The Transient Nature of Identity Online

An identity formed online is more transient due to its application within an online community and the adaptable nature of a Web 2.0 environment. Virtual communities undermine the original definition of a community; the virtual environment has also undermined the original definition of an identity. According to Donath (1996), the norm is: one body, one identity. Though the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance, the body provides a stabilizing anchor” (Donath, 1996). This paper will discuss the adaptability of identity, which Donath describes occurs within a Web 2.0 environment where the traditional definitions of community and identity are no longer solid and set but accepted to be malleable.

The communication of inhabitants of a similar landscape make up the basis of a community and as Donath (1996) states a habitat, whether virtual or physical relies on the meaningful interactions of its members and that is where the essence of a virtual community disrupts the norm. According to Donath (1996) by interacting in a space devoid of physicality the inhabitants of virtual communities are free to create as many virtual identities as they please with no base in the true circumstance of the user’s physical reality. Wellman and Gulia (1997) discuss the comparisons of the virtual and the traditional community. The basis of a virtual community is in interactions seeded in shared interests rather than the bonds of familiar and shared space, which is the foundation of a traditional community. The commonality seems to be the reliance on communication to build networks in both community types, and the distinction is that electronic networks can bridge gaps in communication which physical networks, such as roads, will unlikely ever be able to achieve to the same scale and breadth across geographical and cultural borders.

Identity is traditionally tied to our community; for example; the country we are born in or the religion which we are brought up within are variables which impose a set of values and circumstances on each of us which comprise the beginnings of an identity. As individuals clearly adapt their self-presentation to physical situations due to the particular social and cultural norms, it seems likely that the same could happen in a virtual situation. Cheng and Guo (2014) argue that mediating variables between the context of community in a web 2.0 environments and a physical environment are key to understanding the transient nature of identity within these varied constructs.

Donath (1996) argues that it is entirely possible to exist within multiple communities, both virtual and traditional, in tandem and adapt to a separate identity to suit each community’s purpose. An online community provides a veil of disassociation between its members not available within a traditional community model. Pearson (2009) claims that inhabitants of online communities can simply choose who they are by how they choose to represent themselves, rendering traditional identity cues, once set in stone such as race, gender and age irrelevant when creating a virtual identity. In contrast, Donath (1996) states that while identity cues are few and far between in a virtual community some non-traditional cues become distinguishable, such as nuance of language. Both positions support the idea that identity, whether recognisable and linked back to the physical self or not, is adaptable.

Pearson (2009) goes on to discuss the construction of identity which occurs in a virtual community, claiming that these constructed identities rely on a web of social connections existing only in a virtual environment and that the opportunity for multiple and varied identities played out via virtual communities existing on web 2.0 is vast and varied. Pearson’s (2009) argument supports the idea that not only is a virtual identity transient, but it can be a deliberate and temporary construct by a web 2.0 user with little or no link back to their true self which can be replicated, manipulated and deleted inconsequentially.

Turkle (1994) discusses how virtual communities afford opportunities for self-exploration by providing a context for identities to be formed which reflect the nature of the community they exist within. Turkle (1994) goes on to theorise that these constructed identities are ‘projections of self’ and that users are taking advantage of an opportunity to test run alternative identities. Essentially arguing that identity is not set in stone but transitory and virtual communities simply offer users with opportunities to explore varied representations of self, none being a truer form of self than another. By demonstrating that the conditions provided by virtual communities to an individual, allow and even promote ongoing self-discovery, Turkle (1994) is laying out the ground work for why virtual communities have instigated a new reality in which identity is transformable. By providing situations where constant review and rework of self is required the normal context of identity is undermined. Turkle (1994) refers to the second chances facilitated by virtual communities as opportunities to explore self in ways not available within the context of a traditional community, that computer mediated interactions provide opportunities to drill down into the nature of self with traditional constructs identity cues, such as race, nationality and religion removed.

Turkle (1997) argues that web 2.0 offers individuals a chance to create their own identity by creating the persona which they present to others within a community, or across multiple communities. What Donath (1996) goes on to describe is the identity linked with the self which is based in reality as a ‘compelling and convenient definition of identity’, and the virtual communities that exist on web 2.0 as disrupting that convenient representation of self for a constructed one.  By drawing a link between the virtual community and its relationship to the construct of identity Donath (1996) is acknowledging the significant role individuals have in constructing their own reality in a virtual space. A virtual community according to Donath (1996) is significantly impacted by the constructed web 2.0 environment, and that construction is based on the interactions of virtual identities. Donath (1996) argues that unlike the communities existing within the physical environment, virtual communities have influence on their environment; rather than being wholly influenced by it.

