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Identity is vital in virtual communities. “Virtual communities are inevitably different to real-world ones, of course. They are much more flexible, with people coming and going, making new connections, or choosing to ignore parts of the community they don’t like” (Gauntlett, 16). Most people feel a sense of insecurity when they do not know the true identity of the individual whom they are having a conversation with. Many people who create multiple identities in cyberspace have difficulty in understanding themselves. In most cases it is adolescents. An adolescent is usually a youth who has undergone puberty, but has not fully matured, for example teenagers. As known, the start of adolescents can be somewhat difficult. However, now there are more adults who also use the Internet. Adolescents and certain adults achieve great satisfaction, experience different personalities or gender change, and resolve their confusion of identity by creating these multiple identities.

Identity and Adolescents

In most scenarios adolescents receive immense gratification by creating multiple identities. It is usually virtual communities where these identities are being exposed, since people are required to provide their name or an online alias. David Gauntlett explains that Internet has enabled like-minded people to form virtual communities regardless of where they are located in the physical world.

A good example of a virtual community, which is strictly for teens, is maddogmobile. It enables all teens from around the world to communicate through chats and mobile. This site appears to be fully secured and have made the users aware of the privacy issues. Maddogmobile site is an ideal example of where teens can endeavor diverse personas and identities. The success to the creation of these identities is possibly contributed to the limited amount of emoticons. Firstly, neither the sender nor the receiver know if the other is person is stating the truth. Secondly, the true expression of an individual can hardly be expressed in an IM window.

Personality/ Gender Change

In cyberspace identity is a complex issue, since it is hard to distinguish the true identity of individuals. Some people have a desire to experience life from other people’s perspectives. Therefore it is seen that mainly teenagers switch personalities and genders to see how differently others will treat them. The statistics show that there are more teenage users than adult.
“87% of U.S. teens aged 12-17 use the internet, up from 73% in 2000. By contrast, 66% of adults use the Internet, up from 56% in 2000”(Lenhart). Similarly, as stated above there are still fair amount of adults who use the Internet. Along with teenagers adults also enjoy trying out different personalities and gender roles. A classic example is that of an older man playing around with gender switching online. A young man and a woman met each other on a MOO and started corresponding through e-mails. Finally the young man fell in love with the girl and insisted they meet. The truth came out and the girl confessed being a 50-year-old man. (John Suler).

This is similar to what Gauntlett says, “when you can be interactive and have multiple identities, you have the chance to experiment, to some extent, with what it feels like to be of a different gender or a completely different person altogether” (Gauntlett, 31). Many people go to virtual communities and start open forums about various topics. For example, while surfing the net there was a website community of religious fundamentalists where the members were posting information on the forums. There was one peculiar person who kept using foul language and was subsequently asked to leave the forum by the moderators. Later, a new member had joined the discussion. It was then that the members realized that it was the same person they had asked to leave, but instead he/ she changed their nickname and entered the discussion once again. This, is also similar to what Gauntlett says because this member was asked to leave in other words this person hid and then came back and the other members found him/ her. “… When you have hundreds of e-mail addresses, IRC identities, and screen names, you have the ability to play hide and seek as you interact” (Gauntlett, 31).
The online world opens the door to this new phenomenon of gender bending. In what would have once been considered ludacris is now a common practice. Gender bending is more than assuming an alternate gender than what one really is, it is a voyeuristic practice. This practice is most common in videogaming whether it be online or on a console.

Identity and Role Confusion

The issue of identity and role confusion may be easier to solve in cyberspace for most adolescents. Many teens experiment with new and various roles in chat rooms. The case of eighteen-year-old Michael Ian Campbell who used an online alias in America Online is an apt example of different roles done in cyberspace. He started chatting with a sixteen-year-old from Colorado who he had never met before. “He did know something about her, though: eight months earlier, a pair of teenagers had killed thirteen people at Walton’s high school, Columbine, in Littleton, Colorado.” (Weinberg, pg.2) Due to his message the girl told the school officials and they had closed the school for two days. The case was taken to court and later Michael Campbell said that, “as a dedicated actor, he was trying on a role. He was seeing what it would be like to be his favorite actor, John Malkovich” (Weinberg, pg.2).

