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Identity formation and development on the internet

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5496 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The following project shall disscuss the concept of identity fromation and development on the World Wide Web. Both pschological and sociological theories shall be used in an attempt to accertain and explain the relatavaly new concept of online identity. The first part of the discussion shall focus on the various pshcological and sociological theories which are used to explain the development and formation of identity. There are various services on the internet which allow an individual to display there real world identity and services which even allow an individual create a whole new identity. The paper shall examine why indivduals would want to partake in the use of such services and use sociological and psychological theories to explain these reasons. Social Networking Sites are one of mechanisms which an individual can use to dsiplay their real world identity online. Facebook is one such site and how this affects and contributes to identity construction shall be discussed with the use of both psychological and sociaological theories. The second internet setting the paper shall focus on are more anonymous sites where users communicate through the medium of digital text. These sites include blogs, support groups and so on. Finnaly a setting known as Second life where the possibilites of expereminting with identity are endless, shal be explored. The rationale behing examining these three areas is to accertain the differing approaches too how identity is managed and produced in SNS’s, Annonymous online settings and virtual worlds and the different affects these online evironments have on peoples real world identities.

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The question of identity, how it’s developed and shaped is one of the major questions within the social sciences. (Erikson cited in Kroger, 2007) suggests that there are two dynamics at play in the construction and development of identity. Firstly he refers to identity synthesis where the individual incorporates the various aspects of development into a more self determined identity. Basically in this instance individuals develop their identity through the picking and choosing of various aspects of their identity in an effort to stabilise the identity they present to the world. Secondly identity confusion occurs when the individual fails to integrate the various aspects of their identity into a consistent identity across situations and time. (Erikson cited in Kroger,2007) did acknowledge that there was always going to be an element of identity confusion at play; however he argues that when identity confusion was more dominant then the synthesis of identity it causes problems for the individual.

(Erikson cited in Kroger,2008) outlines eight stages of identity development. It is beyond the scope of this paper to analyse in any great detail Erikson’s eight stages, however a brief mention of these stages is required. The eight stages he outlines are Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Absorption and lastly Integrity vs. Despair. As is obvious from these stages there are both negative and positive outcomes at each stage, with each stage influencing future stages. For instance a child who fails to receive adequate care in their first year of life may learn not to trust hence having negative consequences for future stages. If an individual has little trust in people they may find it difficult to form intimate relationships in later life. This is not to say identity development happens in a linear manner. For example the first stage of development may be a positive experience; however the second stage may be negative. While an individual may not have negotiated a positive second stage, they may still be able to apply the positive experience in the first stage to the third or fourth stage of development. The negotiation of the various stages is influenced by both personal and social circumstances. Personal values and expectations may need to be renegotiated in order to adapt to various social norms and values. Erikson believed this process occurred at the ego level and individuals unconsciously negotiate between the personal self and the self presented to the world (Erikson,cited in Kroger, 2004). In contrast (Rogers,2004) would suggest that those who base their identity on the approval of others are not a fully function (Self Actualised) human being. Rogers suggests that the fully functioning human being has an internal sense of self worth and doesn’t have to look outside themselves for approval in relation to their identity. Rogers based his assumptions on the humanistic school of psychology and believed that each human being was born good and motivated by an innate desire to reach their fullest potential. He went on to contend that it was outside conditions placed upon the individual which were at the root of the majority of psychological suffering. Children who grow up in an environment where they learn that they are only worthwhile if they follow certain conditions will always look to outside sources for a sense of self worth. In one sense this theory may sound very individualistic and indicate that an individual is self centred if they don’t seek some sort of approval from others, however Rogers would contend that the fully functioning person would have a natural concern for the wellbeing and development of others (Rogers, 2008) This idea that outside sources cause distress for individuals is also evident in the sociological writings of Zigmund Bauman (2000). He refers to the concept of a “liquid modernity” which produces both freedom and insecurity for the modern individual. He proposes that individuals are now in a state of self determination in way of identity development. Individuals are creating their identity through the consumption of the next product which will define who they are momentarily. Such a choice creates a paradox where on one hand the individual experiences greater freedom, but on the other hand experiences the burden and anxiety of having to choose their own identity. The burden and anxiety of having to choose may not amount to a personal freedom (Buaman,2000) It could be suggested that Bauman and Rogers are not that different in the sense that both of them suggest that individuals experience distress from looking outside themselves for a sense of self worth and identity. Remaining with sociological theories we now turn our attention to the impact of social structures on identity.

