Essay: Erika Lower

Blended-Identity Blogging: Exploring the Boundaries Between Online Personas and the Real World

It’s a situation that’s become increasingly common: I’ll be chatting with a friend or an acquaintance and make a passing reference to something I recently read online. Suddenly their eyes will light up, and I’ll realize, too late, the question that will come next.

“Oh, you have a blog, then?” they’ll ask, enthused. “I have one on that site too! We should follow each other! So what’s your URL?”

Cue a cartoon-style record scratch in my head.

“Uh,” I say. “About that.”

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See, I am a different person online than I am in real life. This isn’t a deliberate deception – it’s simply human nature.

In face-to-face settings, people present themselves differently based on context, and may emphasize different mannerisms and personality traits depending on whether they’re in class, at the bar, or interviewing for a job, for example. Online identities are similarly context-based representations of an individual. “In other words,” says researcher Dr. Vanessa Dennen, “blogging identities have their roots in face-to-face identities but highlight or downplay characteristics based on the community in which they exist” (Dennen).

Who am I on the internet? Well, not Erika, for starters. Except for Facebook and Google+, social networking sites specifically designed to link people who know one another in real life, I go by my initials or a specific pseudonym I’ve used across various sites for several years.

My online identity is more accurately a combination of sub-identities – I’m a professional writer and working for online custom essay writing service, an artist, and a massive science geek. I love to research and compile informative posts to teach people more about any topic they’re interested in, and I’m known for specializing in a couple of areas – if you need to know anything about nuclear reactors, animal domestication, or the theoretical biology of aliens in the sci-fi flick of your choice, I’m your guy. I’m not closeted about these interests in my day-to-day life, but the blogging community encourages and rewards a level of enthusiasm that would be extremely intimidating in real life. Writing bombastic, capslock-filled love letters to the wildlife in Madagascar comes across a little better on the internet than it would if I cornered you in the library and ranted about mongooses to your face, for instance.

I am also an extrovert online. I’ve got boundless energy for talking about science and science fiction and storytelling, and will stay up ‘til ungodly hours discussing plot points or controversial theories with complete strangers thousands of miles away. While I thoroughly enjoy engaging with people like this in the real world as well, it rapidly drains my energy and after a while I have to escape and recharge. In the blogosphere, though, I am nigh unstoppable.

I’ve got a nice little internet persona going: I am a friendly, enthusiastic individual who will ramble about the Manhattan Project and last night’s episode of Project Runway with equal zeal, occasionally injecting anecdotes about life at my dorm and stories I might be working on myself. It’s not so different from my baseline personality in the real world, but it’s carefully edited: online, I am always friendly, always enthusiastic, and hopefully always interesting as well.

I am not, of course, exactly like this in the real world, and this is where things get complicated. When someone I know from real life starts following my blog, it’s suddenly necessary to face questions of authenticity.

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A 2008 paper on internet communities of rock fans suggests that the nature of authenticity itself may be difficult to define on the internet — editing one's personality to fit the social situation is standard in real life, so why should our expectations change on the internet? “Future research on online identity can benefit from moving beyond the bifurcated typology of honesty vs. deception in self-presentation. Perhaps the default today, at least for groups with common interests, is the blended identity type, where elements of online and offline selves combine to reflect the role of the online community member” (Baker).

Dr. Dennen encountered similar levels of authenticity in her studies of blogging communities:

“In my own off-blog contacts with the bloggers, which extends well beyond just those I have interviewed, I have found that in every instance the person has accurately represented him or herself in terms of gender, age, field of study, and job position. So, while the famed 1993 New Yorker cartoon may remind us that ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’ there do not seem to be many blogging dogs sitting at the computers in this community” (Dennen).

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Why the discomfort, then? If there’s no deliberate dishonesty involved, why do people bother with pseudonyms and often do their best to separate the blogosphere and real life? Writing about yourself can be a vulnerable activity, an effect often heightened by the online disinhibition effect. “Everyday users on the internet, as well as clinicians and researchers – have noted that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly,” says Dr. John Suler.

The online disinhibition effect, however, can be short-circuited by the introduction of real-world elements – if you suddenly know the people you’re expressing your deep, dark secrets to, things can become awkward incredibly rapidly. A paradigm shift occurs in which bloggers will have to recalibrate how much information will be appropriate to share, knowing that their openness may suddenly have real-world consequences when the audience contains people they actually interact with in their daily lives.

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“So, what’s your URL?”

I’ve got to make a decision fast, and the answer I’ll give ultimately comes down to a matter of trust.

Will this individual respect the fact that I have a slightly modified array of personality traits on the internet?

Do they understand that openness about a given topic online does not necessarily correspond with openness about it in person?

And am I okay with looking a bit silly in front of them – remaining unapologetic and highly enthusiastic about the things I’m interested in the face of potential judgment in real life?

If the answer is no, I’ve got a slightly more focused side-blog for that serves as an appropriate cover: http://mechanical-hound.tumblr.com. There’s no personal information there, just articles on robots and prosthetics and nanotechnology – interesting enough that I hope readers will genuinely enjoy it, and specific enough in its content that it doesn’t reveal much about the person publishing the posts.

I didn’t set out to make a decoy blog specifically, but it’s come in handy on a number of occasions – particularly when my own parents got curious as to what I was always writing about online once upon a time. I never wish to be impolite, and even though I’m under no obligation to hand out my actual information to anyone who asks, I’d much rather save myself the bumbling excuses and send my acquaintances off to read about cyborgs instead.

If the answer, however, is yes, I’ll give out my name in exchange for theirs, mostly ignoring the anxious little voice at the back of my head that wonders where this identity mashup might eventually lead.

As more people I know in real life have become acquainted with my virtual self, I’ve become much more cautious about the kind and quantity of information I disclose in both contexts. This blended identity has made me infinitely more conscientious about the things I write, and has also given me the chance to have discussions with real-world folks that I never thought I’d be able to have offline, all because we now share a digital common ground.

But sometimes I miss the simplicity of separate identities, back when I didn’t have to self-censor to this degree or worry that the things I talked about online might create an awkward situation in real life. As more and more of my peers join the sites on which I participate, it’s becoming apparent that these issues aren’t going to go away any time soon.

This hybrid of the digital and concrete forms a complex landscape through which bloggers must navigate, populated by questions of self-presentation, security, and trust. Everybody's got to map it for themselves, and the lines that compose it were fuzzy to begin with and will only continue to blur. It's not an easy process, but exploring is often its own reward: even as we continue struggle with the boundaries between digital and real-world identities, we will almost certainly get a clearer picture of our whole selves in the process.

Sources:

Baker, Andrea J. (December 2009). "Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans" (pdf). Identity in the Information Society (Springer) 2 (1): 7–21.

Dennen, Vanessa Paz (December 2009). "Constructing academic alter-egos: identity issues in a blog-based community" (pdf). Identity in the Information Society (Springer, published 2009).

Suler, John (2004). "The Online Disinhibition Effect". CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321–326.