Cyberspace Identities: The Psychology Behind Online Identity Management


I found an interesting article today titled the Psychology of Cyberspace, as seen in the Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. The article talks about the psychology behind online identity management and the way we present ourselves online versus in real life. Identity is already a very complex part of human nature, and now we’ve added yet another dimension: cyberspace. Although this article was published in 2002, everything it covers still pertains to our understanding of online identities today.

The author of the article, John Suler, addresses five “interlocking factors” that help us understand how people manage themselves and their identities in cyberspace:

1. Level of Dissociation and Integration: Each person’s identity can be broken down into multiple parts. Each of us identity with various different groups in real life — whether it’s as a daughter, student, employee, etc — and when we appear online, we can pick and choose which traits we wish to display. “The multiple aspects of one’s identity may bedissociated, enhanced, or integrated online.”

2. Positive and Negative Valence: Depending on the person and the situation, people may choose to display their negative characteristics (usually anonymously), or their positive ones.

3. Level of Fantasy or Reality: No one really keeps track of our identities. We can create as many identities as we wish, and among these, there can be real identities, imaginary identities, or hidden identities. What is one’s true identity? While we may assume that someone’s “true” identity is the one you meet in real life, it could very well be the opposite. Perhaps their true identity is the imaginary one they have made online that they are too afraid to express in real life.

4. Level of Conscious Awareness/Control: Sometimes, how we present ourselves in cyberspace isn’t even a conscious decision. At times, how we display our identities online could be determined by our unconscious needs and emotions.

5. The Media Chosen: The different ways we express ourselves online could channel different aspects of our identity and our personalities, i.e. chat (free, witty), email (serious), etc.

The most interesting part of this article to me is that sometimes, our identities are not chosen consciously, whether it is due to the need to conform, to fulfill an unconscious desire, or to express a part of ourselves we are afraid to do so in real-life. Our identities in cyberspace are not only extensions or representations of who we are in reality, but can also offer insight to things we never knew about ourselves.


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1 Response to Cyberspace Identities: The Psychology Behind Online Identity Management

  1. dkoleanb says:

    Juliana (not Julia),
    I’m glad you posted this article–I feel that it offers a comprehensive overview of managing identities in cyberspace; however, I wish it mentioned the nymwars, or the conflicts over policies mandating internet service users to supply their real name in order to use the service. Sites like Google have enforced this rule, specifically on Google+, banning users who use pseudonyms. I find it interesting that websites are attempting to pinpoint users’ identities rather than allowing users to remain anonymous, but as this article mentions, anonymity can lend to negative behavior. I’ve noticed a change in my own behavior when I have the opportunity to remain anonymous. For example, on Piazza I’ve expressed my anger towards the inadequacy of the course structure in EECS 203 (not posting iClicker results for over a month at a time, being unsure of how they will curve final grades or a guesstimate at the standard deviation in final course grades, etc.). Typically, I wouldn’t feel comfortable directly confronting the teacher or GSI about this, but on Piazza, I feel comfortable expounding this idea because of the shield of anonymity.

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