Identity has been viewed as essential to the expression of individuality within societies and communities. Social networking sites like Instagram and Tinder have also created its own communities, where self-identity and self-representation have become integral to how individuals are perceived. This paper explores the idea that online identities have become less significant due to identity deception. It argues that social networking sites are platforms where identity can be represented in many different ways, and where what appears true or false is not always clear. The sociological and psychological implications of using these sites are focused on to emphasisethe relationship between the importance of online self-representation and how a person is viewed by society. Evidence has been collected through research of journal articles by authors who are well versed in the area of identity in online spaces. The findings that are drawn from the research is that online identity deception not only ranges from impression management to fictional facades, but it also greatly affects the meaning of individuality and self-identity in virtual and offline communities.
Donath (1999) states that ‘identity plays a key role in virtual communities’ and is ‘essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction’ (p. 27). Identity has always been an important aspect for individuals, societies and communities. Social networking has become a necessary part of people’s everyday lives. They have the purpose of connecting people with friends, family and even people they’ve never met before. They are seen as representations of one’s identity, where others can learn about who they are. However, with this ability to customiseone’s identity, it becomes a breeding ground for identity deception of varying degrees. Arguably, even the most common desire to impress others by tweaking one’s own identity is somewhat identity deception. Self-representation is important for social networking users, so someone’s identity online might not fully represent the real-life version. Young people, in particular have discovered the difficulty of presenting a more ‘cooler’ identity online, especially with disapproving parents snooping online. Creating mirror networks are becoming more popular, especially on Instagram to deceive parents with a decoy account, while maintaining another for peers. There are unfortunately also more sinister manipulations to identity that social media has made possible. The anonymity of social media has given people the power to take on an entirely new identity or someone else’s to deceive others for selfish reasons. Catfishing and identity theft happen a lot on sites like Instagram and dating apps, where connections and trust are given quite easily. This paper fits in with the stream, identity in communities and networks because it explores how important the presentation of one’s identity is in society, how it makes people stand out or fit in, but also have it can be manipulated for sinister purposes as well. Therefore, the self-expressive nature of online social networking sites has opened the doors to identity deception where individuals can choose what to share, tweak, hide or manipulate their identity for various different reasons.
Expression of Self-Identity
The most profound significance of social networking platforms is that they give individuals and groups the option to choose to what want people to know about them. As Boyd (2007) explains, ‘social network sites are based around profiles, a form of individual (or, less frequently, group) home page, which offers a description of each member’ (p. 123). Social networking sites such as Instagram have a space for users to display their name on their profile, a profile picture and information about their job, relationship status, age and gender, too. These are some of the most basic information that one would use to introduce to people face-to-face in order to get to know them. This can be information that helps people form their identity and enables them to be distinguished in society. People’s identities extend further to much more than these basic information on someone’s profile. The social network is described as a ‘tool’ that enables individuals and communities to come together, and ‘foster intimate relationships’ through common interests (Pan et al., 2017, p. 72). On Instagram, Taylor Swift fan accounts may post short edits of her music videos, post photos of her red-carpet outfits or give updates to news about her, for example. Fans of popular TV shows like Game of Thrones can live stream their reactions to an episode and communicate with each other at the same time. This demonstrates more than just the flexible interactive nature of social networking, but how these interactions can help highlight one’s identity. Hobbies, favouritemusic and TV shows are among some of the things that forms part of an identity. Therefore, social networking sites are spaces with the purpose of displaying self-identity, however, what is becoming evident is that they are also spaces for impression and performance.
Self-representation is an integral part of social media that it has created the desire to curate one’s identity to impress others. In societies and communities, it can be normal for people to tweak their offline identity in their online identity to belong and impress. More specifically, the community of Instagram is notable for being a site where users can feel pressured to present a particular image and appeal. Boyd (2006, as cited in Pearson, 2009, para. 4) states that ‘SNS platforms provide areas which are disembodied, mediated and controllable, and through which alternate performances can be displayed to others’. This explains that social networking sites give people the opportunity to present a performance of a produced identity of self, that can differ in varying degrees to their offline one. The differentiation is evident in the fact that social networking sites include ‘tools and technologies’ that ‘create the staging and setting in which these selves exist’ (Pearson, 2009, para. 8). When people continue to project an aspect of their ‘identity’ online, it becomes true online for one’s followers but not necessarily for how one sees themselves. Despite being connected to some close friends and family online, people might not know them as well as they think they do. According to Donath & Boyd (2004), they might not question the sincerity of one’s self-representation because they might think it’s something they have not yet discovered, but because of the intimate nature of social media, it has allowed them to see a new side to that person. This is, in a way, a form of identity deception. It can be something as small as posting a lot of pictures of the beach because others do. The ideas of self-identity have changed and become insignificant on social media, even though these sites were supposedly created to celebrate this idea. They have enabled people to showcase a modified version of their offline identity, which is often mistaken for greater intimacy and transparency of people’s true identity. Identity is something that is very important, especially for young people who long to belong with their peers. Goffman (1959, as cited in Mascheroni et al., 2015, para. 7) explains how social pressures of ‘impression management’ have motivated young people into maintaining a particular ideal image or identity of themselves on social networking sites, to control the reactions of their peers. The photo album layout of Instagram has motivated many people into creating an aesthetic feed, that will hopefully depict how they want to look online. Social networking sites have encouraged users to modify their identity to impress or deceive others, also giving them the power to pick and choose who can see it as well.