The sociological approach to identity would contend that there is a two way relationship between the self and society. This suggests that society and the individual each create and form one another (Newman, 2010). (Brofenbrenner, 1979) suggests that social structures such as institutions and social practices influence the individual, while the individual also influences the construction of these social structures. Social structures may not always be physical institutions and can often be socially constructed ideas such as family, father, mother, religion etc. Brofenbrenner’s uses Ecological Systems Theory to explain how both the individual and their environment interact to construct and shape identity. He identifies the environment as a “set of nested structures each inside the next like a set of Russian dolls” (Brofenbrenner, 1979, p3). By this he means that the various structures both human and social can all interact upon and with one another to contribute to an individual’s identity. He outlined four aspects/layers of what he termed the environment. Firstly the individual’s microsystem constituted the child’s immediate environment where the individual has contact family, caregivers and organisations which look after the welfare of the child. The way in which the individuals and groups interact with the child will determine how the child will act and develop. However this is a two way street and how the child acts towards both the organisations and individuals will determine how the child develops. Secondly he spoke about the Mesoystem. This is where the different elements of the child’s Microsystem work together to for the welfare of the child. As he points out a child going to school doesn’t guarantee the child will receive a good education. He suggests that how well the child’s school and parents interact would be a major factor in how the child developed in the learning environment. Moving on from the Mesosystem he went on to speak about the Exsosystem which is a system that the child may not often interact with but nevertheless can be affected by. This system includes areas such as the parent’s work place, the community, a parents network of friends. For instance if a work place provides childcare or parental leave this will affect relationship between child and parent and the relationship between the parent and work. Finally he refers to the Macrosystem which is the most outer layer of the Childs environment. This includes the culture and laws ideologies which influence and are influenced by the other systems. Elaborating on this he argues that countries differ at the Macrosystem for the obvious reasons such as ideologies, laws and so on. As well as this, how the Macrosystem interacts with systems at a national level can be affected by socio economic statues, race, sex etc. So while there may be a blueprint for society, how such a blue print works is determined by the various aspects mentioned (Brofenbrenner,1979). Stryker cited in (Stets, 2006) also theorised about how structures and individuals interacted to influence identity, however he focused on the roles an individual plays and how these are ordered in a hierarchy.

What he terms salience hierarchy, explains how an individual may be more committed to a specific identity then others. Such commitment is influenced by the time and resources allocated a specific role. For instance religious or family structures can greatly influence behaviours in other roles. Such an approach proposes that while, identity is not fixed there is a hierarchal nature to the presentation of identity in different contexts and situations. Basicaly all these theories are suggesting that identity changes according to personal and social circumstances. Who i am today may not be who i am tomorrow or in 6 months. Who i am in certain situations is not who i am in other situations. Different people will describe me in different contexts. Looking at identity in this sense would suggest that identity is far from a fixed concept. As Cote etal (2002)suggests, the notion of an identity which is not fixed is more evident in modern times then in the past. They suggest that in the past identity was a more fixed concept where individual’s identities were often developed in response to roles and norms prescribed by family and society. However in modern society individuals are presented with choice rather than obligation. A place where the freedom to choose identity is highly evident in the world of SNS’s.

