Cyberculting

A blog about Cyberculture and ICTs.

Posts Tagged ‘virtual persona’

Any Other Name

Posted by candacewhitehead on April 6, 2008

For some time I have been concerned with how people construct their identities on the web under forum nicknames and in chat rooms.

 

When I was 14, still socially awkward and slightly chubby, I delighted in logging on to chat rooms and chatting to strangers. I could be anyone I wanted to be – a tall, beautiful model, or a determined (still beautiful) university student doing medicine. I could abandon my shy, awkward self and hide behind the handle I had chosen.

 

While I grew out of this need to be somebody else on the net, I have a very close friend (let’s call him Tomas) who simply cannot. When I read his forum posts or his blog entries, I have no idea who he is. On forums, Tomas becomes arrogant, opinionated and aggressive. Over MSN (and away from face-to-face interaction) he becomes much more confident and more eloquent, hiding behind his heavily-Photoshopped emo-boy photographs. And although I’ve known him for years, I struggle to understand why he behaves like this online.

 

While I was doing readings on social media and networking, I came across a book by Marshall and Burnett, called Web Theory. In a chapter called “Webs of Identity”, they discussed exactly my concerns on the construction of people’s virtual personas.

 

One of the very postmodern claims they put forward is that the Internet provides people the opportunity to abandon the confines of the real self they have created, and assume another persona online. People can hide behind a mask of anonymity, and lead two different lives if they wish to.

 

This leads me to my second concern. If the web opens up an opportunity for you to become someone you’re not, does this not have an impact of the quality of your offline life? Tomas used to spend hours and hours on the internet – either chatting to people over MSN (that he never saw IRL) or posting on forums. He loved his confident online self, which eventually led to him becoming more confident online.

 

Now the academic jury is still out on whether or not the Internet has positive or negative effects on the user. It has been suggested that people send less time on their real-life relationships if they spend more time on the internet, and this is possibly quite true. If you hide behind your computer for 19 hours a day, your existing friendships will probably take a knock. However, people seem to overlook the fact that fantastic friendships are made online too.

 

My mother is addicted to Skype. While my father was ill, she would escape to her room and chat to her online friends. When he died, they were there to comfort her more than her so-called real friends, whose idea of consoling her was bringing crappy lasagne and a 12-page handbook on dealing with grief. She is now dating one of these people (or at least, that’s what her Facebook relationship status says).

 

But my point is that we cannot simply make a blanket judgement saying “Spending time chatting to people on the net is bad”. Instead, we need to look at how your Internet usage has changed your life – is it for the better, or for the worse? Can you carry those changes over to your real life? And what about how you interact with people, and how they interact with you? As Marshall and Burnett suggest, it is the quality of the interaction that is important, not the time you spend online.

 

Tune in next week for: My SecondLife experience, and why it’s so damn hard to choose a name that doesn’t make you sound like an exotic fruit basket.

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