Digital Interaction and Identity
by Aristee Georgiadou, February 19, 2018
Before electronic media the body in long distance communication was substituted by signatures, seals, handwriting. With the telephone it was sound, voice intonation. Deciphering the message in the “internet speak” becomes more important today, use of emoticons or not, in order to identify the sender. In the pre-internet era the body validated the action. Today we recognize people by the content style.
In the 90s through anonymous interaction people played roles, close or far away from the real self, constructing “online identities”, partial and contradicting, floating free of social determinants. They participated in chat rooms and forums without knowing who was who, based on a shared interest. Today our profiles give away our identity as we interact with people we already know, connect with friends, forming foundations of building trust and relationships in the real world.
Today communications are “asynchronous”. They don’t take place in real time. It may take hours before we answer a message. This enables us to strategize and refine our replies. Still it is faster than waiting 15 days for the mail to arrive. However liberating this is, the receiver may demand that we do not respond when it suits us. Not being required to reply instantly, we prepare, return when we feel safer and thus we are “disinhibited”. Status and authority are also reduced in online interaction, rendering it more democratic than face to face communication. People express themselves more openly online. Yet this is a double-edged sword since it may vary from intimacy to hate speech.
Invisibility, a form of visual anonymity, allows us to evade identifying ourselves. This anonymity makes us riskier. And with the worry of physical or voice absent, attraction rests more on the similarity of values, interests and conversational style. There is liberation in anonymity; people end up revealing themselves more intimately. In groups anonymity may lead to impulsiveness and aggression as we tend to overestimate the sharing of common points of views, based on the number of retweets. At the same time, when anonymity removes individuality it leads to help. Again it is a double-edged sword where it can be the cause of racism or grassroots political action. It depends on how good or bad the cues are.
However, today our online identities do not differ from our real ones. To build trust there must be some kind of stability. Anonymity is rare and it is with pseudonyms or real selves that reputation is built. And even though it takes longer time, it is possible to build relationships online just as well as offline. When communicating online, relying on the information we have, we tend to think people are more similar with us than they actually are, which in turn generates feelings of closeness and leads to idealization. Because we tend to optimize our online image as well, when we idealize an interaction partner he responds by further optimizing himself. This eventually makes two relative strangers to become surprisingly intimate.
Computer-mediated-communication makes interaction either impersonal or increasingly “hyperpersonal”. Senders express desirable behaviors and receivers construct idealized images. Asynchronicity and the lack of pressure to meet, further enhances the model (Joseph Walther, 1996). Digital society allows large room to people to construct themselves. “Interacting with others on the Internet may provide individuals with the opportunity to successfully implement wished changes in their self-concept”. We construct who we want to be seen as.
Lindgren, S., “Digital & Media Society”, 2017, SAGE, pp 67-84.
Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal and Hyperpersonal Interaction. Communication Research, 23 (1), 3-43.