Opinion: technology means we can experience the world socially without face-to-face interactions, so can we still talk about online and offline selves?

Last year, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg announced his future plan for the social media company: the promise of a metaverse in which, thanks to VR technologies, we will be able to immerse ourselves and interact with each other. We will be invited to create avatars that resemble us (or not) and evolve in a virtual space that not only will let us explore fictional environments but also reproduce real life settings.

The Metaverse gives us an example of how the online and offline sphere are blending with one another. Isn't this also one of the observations that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted? We learned that we could have drinks with friends on Zoom, attend work meetings, go to class and even have first dates online without experiencing any of those interactions outside of the online sphere.

The internet gives us the opportunity to exist and even experience the world socially without having to engage in face-to-face interactions so can we still talk about online and offline selves? Is our online identity blending with our offline identity?

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Elaine Burke from Silicon Republic on the future of the online meeting

Identity is a vast, dynamic and complex topic. How we see ourselves depends on the social roles and group memberships we hold (social identities) and our personal and character traits (personal identities). We negotiate our identity with others. Identity is comprised of the self-concept (how one sees themselves) and the social self (how one is perceived by others).

We process our identity publicly by making identity claims about our self-concept in the hope that those claims will be validated by others. For instance, if a person defines themselves as a football fan, they might display that identity-component by wearing their favourite football team jersey, with the goal of being recognised by others as a legitimate football enthusiast. In that sense, others play a crucial role in how we define ourselves. We tailor our behaviours according to social expectations of what it means to be a good football fan, and in other cases a good parent, or even a good employee.

Interestingly, the internet before social media was characterised as a space where individuals could abstain themselves from the validation of others. Indeed, forums and chatrooms allowed their members to interact with one another anonymously. Members would not use their real names nor provide profile pictures. Remember, the word "selfie" only made it to the Oxford dictionary in 2013.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, how selfies show what it means to be human in the 21st century

The anonymity and the disembodiment of the pre-social media era offered an environment in which individuals could explore their identity. They could take on different personae that differed from their "real life" identity. The internet played an important role of identity empowerment as people could enact their desired self without risking the judgment of others.

Marginalised communities could turn to the internet to express unconventional behaviours without being persecuted. Online identities could abstain themselves from social constructs and the limits of the physical and real world. In a sense, the internet was liberating for identity. Online, we could engage in the quest for becoming one’s true self.

But the internet of social media operates on another mode of identity production that is not so liberating. On social media, the online self is re-anchored to the offline self as individuals use their real name, post pictures of themselves and recreate their offline network online. The role played by others is reintegrated in the way we process our identity.

We do not adopt the same behaviours on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram as we would with co-workers, close friends or family members

On social media, individuals can strategise about their identity claims and monitor others’ reactions through likes and shares. The distinction blurs between the offline and the online self. We use our online identity with a clear goal in mind for our desired offline identity. We try to work on how we want to be perceived by others. We reproduce our offline social identities and their attached role expectations on social media.

We compartmentalise our online identity and engage in less explorative identity processes. We do not adopt the same behaviours and strategies on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram as we would with co-workers, close friends or family members.

Like our offline identity, our online identity is socially constructed and negotiated as it cannot abstain itself from the views of others. Our online self is real and, with VR technologies, we will soon be able to embody it. But be mindful that others might praise you or persecute you offline for how you behave online.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