What is Identity?


Initial Thoughts

Forming a characterization of a person you have just met is a very automatic process. We immediately, upon even seeing someone for the first time, begin an inner dialog with ourselves about the characteristics of that person. This same process occurs regardless of the media through which the encounter takes place: face-to-face, on the phone, or online. It would seem logical that the same process of characterization and evaluation of another person that we have developed in for real world interactions would carry over to online interactions, and the research seems to validate this hypothesis.

No one, of course, would claim that online interaction is the same as face-to-face interaction, or even voice only interaction (over the phone, for example). Each of these media have unique properties that allow some set of social cues to be transmitted (even face-to-face interaction doesn't allow all such possible cues; writing style, for example, can say a lot about someone). Interestingly, both Goffman and Lakoff seem to claim the process of characterization and impression forming exists on a cognitive level lower than that of the actual interaction. If this is true, then interacting online is very similar to interacting in real life, mediated by the information (social cues, etc.) that the particular medium allows.

The Presenatation of Self in Everyday Life

Erving Goffman's analysis of face-to-face interaction is compelling. Looking at the psychological experience of traditional social interaction, and in particular the mental models each person has of both themselves and others is a useful technique to understand the reasons for the behavior that people exhibit in such situations. He sees that there are multiple channels of information that pass back and forth between the observer and the observed in any social encounter. His analysis breaks these channels into the given, or conscious, portrayal of self, and the given off, or sub-conscious, portrayal. By his accounts, each person is able to read cues from both of these general channels: we have evolved, as social beings, a common vocabulary (though not necessarily oral) that allows us to communicate through these channels.

Interestingly, Goffman describes the given off type of communication as "the more theatrical and contextual kind, the non-verbal, presumably unintentional kind..." This mode of communication exists simultaneously with the verbal interaction of the participants. The importance of the non-verbal part of communication is made clear by his examples of such parallel communication. Imagine a social situation where this type of multi-modal communication didn't exist. It seems impossible for such a situation to actually exist; Real face-to-face interaction with the participants unmoving and speaking monotonously evokes some emotional interpretation of the situation. Even a starved medium such as email carries some of these social cues in the grammar and style of the message (as was evidenced by Jacobson's interviews with online correspondents). It seems that this characteristic of human interaction is not only universal, but seems necessary in any social situation. When a medium lacks the ability to carry such non-verbal cues in their traditional physical instantiations, we invent new ways of encoding existing cues--such as the now ubiquitous :) or lol.

Goffman's proposition that social interaction (at least face-to-face) is a turn taking, role-playing game does seem a little simple. Certainly there are many types of situations that fall into this general category, but not all conversations have a clear-cut "working consensus", in which all participants understand their roles and act accordingly. Nor is the rule that people take their turns in order always followed. Dinner conversations, especially when there are more than a couple of people at a table, have a more complex flow, where some people may break from the rest of the conversants to have a side conversation, interjecting themselves back into the main conversation (if there even is one) at various times. Even with such breaks and side interactions, the interaction of all of the people is usually seen as a single conversation.

While Goffman's assertion that "the individual's initial projection commits him to what he is proposing to be and requires him to drop all pretenses of being other things," is insightful, real world interaction doesn't seem as calculated as his comment would make us believe. Furthermore, this projection is one that exists (almost) only on a psychological level. Since face-to-face interaction requires physical proximity, we are constrained by our physical selves in what we can propose to be. Also, if the given off part of our interaction is mostly sub-conscious, revealing about our psychological selves that which we might try to hide or change when making a first impression, then we cannot entirely re-invent ourselves when presenting our projection to a new acquaintance. This highly constrained act of projecting ourselves to another person becomes less so in an online environment (or any non face-to-face interaction, for that matter), since the physical restrictions on projection no longer exists (though there may be other constraints).


David Jacobson's research brings some of Goffman's and Lakoff's work on mental models of social interaction into the online realm. His background research notes a couple of interesting and pertinent aspects of building and using mental models. In discussing stereotyping and prototyping, he notes, "although researchers have found that stereotypes may function to reduce information overload, they may also operate to augment an 'information-impoverished environment.'" It is difficult to interact with a person without some model of that person's personality, and in an online environment, many of the clues and cues that might allow us to form such a model (as noted by Goffman) are unavailable. This presents an interesting situation: we have come to rely more heavily upon stereotypes to allow us to fill in missing information about other people online while we, as a society, fight against most stereotypes in real life. Furthermore, Jacobson claims, even something as simple as a person's online name can be the catalyst behind the invocation of many stereotypes. In reading the responses to researcher's questions, it is striking how heavily we rely on idealized views online, even when thinking about and portraying ourselves.

Most of the people interviewed by Jacobson commented that their expectations of a person's real life personality and stature were different from their expectations. At least in the case of speech patterns, Jacobson claims that the time lag of online communication equalizes the great differences in real life verbal style. This may very well be true, but the issue may be more deeply seated in communication through media as opposed to face-to-face interaction. People have different personalities when writing instead of speaking, solely because of the fact that we are communicating through a particular medium, instead of directly. Even on the phone, such discrepancies exist: some people are more fluid and talkative on the phone than they are face-to-face. Perhaps the lack of certain social cues or body language frees some people to be more expressive.

The particular account of Alice, who's online personality gave others the impression of a large, powerful woman, pointed to the differing abilities of certain modes of communication to hide personal characteristics. Whereas in the real world (as discussed above), it is very difficult to hide your physical attributes from a new acquaintance when communicating face-to-face but a bit easier to pass off a psychologically different you, in the online world the situation is reversed. What characterizes a person most online is grammatical and communicative style of the typed word. Alice's expected physical characteristics came directly from her writing. Her real life physical attributes were hidden behind a computer screen. It (presumably) would have been easier for her to mask her physical self than her psychological self in the online world. Even so, just as there is a limit to the mutability of the projection of ourselves to others in the real world, there would seem a comparable limit online, as evidenced by Herring's study of how grammar can give away whether we are male or female.

page last updated 3/27/2001