SNS’s Provide a space where individuals can present their identity and develop and maintain social networks. The functions of such sites vary and can be orientated towards a variety of human and social activities. Individuals can connect with people they already know in the real world or connect with new people. Also SNS’s can be orientated towards various aspects of personal life such as romantic endeavours and exploration of the various aspects of oneself. Many SNS’S are designed in a way which enables individuals to create profiles which share their interests, values and personal information with others. While these sites often promote the sharing of information there are privacy functions on the majority of sites which enable the individual to determine who sees what information (Ellison et al,2007). The below image displays a Facebook page in its infancy before various information is applied

Facebook was created in 2004 by a Harvard student for the purpose of intra campus socialising. This spread outside of the realm of colleges and campuses and is now one of the most widely used SNS’S on the internet (Awl, 2009). The above picture demonstrates how many individuals can now access the internet and display and choose an Identity with a level of flexibility and control which is not possible in the real world. SNS’s provide an avenue where identities can be both constructed and tested. The above image illustrates that an individual has a blank canvas through which they can construct and change their identity with the click of a button. . The type of information sought in the above profile ranges from quite personal information such as date of birth, where one lives to an individual writing something about oneself. Likes and dislikes are all so questioned on the page. Such a page provides an extensive amount of information about ones identity. Even the “begin editing your profile” points to an invite to create and manage identity. Joinson (2008) highlights the fact that individuals may use SNS’s as a form of surveillance in order to ascertain what type of behaviours and norms are present in offline groups they belong too. He argues that it is a instant form of evaluating what type of norms and values are accepted in a particular group. As mentioned earlier identity is far from a fixed concept and individuals often present themselves in different ways depending on the environment they find themselves in. Facebook has a privacy feature which allows users to determine the amount of information available in different contexts. For example a user can choose to block certain people or only allow certain aspects of information and photos to be visible to certain individuals. This is very similar to how individuals present their identity in offline interactions. Individuals may act different in their personal lives to how they act in work. The privacy function almost equals the part of an individual that mediates the various aspects of themselves which they present in different contexts in real life (Zhao et al, 2008). While the aforementioned details outline how Facebook is used, the question still remains why would an individual want to display their real world identity online?

(Maslow, 1970) stressed that one of the essential needs of a human being was to have a sense of belonging and have human contact. Many individuals are competent in meeting this need, in face to face interaction with other individuals, however as (Martin et al,2007) & (McKenna,2002) suggest there are individuals who are unable to meet this need due to a personal inability to interact in social situations. A sense of loneliness may lead to an individual seeking belonging online, which wouldn’t require the same social skills required in face to face interactions. They point to research which suggests that loneliness can often be a stable personality trait. The research they conducted presented 283 undergraduate students with a survey which measured their internet use, reasons for using the internet and also measured their degree of loneliness using the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Loneliness scale. Their findings suggested that lonely individuals differed greatly from non lonely users in their reasons for using the internet. Lonely individuals used the internet for social interaction, meeting new people and emotional support. These authors go on to suggest that the internet provides an environment which reduces inhibitions and enables socially inhibited individuals to be more open and create intimate connections which they may be unable to develop in the real world. This begs another question what causes this sense of loneliness in individuals? (Weis cited in Rotenberg et al, 1973) captures well the two forms of loneliness caused by both societal and personal circumstances. Firstly he suggests that social loneliness is the absence or lack of social networks which can only be remedied by access to social networks which support the individual. Secondly he suggests that emotional loneliness develops from the lack or loss of an emotional attachment, which can be rectified by initiation or replacement of an emotional attachment. Many studies suggest a strong link between a sense of belonging and early attachment relationships. Both (Ainsworth,1978) and (Bowlby,1978) suggested that the type of attachment which an individual experiences in early life can determine how individuals behave in future relationships. If they had a negative experience with their attachment figure in early childhood they may not trust future attachments with other individuals. This can create avoidance of relationships and an inability to create and sustain new relationships, which may lead to a sense of loneliness While there may be some merit in the notion that some individuals posses a stable loneliness personality trait, Franklin (2009) would argue that loneliness developed as an issue due to the weakening of community and social bonds which started to occur throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

