Cover Story

A shy, jobless, 40-something mom goes online and tries out a daring, confident persona. Using the onscreen ID "oomph," she moderates a chat room--kicking out unwelcome troublemakers known as "snerts" and directing conversation among regular visitors.

Emboldened by positive feedback from the regulars, she dispatches her "oomph" persona to a real-world job interview. The gambit pays off and she lands a job as an accountant.

Her story shows the Internet's potential to unleash experimentation with identity, in her case leading to positive results. So far, formal knowledge about the medium's effects on personal identity is scarce--studies to date have focused more on the Internet's seductive qualities and its influence on relationships.

But the few behavioral studies being started in this area suggest that the Internet can serve as a mirror, even a tool, that helps people with the search for self. The Internet is the identity technology--much of what people do online is self-exploration and presentation, from searching and e-mailing, to chatting or creating a home page, says psychologist Sherry Turkle, PhD, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher and author of "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet" (Touchstone, 1995).

What she and other behavioral researchers are beginning to find is that the danger comes when people maliciously misrepresent themselves or split online selves from offline ones. But when they integrate the two, the result can be personal and social growth.

"The Web is a safe place to try out different roles, voices and identities," says Rider University psychologist and Web researcher John Suler, PhD. "It's sort of like training wheels for the self you want to bring out in real life."

Voyage of discovery

The Internet feels safe because it provides anonymity and freedom from others' judgments, says Suler, who's studying the chat room that "oomph" moderates. Internet cruisers embark on an unfettered self trip--Web searching provides a history of their interests, hobbies and fixations, and creating a home page is a way of presenting an ideal self to the world.

Of course, the feeling of anonymity is just fantasy. Almost anything people do on the Internet can be traced back to them, says Turkle. But even when people know that their identities are traceable, the online world still seems anonymous to them because they feel invisible, she says. And the experience of having their own words uttered by a screen persona with a different name "heightens this sense of anonymity," says Turkle.

At the same time, they have the company of many and become one in a crowd.

"People I've interviewed say the Internet reminds them of Club Med," says Turkle. "No one knows anything about you except what's written on your name tag, and you're all there to play with self presentation."

Along with the anonymity comes an effect that social psychologists have long known is associated with crowds: disinhibition. The online world lacks the checks on self that shape and constrain behavior in the offline world. Absent on the Internet are people's disapproving or approving facial expressions, their surprised, upbeat or flat tone of voice, their response to one's physical appearance.

So, people let their guard down, a phenomenon that has good and bad sides, psychologists say. On the one hand, people feel freer to "flame" others and vent sexual aggression or anger. On the other hand, they feel more comfortable opening up, self-disclosing or revealing a sensitive side.

In her book "Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Implications" (Academic Press, 1998), editor Jayne Gackenbach, PhD, cites the example of an Internet support group for people with cleft palate. Members of the group tell her they feel much more comfortable sharing their true feelings online than they would in a face-to-face support group.

Mix and match, slice and dice

Not only does the Internet spur self-expression, but it offers new ways of doing so, says Suler. On the net, he says, "you can create any combination of self-expression you want, slicing, mixing and matching."

Web surfers can present themselves in ways that are impossible face-to-face, perhaps playing fantastic characters in a multi-user dungeon (MUD) or pretending to be someone of another race in a news group, asynchronous discussion or e-mail.

In fact, it is this masquerading aspect of the Web that particularly interests researchers focused on identity. In their interviews with net users, Suler and Turkle find numerous examples of people who pose as members of the opposite sex. Men, they find, are particularly apt to impersonate women--adopting female-sounding chat room aliases such as "Dixee," a name that recently prompted a flurry of responses from interested suitors in an America Online chat room.

Men Suler interviews say gender-swapping allows them to explore their feminine sides and to experience what "being hit on" feels like. On the flip side, men say playing the role of online suitor helps them build confidence with women. People of both sexes claim to learn courtship skills online.

And, more broadly, people interviewed by Suler say they use online exploration to develop new aspects of self, such as altruism or a sense of humor. Suler doesn't deny, though, that some people's Internet selves--focused, for example, on pedophilia or self-mutilation--can be dangerous. Then there are the annoying "snerts" and other troublemakers who get a rush from flaming, swearing, sexually harassing people and being disruptive.

But for many, says Turkle, "the Internet reflects the range of selves, the hidden selves you never knew you had. It gets you out of that box you're confined to in the real world."

For example, Turkle interviewed an irresponsible party boy who maintained a MUD and became "a pillar of his online community." And another psychologist who's written on the psychology of the Internet, the University of Maryland's Patricia Wallace, PhD, points out that students afraid to talk in class often relax more and speak up online.

The integration principle

But is this type of self-exploration healthy? As with other media--from television to books--Internet use is healthy if it enhances other areas of one's life. However, says Gackenbach, use can be pathological if it interferes with those areas.

Most psychologists agree that much hinges on one's personal approach. If people use the Internet to compartmentalize selves--if online and offline selves are forever separate and split--problems can ensue, psychologists find. For example, the man who is comfortably homosexual online but uncomfortably heterosexual offline is forever conflicted. And the person who becomes mired in secret cybersex may miss out on real-life intimacy. Clinical psychologists are seeing more of this in their practices--people who "stick" in online alter-egos and can't reconcile them with offline life.

For example, psychologist Michelle Weil, PhD, author of "TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @Work @Home @Play" (Wiley, 1997), recently worked with a teen-age girl whose friends deserted her. Instead of making new ones, the girl spent her time chatting online, playing out different personas such as warrior or seductress. She became so immersed in online characters that she lost touch with her real-world social life.

To some degree, the Internet encourages such "splitting," says sociologist Elizabeth Reid Steere, a Los Angeles sociology scholar and contributor to Gackenbach's book. Visitors to Web discussions and chat rooms represent the self only with icons and typed words, making it difficult to play "round" characters. To draw attention and spur responses from others, they often make more provocative, one-sided statements than they would offline, says Reid Steere. The possible result: People develop splintered online selves.

But that doesn't have to be the case, says Weil. People can turn splintering into healthy growth if they consciously "work through" separate selves and don't "get stuck" in them, she says. For example, she helped the teen-age chat room addict to integrate viable online identities into her offline life and abandon the rest.

It's usually not a quick and easy process, though, psychologists note.

"People sometimes need to hide a bit or stay put a while before moving forward," says Turkle. "But as long as they're using the Net in the spirit of self-reflection, they're making the most of life on the screen."

Plus, says Suler, integration can be something people do consciously, or something that happens naturally as online selves seep into the offline self. But in the cases he knows of--the one of the emboldened accountant being foremost--integration leads to personal progress.

Through integration, the Internet can enrich who we are in the real world, says Turkle.

"The future action for psychologists is in doing more thinking and theorizing about how to get people to make better connections between the virtual world and the rest of their lives," says Turkle. "That's where the therapy and the research and the public discourse need to go."

Further reading

For further discussion of integrating online and offline identities, visit John Suler's online hypertext book, The Psychology of Cyberspace, at http://www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/psycyber.html.

  • Bechar-Isreali, H. (1996). From Bonehead to cLoNehEAd: Nicknames, play and identity on the Internet relay chat. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication [Online], 1(2). Available: www.ascusc.org/jcmc/ [1998, May 20].

  • Gackenbach, J. (Gd.) (1998). Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal and transpersonal implications. San Diego: Academic Press.

  • Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.

  • Wallace, P. (1999). Psychology of the Internet. New York: Cambridge University Press.