Searching for Authenticity Online

One of the assigned readings for this course was ‘The presentation of self in the online world’: Goffman and the study of online identities by Bullingham and Vasconcelos. It discussed Goffman’s framework of identity construction, which uses theatre-related terms to describe how people create their identities for various contexts, and its applicability to online environments. They analysed the way 10 people presented themselves on their blogs and in a virtual environment called Second Life to see whether they wore certain ‘masks’ and played certain roles akin to what we do in our real lives.

By Cm.lindenlab – Own work, Public Domain,

Need for Authenticity

What I found interesting is that the participants tried reflecting their offline persona in the online sphere, instead of creating a new one. Although some features and traits were exaggerated or highlighted depending on the context (i.e. selectiveness in storytelling for bloggers or making yourself look younger in Second Life), the participants strived to make the two personas as similar as possible, and considered them two parts of the same identity, just in different contexts.

I can see why bloggers would feel the need to remain authentic to themselves, seeing as writing a blog is often very personal and includes discussing personal matters such as life experiences or feelings. This, once again, pertains to the medium itself conveying a message. However, it did surprise me that on a platform where you can create your own avatar, people still chose to stick to their real-life appearance. One would think that with the freedom of expression, a multitude of customisation options, and the bliss of anonymity, online users would use this new environment to completely reinvent themselves and live lives that offline, remain out of their reach; based on this study, that was not the case.

The difference between the two media—blogging and avatar-making—made me wonder: does the medium have an impact on authenticity? Is it easier to be oneself on one platform versus another?

What You Share is What You Are

One way of looking at it is taking into account how much information we share about ourselves on a given platform. For example, a text-based platform is more attuned to our opinions and emotions rather than appearance—you can be mutuals with someone for years and never find out what they look like. But does sharing less information make it easier for us to be authentic about the stuff we do share? Or should sharing our thoughts over our looks be considered more authentic?

On the other hand, we have visual-based platforms, where the first thing you get to know about someone is what they look like—you don’t know their thoughts and feelings, but if you saw them on the street, you would know it’s them. Ignoring photo editing or AI images, this seems to be an authentic perspective of someone’s life, except we are aware that these photographed moments are picked very deliberately.

In both contexts, we can not get the full story, and that is partly because we do not want to give it. That does not necessarily mean that what is presented is inauthentic and fake, but the deliberateness of posting anything on online platforms puts the validity of it into question. However, I do believe that there is genuineness to be found online, and choosing not to share certain parts of oneself is a choice everyone is allowed to make for their own reasons.

What do you think? Do you feel as though what you present yourself as online is an extension of your offline persona? Let me know in the comments!