The internet and social media facilitate communication, self-expression, and self-promotion in our increasingly digital societies.
Platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram offer a unique opportunity to showcase our best self while connecting with others. However, these tools are paving the way for unprecedented shifts in our identity and behavior.
Can we confidently claim that our online identity is by no means different from our offline persona? Do we undergo a sort of “identity (re)creation” any time we set up a new social media account? And what role do these platforms play in the way our self-image is returned to the world?
Before exploring how social media influence our online identity, we need to define what an online identity is.
According to the Standford University Professor Elias Aboujaoude, an e-identity is the result of our online interactions.
In his eye-opening book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, he says: “This virtual personality is more assertive, less restrained, a little bit on the dark side, and decidedly sexier. […] In many cases, the virtual version nicely complements the actual person and acts as an extension of his real-life persona.”
When we log on to the internet or act on social media, we become, to some extent, different individuals. That holds not only if we compare our real persona with our avatar, but also when analyzing our online behavior.
We are indeed a different person when we post a joke on Facebook or update our CV-like profile on LinkedIn. As nobody talks to his boss and his spouse the same way in real life, the same principle applies in virtual spaces.
However, our “multiple” digital identities depend on other factors as well:
- The social media platform we are logged in and its primary purpose (self-expression, storytelling, self-promotion, etc.);
- The audience we are reaching out to and want to interact with;
- The platform interface (timeline, grid, scrolling, etc.)
With that in mind, we can now examine how multiple platforms have different impacts on our online identity.
A general overview of social media uses
The 2018 Digital Future Project, an annual examination of the impact of digital technology on the US population, provides some insights into social media uses.
- 64% of US users go online daily or several times a day to visit social networks.
- 40% of users begin their day by logging on to their social networks.
- 20% of respondents agree that they worry about missing information when they are not on social networks.
At the time of writing (July 2020), the major (western) platforms include:
- Facebook: 2.5 billion active monthly users
- Instagram: 1 billion active monthly users
- LinkedIn: 310 million active monthly users
Platforms such as YouTube (2bn users) and Twitter (330m users) are not considered here as do not necessarily involve the creation of a fully-fledged e-identity.
Facebook: connect and share with the people in your life
Facebook was one of the first social networks to revolutionize the internet in 2004. Facebook’s main purpose is to facilitate personal self-expression and connect with (familiar) others.
When posting a picture, or commenting on recent news, users are supposedly reaching out to a selected audience – their “friends.” That is why the tone and presentation style on Facebook is usually more open and easy-going.
However, as noted by Amsterdam University Professor José van Dijck, Facebook’s privacy restrictions have become looser since the Timeline interface was implemented in 2012. User profiles turned thus much more public overnight. That prompted many people to alter their Facebook profiles to avoid embarrassment.
The trend is still up today. According to the 2018 Digital Future Project report mentioned above, 26% of respondents modified their profile. They mainly feared embarrassment among friends (61%), while 35% wanted to avoid embarrassment at work.
When it comes to the workplace, the 2019 State of the Digital Workplace Report says that employees are indeed becoming more cautious. 71% of respondents did not post on social media because their coworkers might see it (the share was 55% in 2018).
Reputation concerns aside, Facebook’s layout allows users to leverage their online presence like never before. As Professor Van Dijck notes, “[f]or those users who put in the time and the effort to really work on their profile, this revamping exercise increased their audience-awareness.”
That is because the linear, narrative structure empowers storytelling. It provides users’ online identity some coherence, and make them more real. That eventually leads to a more effective (online and offline) personal branding.
LinkedIn: connect the world’s professionals
LinkedIn is the world’s largest site for professional networking and recruiting. LinkedIn’s mission is to facilitate professional self-promotion and build a network of experts willing to connect.
Given LinkedIn’s formal and more “distant” audience, users’ approach to the platform is less personal and emotional.
That may also reconcile with some of the findings of the 2019 State of the Digital Workplace Report already mentioned.
While LinkedIn is the most popular matchmaker site, Facebook is the leading platform where employees interact with their coworkers.
According to the study, 87% of coworkers connect using Facebook, whereas LinkedIn comes second at 42%. That is because LinkedIn is perceived as a “stiff” place to communicate with people users meet daily.
LinkedIn’s interface reinforces this perception. User profiles look cleaner and more factual, and are presented in a CV-like form.
Moreover, LinkedIn asks users not to provide personal information. The platform rather urges them to include specific skills and highlight their achievements.
Users’ “professional self” must stand out in order to attract prospective employers or clients. This mechanism, according to professor Van Dijck, would “function as inscription of normative professional behavior: each profile shapes an idealized portrait of one’s professional identity by showing off skills to peers and anonymous evaluators.”
That may be considered a pitfall at first glance, but what if we look at it through a “real life” lens? It merely becomes a more recent version of “selling yourself in a job interview.”
Instagram: capture and share the world’s moments
Instagram is a photo-sharing platform launched in 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2012. Despite being a late-comer, the platform has experienced tremendous growth in a relatively short period. That is mainly because of its eye-catching design and the great power of visual communication.
Instagram’s goal is to facilitate personal self-expression and social interaction. Many users also associate the platform with escapism and peeking.
Instagram’s audience has no borders, and potentially includes everybody on the platform. This is a direct consequence of Instagram’s interface.
Users’ pictures appear in their pre-approved followers’ feed but can also be shared publicly. Posts will then appear in the “explore” page. That is a sort of “picture wall” that displays users’ photos in an (algorithmic) random fashion.
Unlike Facebook and LinkedIn, the platform does not require users to create an all-round online persona when creating a new account. For example, filling the “bio” section is not mandatory on Instagram.
Yet, the platform setup and its main features, such as the often over-used filters, play a decisive role in shaping users’ online identity.
Individuals usually seek the best light to present themselves. They publish extremely curate images, and care extensively about who and what they may be associated with.
For this reason, many people have criticized the platform for proposing unrealistic imageries with potentially harmful consequences.
Even a successful person such as Elon Musk said he felt dejected when swiping through Instagram, and eventually deleted his account.
That may become more of an issue as Instagram’s users are typically teenagers and young adults – 63% are aged between 18 and 34.
Nevertheless, the platform offers users a friendly and immediate (world) stage to express themselves. That is an extremely powerful tool for personal storytelling and self-promotion.
Moreover, many users recently started to show a more self-aware and realistic version of themselves. The objective is to counteract the strive for perfection across the platform and promote healthier online behaviors.
Launched as a photo-sharing platform, Instagram is today a fast-paced business machine for millions of people worldwide.
As seen, social media profiles are powerful tools to steer and validate users’ personal and professional lives. Online identities help to shape people interactions, both online and offline.
As different situations request different behaviors in real life, so do digital platforms with their designed purpose, audience, and interface.
It should come as no surprise then that social media profiles are not a reflection of people’s offline identity, let alone people’s sole identity.
The onus is on us to use social media as active contributors to the construction of our online identity, without letting them define who we are.
By Nadia Musumeci Creativity, accuracy, and passion
Nadia is a copywriter and content writer. She offers copywriting, ghostwriting, and blogging services to businesses of all sizes. Nadia worked in public affairs, publishing, and the beauty industry. When she is not busy freelance writing or working on her blog, she is sunbathing in a park nearby. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
E. Aboujaoude MD, 2012. Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality
J. van Dijck, 2013. You have one identity: performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn
E. Lee, J. Lee, J.H. Moon, Y. Sung, 2015. Pictures Speak Louder than Words: Motivations for Using Instagram
B. Seibel, 2019. Insta-Identity: the Construction of Identity through Instagram an Extended Literature Review