The Complexity of Digital Identity

The age of social media has brought with it many jokes about the hours people waste online checking their feeds.

But what draws them to social media in the first place?

Social media users are engaging in a deeply human practice called “identity work,” or the “shaping, managing, and working at one’s concept of self,” say Ulrike Schultze, professor of information technology and operations management at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in Dallas, Texas; and Magnus Bergquist, senior lecturer in informatics at Sweden's University of Gothenburg. Identity work has been studied in face-to-face interactions, but Schultze and Bergquist studied the phenomenon in the digital arena.

In 2010, the researchers examined 40 hours of interviews and 120 photo-diary entries of eight residents of the online virtual world Second Life. The pair identified three types of social discourse: market, involving commercial transactions using Second Life’s currency, the Linden Dollar; play, involving activities impossible in the real world, such as flying; and sociality, which refers to relationships, group participation, and social obligations. Sociality also allows individuals to experiment with identities other than those they have in real life. On Twitter and Facebook, market discourse measures users’ social capital by the number friends or followers they have.

Companies that pay attention to the discourse most valued on a network can better target their social media strategies, say the authors. Individuals, too, must become more adept at managing their digital lives, which are quickly becoming intertwined with their real ones, especially now that online users can “tag” acquaintances in online posts in ways largely outside their control.

“Even though you can leave a cyberbody behind and create a new identity on a new site, these undeletable bodies live on in some shape or form,” says Schultze. “Managing your identity thus increasingly becomes hard work.”

Their paper “Towards a Discursive Theory of Social Media Affordances” is currently under review.