The Conflict of Online & Offline Identities

The pace of psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ence has not kept up with the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal progress, lead­ing to a whole slew of issues sur­round­ing our so-called online identities.If you fol­low psy­chol­o­gy as far as it flows into main­stream media, you must have observed the stud­ies sur­round­ing online addic­tion, mar­riages, sui­ci­dal behav­ior, and so on. But, these are extrem­i­ties, and the numer­ous sur­veys and research stud­ies don’t address what the rest of the 99% are going through. Yes, there is indeed a con­flict we are all expe­ri­enc­ing as our dig­i­tal per­son­ae become as or more per­va­sive as our real ones were nev­er des­tined to be.

It is a con­flict that needs deep­er study.

Even in our real lives, we strug­gle to under­stand our real self. This illus­trates the sit­u­a­tion pret­ty well:

  (I am not sure where this abstrac­tion comes from – Carl Rogers comes close)

In essence, we are nei­ther who we think we are, nor are we what oth­ers think we are. Our real “self” is embed­ded in some shad­ow. Dis­cov­er­ing this – our “real self” – is the mag­ic that has spawned gen­er­a­tions of god­men and mys­tics. This quest for the search of our true “iden­ti­ty” has con­tin­ued for cen­turies.

What hap­pens when you intro­duce online iden­ti­ty? This:

 The quest for iden­ti­ty has got­ten much, much more dif­fi­cult thanks to the Inter­net. We are no longer just real human beings liv­ing in real lives, vis­i­ble to sound, sight, and touch – we are now a Twit­ter account, a Face­book account, a Google Plus account, and so on.

These online accounts are iden­ti­ties in them­selves. Whether one choos­es to asso­ciate these online iden­ti­ties with one’s real iden­ti­ty is an individual’s choice. (Reminder – there are over 7 bil­lion peo­ple on this plan­et). But many do, and when they do, there is a con­flict. Online and Offline col­lide in ways one had nev­er thought of before. Yes, they do, just like this.

How does it look when your online per­sona is very dif­fer­ent from what you real­ly are?

 The more dif­fer­ent you are online than in your real life, the more stress you will feel.

Some peo­ple are true to them­selves to such an extent that their real life iden­ti­ties match close­ly with their online iden­ti­ties.

 These are folks who expe­ri­ence har­mo­ny, with their dig­i­tal and real self entwined togeth­er.

Anoth­er way to think about this:

 No won­der mil­lions of peo­ple are try­ing to solve the puz­zle.

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  • Bel­lis­si­mo! And bang on tar­get. The Rubik’s cube is so apt — it’s a puz­zle — and those 3x2 para­me­ters are ever shift­ing as we try and get a colour togeth­er. 🙂

  • In essence, we are nei­ther who we think we are, nor are we what oth­ers think we are. Our real “self” is embed­ded in some shad­ow”
    I believe it is fol­ly to think of a dis­crete true/real self, much like a lion chas­ing its own tail.

    Loved the Sein­feld clip, spot on.

     The more dif­fer­ent you are online than in your real life, the more stress you will feel.”

    Cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance need not apply to actors.

    These are folks who expe­ri­ence har­mony, with their dig­i­tal and real self entwined togeth­er.”

    I strive for this. Yet it’s not a goal achieved, but a direc­tion or path walked.

    Where is the real ‘you’?”

    It is all and none of these iden­ti­ties. It’s the per­cep­tive base, the bits that col­lec­tive­ly pos­tu­late such ques­tions. The ques­tion defies a con­crete answer. We learn a lit­tle about who we are (now) each day, and our per­cep­tions, thoughts, feel­ings and deci­sions shift over time.

    This post is a great read for the cog­ni­tive sub-red­dit, I’ll share it there now.

    • Mark,

      Thanks for the com­ment and apolo­gies for the delay in respond­ing. Agree with most of your thoughts, except: “Cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance need not apply to actors”

      Movie actors who take their fic­tion­al char­ac­ters seri­ous­ly do indeed land up hav­ing a lot of psy­cho­log­i­cal issues. Many, many exam­ples scat­tered through­out movie-mak­ing his­to­ry.

      • But are roles which cause cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance the major­i­ty? I was under the impres­sion that many (most?) actors don’t suf­fer from roles which are unlike their “nat­ur­al” per­sona.

        My point is that actors may not suf­fer the same type of inter­nal strife. Apply­ing a per­sona to them is not much dif­fer­ent than throw­ing on a jack­et for us. I should hope the voice actor for Homer Simp­son is much dif­fer­ent than the char­ac­ter, and that’s a long time for cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance to build up.

        •  Oh no, not the major­i­ty at all, but I thought you were rul­ing out the pos­si­bil­i­ty by mak­ing a defin­i­tive, all-encom­pass­ing state­ment.

          • We almost had a dif­fer­ence of opin­ions, but alas we agreed once again. I’ll keep work­ing at it. Enjoy the day 🙂

            •  He he 🙂 You too! And thanks again.

  • Indulge me while I go off on a tan­gent..

    In the absence of con­tin­u­ous feed­back, the self frag­ments into insan­i­ty. (I use feed­back in a very broad sense — sen­so­ry input, Newton’s 3rd law, social inter­course, every­thing) e.g. soli­tary con­fine­ment in the dark

    Sim­i­lar­ly, in the absence of feed­back, the online self decays to noth­ing. Few “real selves” are strong-willed enough to main­tain a com­plex online alter-ego over a long peri­od of time, in the absence of feed­back. How long would, say, Fake Steve Jobs have last­ed, if it got absolute­ly no response?

    By ruth­less Dar­win­ian log­ic, those online per­sona-species which are easy to ani­mate (post, share, tweet) and — more impor­tant­ly — eas­i­ly attract feed­back will pro­lif­er­ate, and oth­ers will be dri­ven to nich­es or per­ish.

    Thus the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Twit­ter, Face­book, Pin­ter­est per­sona, pow­ered by easy and fast share-feed­back loops. +1s and Likes and “OMGLOL” com­ments require lit­tle effort from the giv­er and con­sti­tute a cheap, renew­able ener­gy source for that species. IMHO some of their growth has been at the cost of expen­sive-feed­back forms like long-form blog­ging.

    • Well said. In fact, I was think­ing about the same thing yes­ter­day — the pro­lif­er­a­tion of “Likes”, “ReTweets”, etc. is because there’s such a low bar­ri­er to entry in these types of social inter­ac­tions. One can eas­i­ly shed inhi­bi­tions & appear more extro­vert­ed when engag­ing in such low-effort inter­ac­tions.