Donath (1996) discusses the variables applied to a virtual community which affect the development of identities which interact within them, such as the level of familiarity with the identity of other members of the community, which aren’t as significant a factor when considering a physical community. Turkle (1997) also discusses the parallel lives that web 2.0 users are able to have through virtual communities and the way virtual communities challenge the traditional idea of identity both in the presentation of self, but also the interactions with others. According to Donath (1996) participants of virtual communities also need to consider the connection between the online identities they are interacting with and the subsequent connection they may or may not have with a corresponding identity which is based on the individual’s physical identity. For example, the level of connection between identities on a social network may be considered, while to a level curated, a somewhat accurate reflection of the user’s identity which exists in a physical community and so bound to the same identity cues. In comparison a virtual identity manufactured as an avatar on a gaming site could be assumed by other users to have little to no relation to the physical identity of the user. These underlying factors create circumstances for interactions within virtual communities which have the potential to be wholly removed from a user’s physical identity, meaning that when traditional identity cues and social situations are removed, identity is what an individual chooses it to be at any given time for any given reason.

Donath (1996) further supports this idea of a transient and adaptable identity as an ever evolving occurrence founded in virtual communities when discussing the considerations involved in establishing and interacting virtual identities, listing privacy, accountability and self-expression as factors taken on when users asses interactions which occur online. Donath (1196) asserts that these factors require individuals to consider a series of compromises of both their own presentation of identity and how they accept the other identities they interact with and the overall effect theses have on the broader community and of the individuals which it consists of.

Lee (2006) discusses how virtual interactions provide individuals with a veil of anonymity not provided by physical communities and it is this anonymous online condition which has highlighted and encouraged the transient nature of identity. Lee (2006) furthers this discussion on the adaptable nature of identity when it is applied to a virtual community by raising the removal of accountability when undertaking self-presentation online as being a key feature to the differing way individuals present themselves virtually rather than physically. Specifically, Lee (2006) considers the concept of public and private perceptions by addressing why individuals choose different forms of self-presentation depending on the community type with which they are interacting within. The different form of identity cues which rise to the surface become the clear contrast between virtual and physical identities according to Lee (2006). When making a broader assessment of the nature of the virtual community, Lee (2006) attempts to incorporate the subtleties which individuals who are participating in online communities use in their self-presentation and their virtual interactions.

Turkle (1994) theorises that identities which exist in a virtual community provide an opportunity to further develop a particular feature of an individual’s identity however by doing so the activity of online identity development can pose a significant threat to disrupt their established, real world, self. Turkle (1994) uses the phrase ‘you are who you pretend to be’, in doing so arguing that features of identities are transferable between the multiple virtual and physical communities which they exist within. However, according to Khalifa, Yu and Shen (2007), it is not that identity variation occurs in abundance and that web 2.0 is the mediating factor which is unresolved, it is the absence of a true understanding of how the social aspects and identity cues which are isolated to virtual communities influence self-presentation to capture the complexity of interactions occurring in these spaces.

By acknowledging that the processes of identity concealment and lack of complete self‐disclosure are variables when constructing an indent in a virtual community, Lee (2006) addresses parallels and differences between the identity cues which occur in a physical and virtual community through self‐presentation. It is just as significant what is shared as what is not when constructing identity in a virtual community, these factors are not as momentous when self-presentation occurs in a physical community as traditional identity cues, such as race, are often not able to be supressed. Khalifa, Yu and Shen (2007) surmise that virtual communities do in fact provide an important space for personal knowledge gathering and sharing by demonstrating that both self-presentation and interactions of individuals which are occurring within virtual communities are vital for the development of identity in a way not possible pre web 2.0.

I have discussed how self-presentation online, the innumerable virtual communities available to web 2.0 users and the considerations undertaken by individuals when assessing interactions which are restricted to a virtual community have instigated identity to take on transient and adaptable characteristics. As Donath (1996) explains, it is clear that identity plays a significant role in both virtual and physical communities; the difference is the control individuals have over the construct of their identities which highlights the adaptable and transient nature of identity. Donath goes on to state, that “identity is problematic: in the disembodied world of electronic communication, identity floats free of the stable anchor that the body provides in the real world.” (Donath, 1996)

By this reasoning identity always been transformable in its nature and it was the application of multiple communities which provided a catalyst for multiple identities or forms of self to occur within one individual.

