- Online identity
- For related uses, see Internet identity
An online identity, internet identity, or internet persona is a social identity that an Internet user establishes in online communities and websites. Although some people prefer to use their real names online, some internet users prefer to be anonymous[original research?], identifying 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. Some websites also use the user's IP address to track their online identities using methods such as tracking cookies.[original research?]
The concept of the personal self, and how this is influenced by emerging technologies, are a subject of research in fields such as psychology and sociology. The online disinhibition effect is a notable example, referring to a concept of unwise and uninhibited behavior on the internet, arising as a result of anonymity and audience gratification.
Expression of identity, Online Social Identity
Identity expression and identity exposure
The social web, i.e. the usage of the web to support the social process, represents a space in which people have the possibility to express and expose their identity (Marcus, Machilek & Schütz 2006) in a social context. For instance people define explicitly their identity by creating user profiles in social network services such as Facebook or LinkedIn or in online dating services (Siibak 2007). By using blogs and expressing opinions, they define more tacit identities.
The disclosure of a person's identity may present a certain number of issues (Nabeth 2006) related to privacy and the undesired disclosure of personal information. However many people adopt strategies allowing them to control the level of disclosure of their personal information online (Tufekci 2008).
Reliability of online identities
The identities that people define in the social web are not necessarily reliable. For example studies have shown that people lie in online dating services. (Epstein 2007) (Hancock, Toma & Ellison 2007). In the case of social network services such as Facebook, companies are even proposing to sell 'friends' as a way to increase a user's visibility, calling into question even more the reliability of a person's 'social identity'.
Online identity and the concept of the mask
Dorian Wiszniewski and Richard Coyne in their contribution to the book Building Virtual Communities explore online identity, with emphasis on the concept of "masking" identity[clarification needed]. 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.
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 chooses 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.
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.
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." Students interacting in an online community 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.
Sexuality and online identity
A widely discussed topic regarding online identity is that of gender and sexual identity. Despite growing tolerance for and acceptance of different sexualities in society, sexual prejudice is still very present in real life. In the online world, users have the opportunity to enter popular MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) as typified by games such as Final Fantasy 11, World of Warcraft or Second Life where there is abundant opportunity to redefine sexual and gender identity, and where a large portion of interaction is dedicated to the building of relationships.
Benefits of virtual communities
A commonly discussed positive aspect of virtual communities is that people can now present themselves without fear of persecution, whether it is personality traits, behaviors that they are curious about, or the announcement of a real world identity component that has never before been announced.
This freedom results in new opportunities for society as a whole, especially 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 that the user is unable to portray 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 may they provide a community 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 arguably the most powerful tool that young people with alternative sexualities 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 defined social construct, the entire concept of gender as a primary marker of identity becomes partially subverted."
Disembodiment and implications
This issue of gender and sexual reassignment 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 relates 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. Questions of truth will therefore be 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 the lack thereof have the capacity to shape one's online perception as they shape one's perception through a physical body in the "real world."
Relation to real-world physical and sensory constraints
Online identity can offer potential social benefits to those with physical and sensory disabilities. This would largely be within the confines of a textual medium devoid of visible identity markers. Disembodiment affords the opportunity to operate outside the constraints of a socially stigmatized disabled identity. The beneficial effect for people with disabilities is in terms of providing a level playing field where they can be treated on their merits as a person, rather than as a disabled person (Bowker & Tuffin, 2002).
Primarily, concerns regarding virtual identity revolve around the areas of misrepresentation and the contrasting effects of 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.
Finally, the concerns regarding the connection between on and offline lives are challenging the notions of what constitutes real experience. In reference to gender, sexuality and sexual behavior, 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, 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.
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. However, users with malicious intent can still cause serious problems on such websites.
Legal aspects & security issues
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[original research?]. 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. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has stated that the Google+ social network is intended to be exactly such an identity system; the controversy resulting from Google+'s policy of requiring users to sign in using legal names has been dubbed the "nymwars".
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.
An online predator is an Internet user who exploits other users' vulnerability, often for sexual or financial purposes. It is relatively easy to create an online identity which is attractive to people that would not normally become involved with the predator, but fortunately there are a few means by which you can make sure that a person whom you haven't met is actually who they say they are. Many people will trust things such as the style in which someone writes, or the photographs someone has on their web page as a way to identify that person, but these can easily be forged. Long-term Internet relationships may sometimes be difficult to sufficiently understand knowing what someone's identity is actually like.
