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Who are you?

The question of online identity is as old as the Internet itself. Now social media has added a new dimension.

Read time 3min 30sec

The digital age has given us permission to be Hollywood-style schizophrenic. You know the kind I mean - the kind where you've got many different personalities in your head and completely transform into one or the other almost without warning. Sometimes the one is a murderer. Sometimes he just likes to wear pretty dresses.

In normal, everyday life, I'd never get the chance to make things that annoy me explode.

Tallulah Habib, social media activist, ITWeb

Take for instance the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Over the weekend I was a paladin. I rescued a princess. Then I got bored and decided to be an enchantress instead. I killed things with fire. It was fun.

Freud, if he were alive today, would probably say it is wish fulfilment; that we create characters to epitomise everything we can't be in real life. In terms of these kinds of games, I'd say he's right - in normal, everyday life, I'd never get the chance to make things that annoy me explode. If I did, I'd be arrested.

Me, myself and I

Our online multiple personality disorders are not always that blatant though. While Web sites like Second Life and games like World of Warcraft enable you to literally become another person, the rise of social media has let us do this much more subtly.

Every time you fill in a social media profile, you choose how to present yourself. Twitter is especially proficient at making you distil the essence of who you are with its 160-character limit. You can't be everything. You have to choose. Are you going to make a witty comment so people think you're cool and funny? Are you going to associate yourself with your family? Your business? Are you going to list your hobbies - and if so, which ones? Are you more interested in being seen as a cyclist or as an origami expert? It's enough to cause an identity crisis right there.

Then you get to repeat the process all across the Internet. You could copy and paste if you wanted to - but different social networks are different, and most likely you want different things from them. It's less important for your connections on LinkedIn to know you like gadgets than it is for them to know you have five years' experience in kite-building, for example.

Multifaceted

That's not even considering the specialist social networks: DeviantArt, Ravelry, GoodReads, ShowHype... the list is almost endless. On these networks you'll emphasise the parts of you that fit in, and moreover, that's the person you will be on those networks. It's second nature to develop a second life, or at least a second, third and maybe even forth identity online.

It's not that we lie or pretend to be what we're not. It's just that human beings are complex - too complex to compress into 160 characters.

With the rise of social media, we're being asked to perform this compression more and more. We dissect ourselves, single out the part that we believe will be meaningful to others. Does this mean we forget about who we really are? Or does this help us find a million niches that we can fit into, which when looked at together, makes us whole? Or does it force us to really look at ourselves, to sift through everything else we may be to find out who we are at the core?

It bears thinking about. Certainly, when we lived behind walls in our own little siloed lives, it was easy to live without such reflection. But things have changed now, haven't they?

Social media has changed the way we see news, the way we see communication, the way we see privacy, the way we see our colleagues, neighbours, family and friends.

Has it not changed the way we see ourselves as well?

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