Internet Activity Focusing More on Identity Work

Published on: 01/03/2012
Posted on: 01/03/2012
Tagged with: ITOM , Social Media
The Internet has evolved from static web pages to e-commerce — and now to identity play — according to Professor Ulrike Schultze of SMU Cox. Through researching how people use their avatars and operate in Second Life, "one of the richest social media environments," Schultze finds new insights into how our on- and off-line identities are increasingly entangled—and how social media is evolving.

The Internet has evolved from static web pages to e-commerce — and now to identity play — according to Professor Ulrike Schultze of SMU Cox. Through researching how people use their avatars and operate in Second Life, "one of the richest social media environments," Schultze finds new insights into how our on- and off-line identities are increasingly entangled.

In the past, we have thought of the Internet as a place of mere words, where  unencumbered by our bodies, our minds interact, suggests Schultze. This notion is captured in the famous 1993 New Yorker “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon. "Today, however, the stereotypical concept that your body is removed from cyberspace is outdated," Schultze says. "For one, the web is much more multimedia, which means that people present themselves in pictures and videos, and they frequently share via Facebook or GPS-cellphone apps, from where they are currently located. Furthermore, the identities that people are constructing online are no longer entirely under their control. With social media, the comments our friends post, co-construct how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others.”

“So, we need to change how we think about identities—how we construct and maintain them both on- and offline,” Schultze maintains, especially as social media and online games constitute more and more of our Internet activities. Cyberspace is no longer just a stage or performance space, where users and firms control their message in order to represent an established or desired identity; instead it has become a "performative" space of co-creation, where identities are constructed through the actions taken not only by individuals or firms but also by their social networks.

Embodied Identity 

Our bodies are an important aspect of identity; they carry important markers such as gender, race and (dis)abilities in off-line encounters. But they also enable and constrain the kinds of identities people are able to enact online. To understand how our physical bodies are implicated in online settings, Schultze studied nine Second Life entrepreneurs who ran businesses as diverse as designing Asian clothing to doing glamour photography and building a presence for real-world organizations in the virtual world. The virtual world Second Life is useful for research on embodied identity since users present themselves via virtual bodies (i.e., avatars) whose names and appearance often do not perfectly correlate with the users’ actual embodiment.

Through a series of photo-diaries and interviews, Schultze’s research revealed how people drew on their physical embodiment to make their identity and interactions in the virtual world more real and meaningful. To authenticate themselves as trustworthy and reliable persons behind the avatar, many incorporated pictures of themselves in their profiles, provided email addresses, web page references and even phone numbers to demonstrate that they were not just virtual.  The physical body was used as a guarantor for personhood.

"One key difference between real and virtual bodies," Schultze notes, "is that the latter are undifferentiated clones, requiring users to find ways to differentiate their avatars." Schultze observes how Second Life users relied on real-world attributes to construct a unique virtual body. For instance, one participant devised his avatar as a space-cowboy, combining a cowboy hat with a space suit, which played off his West Texas roots and interest in Star Trek. His persona served as an invitation for others to engage in conversations with him. Through others' interactions, his identity as a space-cowboy became performative.

Schultze concludes: "The body symbolizes the natural order of things that users seek to replicate in the virtual space... Second Life users voluntarily tethered their avatars to their corporeality in order to vouch for their realness in-world. They used the material affordances of their avatars to portray their emotional and physical state at the time. In this way, the avatar served as an invitation for others to reach through the technological interface and connect with the user in a way that was meaningful and specific to their actual situation."

Finding meaning

The question Schultze puzzles out is: how do we manage our identities in a social media environment, where our online identities are increasingly distributed, co-constructed and entangled with our offline identities? Her answer: People rely on their experience of physical embodiment as a way of making life online meaningful and construct an identity that straddles actual and virtual reality. In this way, virtual identities are both online performances that are planned by the user, but also co-constructed, performative experiences that shape the user’s on- and off-line identity.

An increasing amount of Internet activity revolves around identity work, Schultze observes. The Internet is changing. 

The paper "Embodies Identity in Virtual Worlds: A Performative Perspective" by Information Technology Professor Ulrike Schultze is under review at the European Journal of Information Systems.  Her work is funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Written by Jennifer Warren.

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