Different Identities on Mirror Networks
Social networking sites have impacted the way young adolescent and teenage users’ express their identity online, under the watchful eye of protective parents and guardians. It is normal for parents to feel concerned about their children being on social networking sites, where it can be difficult to monitor who they interact with and the kind of things they are sharing or commenting. However, according to O’Keefe et al. (2011), social media can be useful for young people to: get involved with their community, express their individual creativity, create content such as videos and blogs, and connect with others with similar interests (p. 801). These all assist in the creation of an individual’s identity on social networking sites, platforms that they are able to claim as their own space. Regardless of these opportunities for young people to grow and gain freedom, some parents do find ways to monitor their children’s social media. In turn, young people resort to faking basic identity information such as their ‘name, age, and location’, to hide from their parents’ snooping (Boyd, 2007, p. 131). This demonstrates how social networking sites affect the creation and expression of young people’s identities online. Due to worrying parents, children have resorted to identity deception to hide. This goes to show that the ways in which identities are presented on social networking sites are many times performances. These sites have caused of a lack of true self-presentation and expression of identity. Boyd (2007) highlights how teenagers have found ways to create identities that are ‘simultaneously cool to their peers and acceptable to their parents’, by creating what is known as “mirror networks”, where they have a parent-approved public social media account, but secretly have a second account with a fake name (pp. 132-133). On Instagram, it has become common for people to create ‘finstas’ or fake Instagram accounts to deceive their parents. Identity deception is being performed here as parents might likely not be aware of this other side of their children. Therefore, social networking sites have a major role in enabling individuals to deceive their family’s idea of their identity, while also projecting their identity differently to other people.
Identity Deception and Scam
Social networking sites enable people to not only fake their identities online, but also use these fake personas for deception and scam. Due to the customisableaspect of social networking, it has made it easier for people to anonymously carry out identity deception for personal gain. Zahavi (1993, as cited in Tsikerdekis & Zeadally, 2014, para. 8) explains how assessment signals allow people to confirm that details of identity of another person is the truth, such as looking at a drivers’ license, whereas on the other hand, conventional signals are not as obvious, just because the identity presented says this is their name or this is where they live, there is no way to confirm the truth. This explains the vast flexibility social networking sites have allowed individuals to present their identity in any way they choose, which can prove very dangerous. Mobile dating apps such as Tinder, like any other social networking site is centredheavily on profiles, photos and connection. While identity deception happens on any social networking site including Instagram, cases have been known to occur on dating apps. ‘Catfishing’ is the term used to describe ‘the current internet trend of creating and portraying complex fictional identities through online profiles’ (Nolan, 2015, as cited in Lauckner et al., 2019, p. 291). Catfishing on social dating networks has seen many people fall victim to financial exploitation because the sole purpose of these sites is to make romantic, trusting connections with strangers (Lauckner et al., 2019, p. 291). As a result, the victims, believing they have made a deep connection with someone from the result of identity deception, decides to help this person. Social networking sites give tremendous opportunities for people to present identity in different ways, identity deception unfortunately being a very common one. Saedi (2012, as cited in Amedie, 2015, p. 10) explains that ‘the near anonymity of online interactions made many impossible things in the real world, possible in the virtual one’. This highlights the easiness for social networking users to fake, lie, cheat and deceit others by creating an entirely new identity while their true identity remains anonymous. The umbrella of catfishing also includes identity theft and the impersonation of an actual person’s identity. According to Flynn (2015, as cited in Hartney, 2018, pp. 277–278) whose own identity was stolen and impersonated, the perpetuators were very cunning and dedicated to their scam, by not only taking their victim’s name, but also reposting the posts belonging to their victims to really convince people. Therefore, the levels of identity deception can escalate to something as serious as impersonation and identity theft. Social networking sites have given people the power to not only deceive through identity but also to scam emotionally, psychologically and financially.
Social networking sites have given so much freedom to users to carry out identity deception for a number of different reasons. They may seem beneficial in enabling individuals to share and connect their identity with others through basic information like name, age and location, other things like hobbies. However, varying levels of identity deception happens across all social networking sites. People use Instagram as a way to impress their peers and manage the kind of image they hope will form their ideal identity. Social media makes it easier for others to believe this version of the individual. Young people especially are more likely to adopt this tactic of tweaking their identity online to appeal to their peers, but since their parents might not approve of what they are posting, they have found loopholes. Mirror networks are becoming popular, especially on Instagram and are effective ways for people to project different identities different groups of people; one being their parents, and the other being their peers. However, there are many downfalls to flexibility of creating multiple identities on social media, as it allows deception and catfishing to go unnoticed. Instagram and dating networks like Tinder have witnessed users gaining connections, but ultimately becoming victims to money scammers. Impersonation also happens often as well, which proves to be very dangerous especially if the victim believes it is someone they trust. This paper fits with the stream, identity in communities and networks because it highlights the importance for self-identity online, which is then reflected in offline identity. It also explores the complexity to online identity as well, as not everything that appears to be true means that it is true. The ideas of the significance of identities in communities, including online ones are questioned. The freedom that social networking sites have provided for users to create and choose who to share their own identity—whether it is true or enhanced—with online has diminished the beauty of self-representation in society.
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