The most vulnerable age group to online predators is often considered to be young teenagers or older children.[original research?] "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."  The victims often do not suspect anything until it is too late, as the other party usually misleads them to believe that they are of similar age.
The show Dateline on NBC has, overall, conducted three investigations on online predators. They had adults, posing online as teenage juveniles, engage in sexually explicit conversations with other adults (the predators) and arrange to meet them in person. But instead of meeting a teenager, the unsuspecting adult was confronted by Chris Hansen, an NBC News correspondent, arrested, and shown on nationwide television. Dateline held investigations in five different locations apprehending a total of 129 men in all.
Federal laws have been passed in the U.S. to assist the government when trying to catch online predators. Some of these include wiretapping, so online offenders can be caught in advance, before a child becomes a victim. In California, where one Dateline investigation took place, it is a misdemeanor for someone to have sexually-tinged conversations with a child online. The men who came to the house were charged with a felony because their intent was obvious.
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 identity and identity management infrastructures
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 Twitter) are probably one and the same.
OpenID, an open, decentralized standard for authenticating users is used for access control, allowing users to log on to different services with the same digital identity. These services must allow and implement OpenID.
Online identity in different contexts
As blogs allow an individual to express his or her views in individual essays or as part of a wider discussion, it creates a public forum for expressing ideas. Bloggers often choose to use pseudonyms, whether in platforms such as Wordpress or in interest-centered sites like Blogster, to protect personal information and allow them more editorial freedom to express ideas that might be unpopular with their family, employers, etc. Use of a pseudonym (and a judicious approach to revealing personal information) can allow a person to protect their "real" identities, but still build a reputation online using the assumed name.
The creation of online social networks like MySpace and Facebook, allows people to maintain an online identity within an overlapping online and real world context. These are often identities created to reflect a specific aspect or best possible version of themselves. Representations include pictures, communications with other 'friends' and membership in network groups. Privacy controls, especially limited to specific networks on Facebook, are also part of social networking identity.
Online Classes v. Traditional Classroom: Online Identity
Online identity in classrooms forces people to reevaluate their concepts of classroom environments. With the invention of online classes, classrooms have changed and no longer have the traditional face-to-face communications. These communications have been replaced by computer screen. Students are no longer defined by visual characteristics unless they make them known. There are pros and cons to each side. In a traditional classroom, students are able to visually connect with a teacher who was standing in the same room. During the class, if questions arise, clarification can be provided immediately. Students can create face-to-face connections with other students, and these connections can easily be extended beyond the classroom. For timid or socially awkward students, this ability to form and extend relationships through personal contact may hold little appeal. For these students, the appeal may reside in online courses, where computer communications allow them a greater degree of separation and anonymity.
With the prevalence of remote internet communications, students do not form preconceptions of their classmates based on the classmate's appearance or speech characteristics. Rather, impressions are formed based only on the information presented by the classmate. Some students are more comfortable with this paradigm as it avoids the discomfort of public speaking. Students who do not feel comfortable stating their ideas in class can take time to sit down and think through exactly what they wish to say.
Communication via written media may lead students to take more time to think through their ideas since their words are in a more permanent setting (online) than most conversations carried on during class (Smith).
Perception of Professor
Online learning situations also cause a shift in perception of the professor. Whereas anonymity may help some students achieve a greater level of comfort, professors must maintain an active identity with which students may interact. The students should feel that their professor is ready to help whenever they may need it. Although students and professors may not be able to meet in person, emails and correspondence between them should occur in a timely manner. Without this students tend to drop online classes since it seems that they are wandering through a course without anyone to guide them.  
- Bowker, N.; Tuffin, K. (2002), "Disability Discourses for Online Identities", Disability & Society (May 2002), http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/routledg/cdso/2002/00000017/00000003/art00006
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- Siibak, A. (2007), "Casanova` s of the Virtual World. How Boys Present Themselves on Dating Websites", Young People at the Crossroads: 5th International Conference on Youth Research in Karelia; Petrozavodsk, Republic of Karelia, Russian Federation; September 1–5, 2006. (Eds.) M. Muukkonen& K. Sotkasiira, Joensuu University: Joensuun yliopisto, pp. 83–91, ISBN 978-952-219-020-8, http://mail.jrnl.ut.ee:8080/35/
- Tufekci, Zeynep (2008), "Can You See Me Now? Audience and Disclosure Regulation in Online Social Network Sites", Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 28 (1): 20–36, doi:10.1177/0270467607311484
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- European Centre for Reputation Studies
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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