[PSYBER/B Social Psychology of Psyberspace]


Identity Issues: Who are We and Who Will We Be in the Cyberage

Who am I? is one of the most complicated questions that one can ask of oneself. Although many believe there is an answer to that question, people often falter when trying to reply. Identity is hard to determine because the environment intera cts with individuals as much as individuals interact with the environment. Most of these interactions are mediated by the physical senses. One is able to determine if a person is speaking kindly or negatively by the very timbre--physical deformations of t he sound wave--of another person's voice. Attraction may be determined with a single glance--as evidence by the phrase love at first sight. Yet, what becomes of these cues to attractiveness, worth, and general place in society when one is detached from th e physical senses? How does a person react when there are no longer physical constraints on who or what the person may be? How will someone behave in a world where there are no consequences--to the physical self--for the actions that one takes?

Modern psychologists believe that individuals are compilations of both internal and external factors. The compliment of environmental and biological factors help to mold and shape their very existences. This means that how individuals percei ve their surroundings or selves is as important as what they use to perceive them and what they perceive. Professor Len Mark of Miami University explains:

"A blind man cannot physically see what a person with sight can, therefore, a blind person's references to stimuli will be different. The blind individual will not say that I feel blue and actually know what the color blue looks like. Rather the blind individual will associate the word blue with what others have told him blue 'feels' like-in other words blue is a reference to the emotion sad." [Mark Lectures]

Dealing with interpersonal interactions over the computer presents a very unique problem. Gestalt and other perceptual theorists have shown that without adequate information the human brain supplies the extra information necessary to create a holistic and comprehensible mental picture of the stimulus.

"The seeing of objects involves many sources of information beyond those meeting the eye when we look at an object. It generally involves knowledge of the object derived from previous experience, and this experience is not limited to vision but may inc lude the other senses; touch, taste, smell, hearing and perhaps also temperature or pain. Objects are far more than patterns of stimulation: objects have pasts and futures; when we know its past or can guess its future, an object transcends experience and becomes an embodiment of knowledge and expectation without which life beyond the simplest is not possible." [Gregory]

Psychosocial and behavioral theorists believe this is true for interactions other than those that are physical. Gestalt and Behavioral theories are helpful in explaining why individuals create stereotypes which are "conventional, formulaic, and oversim plified conception or image"[American 1332]. Psychosocial and Behavioral theorists believe that these stereotypes are valuable for humans to deal with unknown or new situations, but overuse of these stereotypes can be harmful to interpersonal interactions with others since these stereotypes may develop into stigmas. Decisions made because of impressions formed over the internet lack sufficient physical information for the individual to make a non-biased decision. The individual is forced by environmental necessity--the need to interact with another person or other type of intelligence--and by biological imperative--the vary functioning of the human brain--to make assumptions about the other entity being with whom is being interacted. These assumptions--if common logic is followed--are always based upon one's own inner experiences. This leads to obvious mistakes in identification, which can be emotionally damaging and cause many questions to arise about ones own self-identity.

The case of Julia--as reported by Sherry Turkle Ph.D. in her article "Life on the Screen: Making a Pass at a Robot" is one example of how identity assumptions over the Internet may be erroneous and possibly self-esteem effacing. Barry, a server user, i s reported in the article to have had relations with Julia. Barry made several sexual advances towards the robot when he queried, "May I have the honor of fathering the child?" [Turkle 92] In this case it is apparent that Barry remained ignorant of his fa ux pas, yet, one is truly tempted to know what would happen if Barry were to find out about his little indecent proposal to a machine?

A clue to this may be given by individual responses given by those who were conned by a New York psychiatrist referred to as Alex when he created his own 'cyber-babe' personality, Joan. Alex created Joan with the intentions of doing research on how wom en socialize. Yet over the course of time he was using the Joan persona, Alex engaged in relationships with both men and women through Joan and used Joan to introduce him to at least one woman with whom he entered into a physical sexual relationship. When individuals found out that Joan was the imaginary persona of a man, they had a range of emotions; most felt betrayed, stating, " We lost our innocence if not our faith" [Van Gelder 534-535].

