Q&A with Mary Daniels Brown, Question 2:
Q: To what extent do you believe people construct their narrative identities differently in the digital world — for example on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and blogs — from the way they do “in real life”?
A: I used to think that perspective was the most important aspect of a person’s self-defining life story. But I’ve realized that context is just as important.
The contrast between the identity we create in the digital world and the identity we project in real life is a good example of the importance of context. In fact, the dichotomy of digital identity vs. real-life identity is a gross oversimplification. We all contain many, many selves, and which one we present at a given moment depends on the social situation. Although most of us have a basic core identity that remains the same, we project variations on that core identity in response to the social situation we find ourselves in.
In terms of online identity, for example, I have three accounts: LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. LinkedIn is a site for professional networking, so on that site I focus on my education, my skills, and my professional experience and accomplishments. I don’t express my political leanings or my views on current issues such as abortion or gay marriage. However, I use my Facebook account to keep in touch with a limited group of family and close friends. My Facebook updates express my social values and political beliefs. My Facebook identity is much more informal than my LinkedIn identity. And I use Twitter mainly to showcase my professional interests, although I also try to include enough personal details to make me look like a real person. Last fall, for example, when my hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals, improbably won the World Series, I tweeted my moments of agony and ecstasy during the games. So my Twitter identity is somewhere between my LinkedIn and Facebook identities. Some people even have separate professional and personal Twitter accounts. But I don’t have “an online identity.” I have several slightly different online identities that I use for different purposes.
Most people also have several variations of their “real-life identity.” For example, we act differently in a meeting at work than we do when watching the Super Bowl on television with a bunch of friends. When we create a particular identity for a specific social situation, we are not being hypocritical but are making a prudent assessment of what aspects of ourselves we find appropriate to reveal under the circumstances. We match the narratives we tell about ourselves to our perception of the social context.