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BLOG: Which is real - our online or offline identity?

AvantiKumar | June 21, 2011
Not only are ‘glory’ days of hiding behind different online identities online over but the online world seems to be different for each user.

AvantiKumar, Editor, Computerworld Malaysia & Malaysia Country Correspondent for Fairfax Tech Channels


 The revelation of the hoax Facebook poster uploaded by 'Syrian lesbian blogger' Tom MacMaster emphasises that we are now firmly in the 'next generation' of discussing how technology, the online world, is changing the way we work and play: and especially how we choose to present different aspects of ourselves.

Leaving the thorny subject of 'consciousness' aside, let's just focus on a small part of how our daily identity is changing and being  changed by how we use our daily information technology tools. A look back to MIT professor Sherry Turkle's 1995 book 'Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet' indicates that 'play has always been an important aspect of our individual efforts to build identity,' which cites developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. "In terms of our views of the self," she wrote, "new images of multiplicity, heterogeneity, flexibility, and fragmentation dominate current thinking about human identity."

'No one aspect can be claimed as the absolute, true self" says Turkle in her book, which many can use to justify their multiple personalities. In 2011, anyone can adopt any dream they want: Tom MacMaster, who came up with being the true 'real life' identity behind Damascus-based 'Amina Abdullah Arrag al-Omari', says that he was just using the online world to play and express himself. IT departments grapple with balancing demands of social networking channels with 'real work' as the line between the two has blurred considerably in the last three year. The questions of how to motivate staff may well have been solved by deeper understanding of how people act online and how it can be used to boost business profits. The latest thinking by experts examining such questions is that online identity is also no longer in the complete control of the individual.

However, the time when the online world has us full rein to play is disappearing. With the advances in analytics and tracking, our different selves can be tagged together to form a whole picture: our online and real-world selves become indivisible and we have to pay the cost. Real world and online haunts can drop out of favour as reports of dropping users of Facebook in the UK's Observer this week seem to indicate. And the online world, like the real one, is wrapping around us to show us what it thinks we want to see. For instance, Google search will now use 57 signals, including from where you are logging in from to what browser you are using to what you have searched for before, to put together a picture of who you are and what kind of sites you may like. Even if you are logged out, the search function will customise its results and show you pages you are likely to click on. Your online world is already a little different from your co-worker, just like the real world.


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