In a sociological context loneliness can be explained through the cultural and societal processes which cause loneliness within the individual (Christensen et al, 2003). Bauman (2002) would suggest that social bonds and communities have diminished and individuals are now defying themselves through consumption. Individuals are in a constant state of redefining themselves through consuming the next product which will momentarily quench the desire for personal pleasure. Such consumption gives the individual the ability to choose their identity which was once determined by society and family. Consumption replaces the pleasure which in the past was derived from human bonds and relationships (Bauman, 2000). However this replacement may only act as a band aid for the loss of social bonds and relationships. In the modern world where individualism and a fast pace of life has taking root it may be argued that SNS’s such as Facebook (like consumerism) provide an accessible and simple way of giving an individual greater choice and control over their identity. As Urista et al(2008) suggests modern individuals are intense consumers of technological products which provide instant results. This goes on to affect the consumers behaviour by creating a individual that becomes impatient and expects quick results in other areas of life. SNS’S provides the perfect platform for individuals who want quick and easy contact with others. A further hypothesis may be that loneliness created by the consumption culture influences the individual to seek out a sense of belonging on the World Wide Web. If we were to apply aspects of (Bauman’s,2000) Liquid Modernity theory both hypothesis could be said to be relevant to SNS usage. To suggest that SNS are only used by individuals who are seeking a sense of belonging would not give a full picture of why individuals use SNS’s. As (Ellison,2007) comments individuals who are going through the transition of moving away from home to attend college can benefit from the fact that they can stay connected with old friends and connecting with new friends on Facebook. He argues that it may be easier for some individuals to start making new friends at college through the medium of Facebook (Ellison2007).

There are various other avenues of communication which would be much more anonymous then SNS’s in the sense that there may be no pictures and individuals may only converse through the medium of digital text. This can range from sharing information with online support groups to chatting in online chat rooms. In many cases the information provided may be an accurate presentation of one’s real identity, however there are cases where the information provided may be totally inaccurate and misleading. Such misleading information may be minimal where individual’s present aspects of their personality that are not accurate or provide totally misleading information about their age, gender or physical appearance Turkle (1995).http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRw5VZNrTB4XO7ZlteKJcDETvo0ExKg3EzkQh7f5By5wH2pUPhV


The above image displays how and individual can use SNS’s and the internet to present a totally false picture of who they are. (Donath, 1998) suggests that in the offline world the physical self is a part of identity which to a large extent cannot be disguised. However in the online world this is not the case and identity is often formed through the delivery of information about oneself. This image captures the extent to which information in anonymous online communities can often be very far removed from the real world. A study carried out by (Blinkah& Smahel,2009) carried out a study on how younger teenagers used weblogs and their inclination to lie about various aspects of their identity such as age, interests, sex and the existence of make believe partners. However they do question if the misrepresentations the teenagers present of themselves should be considered as lying. They suggest that younger adolescents are under more pressure to transcend from a child identity to an adult identity and, what they are presenting may only be a representation of their ideal self’s(Blinkah& Smahel,2009). According to Erikson adolescents need to interact with the world and people in it in order to form their identity. It could be argued that the less anonymous sites may provide a virtual playground where adolescents can experiment with their identity. As Greenfield etal (2006) points out a primary aspect of adolescent development is the process of redefinition through creation and recreation of identities. While this may be positive in some circumstances, research from Milani et al (2009) would argue that some teens who use the internet as a source of socialising may develop Problematic Internet Use (PIU). They suggest teens that use the internet for collecting information or learning are less likely to develop PIU. Teenagers with low quality interpersonal relationships tend to use internet as an avoidance mechanism in an attempt to avoid the stress caused by face to face interactions. What is somewhat ironic is that there are now online support groups and therapists which assist individuals with the issues just mentioned. The two most common forms of communication used in these settings are statements of support and self disclosure. There are positive forces at play in such environments as they provide a relatively anonymous environment where individuals can avoid the stigma of visiting mental health professional’s offline. (Wood, 2001). However as (Tardinie et al,2005) would argue online interaction fails to produce both the physical and emotional aspects which are core to a sense of offline interaction. As (Kraus et al 2004) argues, trust may be an issue with online support groups and therapists, as language is the only vehicle which can be used to establish the authenticity of these groups and therapists. What is very obvious is that, the complex relationship between offline and online interactions serve to impact upon identity formation and development. For instance if an individual is trying to avoid the stigma of visiting a mental health professional by going online they are using the internet as a medium to manage the identity they are presenting in the real world. There are other positive aspects to these anonymous settings. (Turkle,1995) would contend that information sharing in the virtual world is often free of the constraints which gender, race and age often produce in face to face interaction. When these aspects of identity are not in play communication may be free from prejudices produced by these aspects of identity. (Boyd,2003) conveys much of the same assumptions when she contends that limitations experienced by marginalised individual’s offline can be lessened online due to the fact that they may not be constrained by the limitations of physical appearance or poor social skills. A form of online service known as 2nd life goes further than both SNS’s and the more anonymous online settings by giving an individual the ability to create a whole new identity and belong in a world which is void of any real reality http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRw5VZNrTB4XO7ZlteKJcDETvo0ExKg3EzkQh7f5By5wH2pUPhV