These examples show that the effects of deceptions and errors in judgement can have devastating emotional effects. Deception can also include such physical mediums as being conned out of money. It is probably so east to deceive people because the indiv iduals who met Julia or Joan ignored obvious clues that both were not who they claimed to be. This is evident in this statement from a person who 'knew' Joan: "I felt guilty about not believing a handicapped person" [Van Gelder 542-543]. Here we see that the individual had some reservations about Joan's identity, yet her assumptions and biases towards handicapped individuals kept her from voicing or acting upon her suspicions. The emotional scaring from the combination of one's own misjudgment and the dec eption of others can be devastating, but what are the consequences of such actions?

Zilch, Zero, Nada...these words are all descriptions of the present legal and formal ramifications of what may happen to one over the internet for infractions against other 'cyber' personalities. In general the cyber community frowns upon such activiti es but there is really no way to effectively monitor or ban an individual from participation in a M.U.D., M.O.O., I.R.C., or other cyber community. Characters in the 'cyber world' may ignore or ostracize another character in retaliation, but that individu al can always create a new character or persona due to the anonymity of computer-mediated communication.. The previously discussed case of Alex proves the above statement because "the two people who knew Joan and also met Alex in person say that their sur face personalities were opposite" [Van Gelder 537].

The combination of anonymity and lack of accountability have resulted in many outrageous expressions of self over the internet. The most prolifically studied of these behaviors is 'flaming'. Nancy K. Baym argues that "the computer creates anonymity, wh ich leads to a decrease in social inhibition and an increase in flaming" [Baym 152-153]. Anonymity does not result in flaming in all cases, but many individuals create new identities for themselves. These identities are created by the individuals so that they may become the people they most wish to be-as is illustrated by the case of Joan. These new identities are fiercely guarded "because of the expressive freedoms that accompany anonymity" [Baym 154-155]. One individual interviewed by Baym was quoted as saying, "...anonymity is part of the magic." This magic may be a part of what makes the identity swapping found on M.U.D.s, M.O.O.s, I.R.C.s, and other computer mediated communication networks so appealing.

M.U.D.s, M.O.O.s, I.R.C.s, and other computer mediated communication networks are appealing because they allow users a vast array of identity options. Multi-User Dungeons (M.U.D.s) allow a plethora of options from trolls to vampires and a variety of se xes and job-types as well. With this high level of fantasy and low level of consequences there is very little to keep individuals from using their wildest imaginations and being whomever or whatever they want. This may be why Pavel Curtis discusses some M UDders as "not in control of their usage who are, seriously and clinically addicted" [Baym 154-155]. MUDs may be like any other mind-altering substance, a way to escape reality and to alter one's perception of who one is.

How does a person react when there are no longer physical constraints on who or what the person may be? How will someone behave in a world where there are no consequences--to the physical self--for the actions that one takes? How does one deal with an environment created in one's mind not by one's environment? The article above gives us a few clues, but there are no concrete answers. The complexity of identity may remain a mystery like that of the Bermuda Triangle. Yet one thing is clear, how one perce ives themselves and others will change as the media we use to interact with others changes. The world is moving from an age of physical reality to metaphysical intuition. One of the humans greatest tests in the future will be how it will cope with this ne w world and who or what will the human become.

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Gregory, Richard, "Visual Perception"
Available Online: http://www.grand-illusions.com/gregory1.htm

The American Heritage College Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, Copy 1993

Turkle, Sherry Life on the Screen Simon and Schuster, New York, NY 1995

Van Gelder, L. (1996) "The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover," In Kling, Rob (Ed.) Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices (2nd Edition) New York: Academic Press, Inc

Baym, N.K. (1995) "The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication" In S.G. Jones (Ed.), CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Controversy Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

This web page was created by Jon-Richard Little, Jeremiah Jackson, and Chuck "Cold Turkey" Cohara for PSY 380.k at Miami University.
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PsyberSite, Miami University.This document was created April 19, 1998 and last modified on  Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:34:05.  This document has been accessed 1 times. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman . Also See: Social Psychology at Miami University