In conclusion while identity has always had the potential to be transient, it is when the variable of multiple virtual communities is applied that individuals regularly and purposefully adapt their identity to suit the situation. It is the opportunity for one individual to have multiple identities in existence at one time across different online communities and the commonness of this which makes the result of applying identity to a virtual community a phenomenon.




Cheng, Z.-c., & Guo, T.-c. (2014). The formation of social identity and self-identity based on knowledge contribution in virtual communities: An inductive route model. Computers in Human Behavior, 229-241.

Donath, J. (1996). Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. Communities in Cyberspace.

Khalifa, M., Yu, A. Y., & Shen, K. N. (2007). Knowledge Contribution in Virtual Communities: Accounting for Multiple Dimensions of Social Presence through Social Identity. PACIS 2007 Proceedings. Hong Kong: Association for Information Systems.

Lee, H. (2006). Privacy, Publicity, and Accountability of Self‐Presentation in an On‐Line Discussion Group. Sociological Inquiry, 1-22.

Pearson, E. (2009). All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks. First Monday.

Turkle, S. (1994). Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs. Mind, Culture and Activity, 158-167.

Turkle, S. (1997). Multiple Subjectivity and Virtual Community at the End of the Freudian Century . Sociological Inquiry.

Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. (1997). Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities. Toronto: Department of Sociology and Centre of Urban and Community Studies.

4 thoughts on “The Transient Nature of Identity Online

  1. Hello Myra,

    I am greatly interested in the theory of identity construction and how people present themselves online. Your exploration has added to my intrigue as I have not previously considered how I present myself to different factions that exist in my life. For example, I am a part of a private Facebook group consisting of musicians who are into football and this is an interest I don’t share with many of my friends. This is a side of myself that I don’t present to my friends as I don’t think it accurately represents me. I have argued in my paper that the transient nature of online representation can in some instances create issues when establishing friendships. On the other hand, not all online interaction is conducted with the idea of forming significant ties.

    I feel as though one way in which people better present themselves online is through visuals like their avatar, profile picture, photos of them and what they have done, and cultural references. If I look at somebody’s profile or Instagram posts, I instantly know elements of their personality and tastes that I may have otherwise not discovered. To this end, I believe that people can often present an accurate version of themselves sub-consciously that is ultimately the version they desire.

    Thanks for a terrific read!

    1. Hi Joel,
      Thanks for the comment, I think you have touched on a really interesting point here. Specifically how our transient identity will come to effect the way individuals are able to form connections moving into the future. If we can exist in an online environment as readily as a physical one, and if we do so without the need to form significant ties will the ability to be truly open to another be diminished? I have done a little bit of further reading on the subject and Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin (2008) discuss how in an online environment we tell others who we are rather than allowing them to see our true self.

      1. Hi Myra,

        I would like to touch on the comment you made in reply to Joel.

        You state that Grasmuck & Martin (2008) “discuss how in an online environment we tell others who we are rather than allowing them to see our true self.”

        Within the physical environment, with face-to-face communication people can learn about us by our demeanour and play off body language and so forth.

        So my question is, in what way would you say we are able to allow others to “See our true self” in an online environment? Taking into account the detachment that is present, as we are not within a physical space with the other person we are communicating with as would be the case with face-to-face conversation.

        – Nathan

  2. Reply to Myra Lowe – The transient nature of identity online
    The theory of identity online is something that I came across with respect to my paper about Facebook. It is concerning when one of the world’s most powerful tech entrepreneurs (Zuckerberg) says “the days of having multiple images are coming to an end pretty quickly” and you do wonder if data aggregation between different SNSs, lax default privacy settings, etc. will lead to people disclosing less and less on SNSs because (for example) something one does for FB may be frowned upon by within their network on LinkedIn (or vice versa).
    With respect to identity management whether offline or online people seek to project the identity that they want others to see and tailor their identities to suit the community to which they are presenting at any given point in time. Clothing is one such example where people dress according to the identity they want to project to the community they are temporarily in at any given point.

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