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Who Are We?: A Look at Online Personas vs. Offline Personalities

For over a decade, going on the Internet was like attending a masquerade ball.  Each user had the ability to be whomever s/he chose to be.  This layer of anonymity led to the most unlikely of connections as people found others of like interests that would normally be kept under wraps because of social consequences in the offline world.  Each being on the internet could pick and choose which aspects of themselves were shared with others, which in a vacuum creates an environment where true thoughts and feelings can be expressed.

Social networking changed the role of the internet.  On more and more sites, a person’s offline identity is connected to their online actions.  Facebook has become the poster-child of the movement to strip away anonymity on the web.  The internet giants have created deals with websites such as ESPN’s to have all commenters sign on through a Facebook profile. Being signed on through Facebook means that each comment is connected to a person’s Facebook profile, therefore their real name and possibly their job are attached to what they say—as opposed to being connected to a screen name that contains no personal information.  This is not to say that the internet of old was the peak of humanity—there have been more than a few Nigerian Princes looking to drain the bank accounts of the naïve.   Coming-to-America-in-youruba-language With more websites requiring an outside identity to participate, an interesting question is raised.  The question now is: What better represents a person’s true identity, their offline life, or their online persona?

The internet in twenty-first century America has become more or less a networking tool.  Social networks exist for, you guessed it, social reasons, as well as for establishing professional connections.  Websites liked LinkedIn allow the average person to have an ever developing resume and professional profile on the web for potential employers to see.  Despite having a home in LinkedIn, the eyes of employers have strayed.  This is thanks to the other social networks.  When given even partial anonymity, for example a social network comprised entirely of peers, then my generation of twenty-somethings becomes very open to sharing every aspect of our lives.  Much like people interacting on earlier internet forums, we sought out those with similar interests and made connections.  Attaching these connections to our offline identities is where the problem arose.  Instead of having a shroud to cover information like a home address, or a place of work, it was all out in the open on Facebook.

It became apparent to kids my age in high school that Facebook was no longer a peer only environment.  As older siblings, friends, and cousins were denied position at school and in the work force, we realized that adults and employers had found Facebook.  Our uncensored character was on display for future bosses, colleges, etc. and they were there to stay.  Instead of references being the test of character for a job, it was the online identity that determined whether or not the application got even a second glance.  In light of this revelation, we changed.  Our Facebooks no longer reflected our true selves, but rather the person that we thought colleges and employers should see.  Much like hiding our dirty laundry from prying eyes in the halls of high school, we could no longer wear our proverbial hearts on our internet sleeves, for the future was at stake.  Much like what had once been the Old West, the internet was now connected with railroads—each leading back to the offline person.  Tame and orderly.

 

This satirical look at Facebook’s newest feature demonstrates the lack of authenticity that now exists on social networking.

 

As I mentioned before, the anonymity of the internet has begun to be stripped away, but that process is not complete.  Certain social networks such as Twitter do not require veritable offline information like Facebook, and the website 4chan has become the stronghold of anonymity on the internet.  4chan embodies the spirit of older message boards, with a series of threads based on different interests, and the users interact anonymously.  Although in a perfect world a place of like minds spawns creativity, connections and true feelings being expressed safely, that is often not the case.  4chan is not without its controversies, and sometimes the anonymity is enough to let the worst in people show.

One does not have to delve deep into 4chan to find the ill effects of anonymity though, for those can be found on a daily basis on what is becoming the most popular social network in the United States, Twitter.  While Twitter allows people to interact with their peers, celebrities, and heroes at 140 characters a clip, it also exposes people to hate that was thought to be a minor portion of our culture, but is in fact alive and well.  The most recent example of this came from the recent coming out of the closet by NFL hopeful Michael Sam.  Almost immediately after Sam’s story caught traction on the web, the hateful tweets started flying.

 

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p>I hope no one drafts Michael Sam. What team wants a fag on the roster? What a joke! He’s no hero!!</p>&mdash; 3ptBalla (@3PtBalla) <a href=”https://twitter.com/3PtBalla/statuses/432933723978207233″>February 10, 2014</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p>Missouri DE Michael Sam who will be drafted in the 2014 NFL draft announced he’s gay. And for the cherry on top, he’s also a nigger. <a href=”https://twitter.com/search?q=%23Faggot&amp;src=hash”>#Faggot</a></p>&mdash; Steve Jed Fleishman (@steveflei) <a href=”https://twitter.com/steveflei/statuses/432697575787880449″>February 10, 2014</a></blockquote>

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“3ptBalla” is certainly not this person’s name in the offline world.  In this case anonymity allowed for hatred to shine through.  There are drawbacks to every stance, and hurt that can be caused by those hiding in anonymity can be great, but is it enough to justify permanently linking the online self to the offline self?

I would never defend or justify the hateful messages that are tossed around the web without recourse, but I fear we as people may lose focus on what positives that a separate online self can bring.  In a study of the online anonymous and nonymous selves at Temple University, authors Shanyang Zhao, Sherri Grasmuck, and Jason Martin point out both the benefits and drawbacks of anonymity.   In the study, the authors discuss that in the “…nonymouse offline world…deviance from established social norms will be punished or ridiculed, the masks people wear in everyday life become their ‘real’ or known identities and a person’s ‘true’ self often gets suppressed…”  In the “nonymous” world that the authors discuss, and in which we live, we must conform to what is acceptable behavior in our particular culture.  Every person has a secret.  There is an aspect of every person that s/he wishes to hide from others, for fear of social exile.  What the anonymous internet does is give him/her the tools to express that person that locked away at the office, or in the living room.  What a completely linked “nonymous” online and offline self does is force us back into our masks, twenty-four/seven, 365 days a year.  Without the ability to let our true selves breath, we just become stifled masses, hoping not to offend a soul, and praying that Aunt Sally, our future boss, and that cute person we met at the bar “likes” our status…even if it only is a shell.

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