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Experimenting with Anonymity in the Digital World: The Relationship Between Teens and Online Identity

Teens are extremely active within social media, often exercising “media multiplexity” by communicating via several digital platforms. Through these different channels, teens find that their anonymity allows them to manipulate their online identity, and they do so for a number of reasons. They can choose to represent their true identity, pretend to be someone entirely different, or a mix of both. On one site, like Facebook for example, the teen could have a presenting self that is a direct reflection of his or her perceived self. At the same time, the teen might use a platform like Twitter to act as another person that has no relation to his or her true self, like a parody account or even a pseudonym.

To supplement their online identity, teens find that their language greatly influences how they represent these personas. Whether they are expressing themselves or acting as someone else, the discourse that is used by the account is a major channel for communication and expression in itself. “The dominant view of identity in discursive psychology is that ‘identities are constructed on the basis of different, shifting discursive resources.’ Theorists in this field claim the self has many versions, and that at any moment of time a different version may be chosen’ (Thomas, 34).

Identity is an association involving a subject position in a discursive structure. It is relationally organized – the subject is something because it is being contrasted with something it is not (Thomas, 25). While one might be using some form of social media account affiliated with their actual name, their language may represent a completely different character, thus creating a different image for themselves although their name is the same. People tend to do this when they want others to view them in a specific way, or even as something they’re not but wish they could be. In the same sense, users can have an alias account but use discourse that is directly reflective of their inner thoughts, feelings, and personalities. This is often used as a way for someone to express himself or herself in a public manner without exposing their true identity at the risk of being ashamed or attacked.

But what about the adolescents who communicate under an alias and use language that has nothing to do with their actual identity. For example, there are Twitter accounts affiliated with the “pls” community and other things like Pharrell’s hat or Bob Costas’s pink eye. They have thousands of followers, as they have quickly become “Twitter famous” over a typically bizarre topic. You can’t help but wonder who turned these concepts into a form of identity or what influenced them to do so. Is the person behind Pharrell’s hat a girl or a boy? Are they normally an expressive person with an account that is linked to their true identity, or have they kept themselves completely anonymous in the virtual world? Does this alias influence their offline life, and how? Statistically, there isn’t a pattern to “who creates what and why.” Any adolescent who decides to create an online persona based on these inane things can do so, regardless of their demographics.

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However, when it comes to teens revealing their identities or maintaining anonymity, studies have found that there are some patterns in this kind of activity. David Huffaker and Sandra Calvert published an article titled Gender, Identity, and Language Use in Teenage Blogs that covers multiple studies about adolescent blog usage and how things like disclosure of personal information, emoticons, and language differ between genders. It was discovered that teen bloggers tend to reveal more personal information about themselves than users of other ages do. Details such as first names, age, and contact information are more commonly shared rather than things such as birth dates or full names, although those were shared by a smaller percentage of adolescents.

In regards to gender, a hypothesis was made that males are more likely to provide personal information like name, age, location, and contact information (Calvert, Huffaker). However, experimental results showed that these differences were not significant enough to be declared as determinable by gender. “The majority of teenage bloggers discuss things that influence or impact their real world, such as relationships, and attach their real-world identity to these discussions. In the case of location, males provide a little more personal information than females; but in all other cases, both males and females are revealing the same kinds of information” (Calvert, Huffaker).

But why is identity manipulation so popular among teens within social media? What influences them to begin to experiment with identity? Does this help or hurt their social competence? Thomas discusses the research of Jacques Lacan in her article, Youth Online: Identity and Literacy in the Digital Age. Lacan developed ideas about the relationship between the subject and signification and how they related to an adolescent’s development of a sense of self. He stated that adolescents begin to see an ‘image’ or an outward depiction of themselves when they first discover the concept of selfhood. The adolescent learns to form a separate identity during ‘the mirror stage,’ or when they begin to identify with this outside image of themselves. Through socialization, he or she uses discourse to express their true self, although these expressions may not be something they expose offline. By experimenting with the release and outward communication of these inner reflections, the adolescent develops a “specular image, which is not itself, but a reflected specular image of self, something that is ‘other’ than itself” (Thomas, 24).

In Adolescents’ Identity Experiments on the Internet, an article by Patti Valkenburg and Jochen Peter, it is hypothesized that online identity experiments foster adolescents’ self-concept unity. “A major developmental task for adolescents is to achieve a firm and unitary sense of who they are by exploring new identities.” Since the teens are able to interact with people of mixed personalities, it is easier for them to identify themselves with one or more of these varieties and eventually develop their own unique self-concepts.

“Identity has been approached in terms of the relationships between the internal experience, such as personality and self-definition, and the external world, such as social relationships and shared values,” say Huffaker and Calvert. They agree that identity is a crucial factor in the human experience and adolescent development. Through the Internet, identity exploration is vastly expanded as the virtual world allows users to discover and build intricate relationships that they typically would not be able to do in their offline lives. Adolescents, among other users, have the flexibility to change their identity or not. The anonymity of the Internet not only enables them to find an identity that they feel most comfortable expressing themselves in, but also encourages a new form of discourse that is entirely dependent on their creativity and representation.

“Weblogs represent a CMC environment where both identity and language play important roles. Not only are teenagers using weblogs to present an online identity, but also to express their ideas, experiences, and feelings using an adapted language. In some cases, these blogs interlink to form online communities, similar to the peer relationships observed in the offline world” (Calvert, Huffaker).

The creation of a Twitter parody account, a pseudonym, or a fake account all together is more than just a way for teens to keep their identities private for whatever reason. It is a way for them to more easily get in touch with their sense of self. By remaining anonymous, they are open to discovering things in the virtual world that they might be reluctant to look for or reach out to if they had been doing so under their real identity. This freedom of exploration is critical to their developmental stages and it helps adolescents become more self-aware and gain a better understanding for their image and budding identities.

Social Media and Your Online Identity

Photo via Gigaom

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