people to experiment with different identities and learn how to express themselves. I sure wish it was around when I was a teenager.

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