The discourse around online identities seems to be one of fear that we are all constructing a Second Life-esque identity that is completely separate from our real lives.
Take, for example, the concept of “Instagram Envy” – the idea that all of our alleged friends are manipulating their social media feeds to portray themselves as beautiful, successful, and well-traveled—and it’s making the rest of us feel bad about our comparatively mundane lives.
This strikes me as a pretty old-fashioned, paranoid outlook on life. Beware, because the world is full of liars, scammers, catfish, and identity thieves. Perhaps we’ve hardened ourselves to one too many online hoaxes, or viral videos that turned out to be marketing ploys, or Internet commenters that are just trolling for a reaction, but the truth is most Instagram posts are of food, pets, kids, and probably-not-photoshopped pictures taken on real vacations.
At iModerate, we talk to people online every day, and we still find it refreshing to see how real someone can be while chatting online. We’ve seen that an anonymous online respondent will often provide far more detailed and informative feedback than, say, a focus group member in a room full of others.
So let’s change the discourse a little bit – here are three ways that our online selves are just like our offline selves:
We curate ourselves – The idea of Instagram Envy may be new, but the idea of envy is not, nor is the idea of putting your best foot forward in curating our outward appearance, through the way we dress, the media we consume, the car we drive, or the home we live in. Curation is a good thing, and we all do it to some extent, both online and offline. The fact that the Internet gives us more avenues to express ourselves in doesn’t make any of them less legitimate.
We gossip – Internet commenters can be cruel and callous, but then again so can people offline. Scholars call it the online disinhibition effect – the Internet does away with the social cues and restrictions that keep us from doing and saying what we actually want. It may allow us to at times be mean, dumb or just plain wrong, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that the Internet makes us more honest.
We care about each other – Take a look at the viral videos and stories in your news feed now—moms lipsyncing Frozen songs with their kids, dudes dancing while mopping the floor, and stories of incredible kindness and perseverance—and it takes a hard heart to not enjoy the real, human element that comes through. It’s like The Truman Show but much less creepy – we have become our own entertainment. We are the show, and the audience, all in one.
Amidst all the fretting over how the Internet has taken over our world, it’s easy to forget how much it has enhanced it. As technology improves and gives us more agency, our online identities are becoming a more and more powerful extension of our lives, and in a way, we’re all becoming content. It’s a scary and exciting thought. Looking forward to what’s next.