It differs greatly from the other aspects of online identity which we have already mentioned. The below picture demonstrates how a number of individuals are all sitting beside each other in the real world, but interacting with avatars in a virtual world just like Second Life.


This picture presents a peculiar scenario. These individuals are in close enough proximity to each other to engage in real world interaction; however they have opted to engage in a virtual world based on fantasy. They are playing out different identities through the medium of technology while sitting right next to each other. One of the most popular virtual worlds on the internet is a service called Second Life. The name really outlines the nature of what this virtual world is all about. Once individuals enter this virtual world they can construct whole new identities. They can build houses and engage in various activities. This world has its own currency , institutions and all the other aspects of society which exist in the real world. Initially it is free to join the site however for the added bonuses of custom virtual homes and added extras an individual has to pay a price for premium membership. Identities are literally commodities within this virtual world. Individuals can choose multiple identities and choose who they want to be on a particular day. (Rolland & Parmentier ,2009) As Garvey (2010) contends the enacting of multiple identities or personalities in the real world would fit the criteria for Dissociative Identity Disorder( DID). The (American Psychiatric Association cited in Garvey, 2010) outlines the key characteristics of this disorder. Firstly there is the presence of two or more identities or personality states. At least two of these personality/identity states take control of the individual’s behaviour on a regular basis and finally an inability to recall important personal information which is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness. As Garvey points out in the Second life world the aforementioned list is the norm. (Rolland & Parmentier ,2009) commented that many individuals, who use these virtual worlds, do so in order to experiment with identities which would not be possible in the real world due to physiological, psychological and social constraints. Sex, romantic relationships and violent behaviour were some of the most common aspects of identity which were experimented with. If people are experimenting with sex and violence in these worlds it, may to some degree, validate Freud’s psychoanalytic theory on Sex and Aggression. He believed that human beings are driven by sexual and aggressive instincts and these instincts were at the heart of all behaviours and thought Second life may be an environment where individuals are exploring these instincts without having to worry about the norms which would constrain them from doing so in the real world; From (Rolland & Parmentier ,2009) research on the users and the different types of identity formation on second life they concluded that some individuals form virtual self’s which they believe are a true reflection of themselves, while others go through a metamorphous creating virtual self’s which are totally autonomous of the individuals real life identity. Those who duplicate themselves do so in order to enter the virtual world and gain new experiences while those who use the virtual world to create an autonomous avatar do so to experiment with possible self’s. What sets this world apart from SNS’s and anonymous online settings is the fact that they are actually participating in a world which is pure fantasy. With the other two settings there is some sense of a connection to the real world. If we were to apply Erickson’s intimacy vs. isolation stage to and individual who spend all their time in a virtual world it could be argued that that such and individual is stuck in isolation and not experiencing the real world.

This paper has focused on three online avenues where identity can be displayed, created and managed. What is obvious from the paper is that many of the psychological and sociological theories used to explain identity offline can also be used to understand aspects of online identity. We examined how various structures can influence individual identity and it seems very obvious from this paper that the relationship between the internet and the individual is a two way street. In one sense the individual may be managing and constructing their identity online, while in another sense the internet seems to be acting as an agent in the construction and development of offline identity. Social networking sites seem to be the most transparent representation of individual’s real world identities while the more anonymous settings such as blogs and chat sites represent an environment where there is more leverage for individuals to present their identities in the manner which they choose too. However the Second life avenue seems to go to the extreme of presenting individuals with the ability to create a whole new identity in a fantasy world. This world gives individuals the ability to be both the producer and consumer of identity. The one aspect that is missing from this world is the biological self

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