It can be said that Michael Campbell may have been going through Erik Erikson’s stage 5 of adolescence. Most people are familiar with Erik Erikson’s eight stages of human development. The stage that we are concerned with is identity vs. role confusion. This deals with adolescence from age 12 to 18. In this stage adolescents ask questions like “Who am I?” and they usually overcome this by trying different roles and identities. Erikson stated that in order to answer this question previous stages must be fully dealt with. “Adolescents who have successfully dealt with earlier conflicts are ready for the ‘Identity Crisis’, which is considered by Erikson as the single most significant conflict a person must face.” (Erikson) Furthermore, “If the adolescent does not solve this conflict he/ or she will sink into confusion, unable to make decisions and choices, especially about vocation, sexual orientation, and his role in life in general" (Erikson). It was also shown that adolescents are very frequent users of the Internet. “Surveys indicate that large numbers of youths use the Internet to communicate with others (Wolak, Roberts et al.).

It is easier for them to communicate online rather than face-to-face. Moreover, John Suler’s a clinical psychologist has been studying the psychology of cyberspace for few years now. He explains that there is five interlocking factors that help people navigate who they are in cyberspace. First, “the multiple aspects of one's identity may be dissociated, enhanced, or integrated online. Two, negative aspects of identity can be acted out or worked through. Positive aspects can be expressed and developed. Third one's online identity can be real-to-life, imaginary, or hidden. Fourth people differ in how much their unconscious needs and emotions surface in their online identities, and the last one is that different communication channels express different aspects of identity” (John Suler). Each one of these was mentioned above and fully explains how adolescence may in fact benefits from creating multiple identities.


On the whole, it should be noted that identity in cyberspace is indeed a complex issue, since understanding human identity is already hard enough. “Identity calls imagination into play--we are what others perceive us to be, and also what we perceive ourselves to be. When we strengthen the idealistic component of identity, we transcend others' perceptions and seize our own destinies. We become more than what others see us to be by articulating our ideals in identity. Ideals are key means of transcending our restricted roles and limited goals.” (Weber, (Hall, 138)) Furthermore, it has been seen that there is a positive side to adolescents trying different identities online. It enables them to express themselves easily. Also, as stated above the usage of Internet for adults is on the rise. More adutls wish to experience the intensity of changing identities. Perhaps these adults had not successfully completed Erik Erikson's stage of Identity vs. Role confusion and now wish to experience it throught online chat rooms.

However, there are also negative effects of these identities which can draw up psychological and possibly physical repercussions, therefore both positive aspects and negative aspects must be considered. One's position on the use of technology as a means to construct identities should also be taken into account; being a cyberoptimist or being a cyberpessimist can affect identity formation.

Related Articles

Psychology of Cyberspace

Work Cited

Allison, N. Barbara, and Schultz, B. Jerelyn. “Interpersonal Identity Formation During Early
Adolescence”(2001). Consulted on November 2nd, 2005. <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2248/is_143_36/ai_82535322 >

Erikson, Erik. “Erik Erikson’s stages of Human Development”. 2005.Consulted on October 29, 2005 <http://psychology.about.com/library/weekly/aa091500b.htm>.

Gauntlett, David and Ross Horsley, ed. Web.Studies. New York: Arnold, 2004.

Image of Computer, http://www.units.muohio.edu/psybersite/cyberspace/addiction/identity.gif

Lenhart, Amanda et al. “Teens and Technology”(2005). consulted on February 20, 2006.

Suler, John. “Identity Manager in Cyberspace”. 2002. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 4, 455-460. Consulted on November 1st, 2005. < http://www.rider.edu/%7Esuler/psycyber/identitymanage.html >

Suler, John. “Gender-Switching in Cyberspace”. 1997. Consulted on October 15, 2005

Webber, Deanna. “Subjectivity and Gender-Identity in Cyberspace”. 2000. Consulted on October 29, 2005. < http://www.gwu.edu/%7Emedusa/2001/cyberfem.html>

Weinberger, David. SMALL PIECES LOOSELY JOINED. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Wolak, Janis and Mitchell, J. Kimberly, and Finkelhor, David.
“Close online relationships in a national sample of adolescents” 2003. Consulted on October 30, 2005.<http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2248/is_147_37/ai_94598385>