Identity in Communities and Networks

Identity built unknowingly online: Ambient awareness building a user’s identity from online social communities.


This paper seeks to explore, what is ambient awareness and how does ambient awareness build a persona of ourselves for our online and offline social communities? How is an online community formed and is the user’s true identity demonstrated online?


The introduction of Web 2.0 saw a new era on the World Wide Web, one of user generated content, collaboration and the ability to interact, communicate and have a social presence online. Social networking sites were launched, giving people across the world the freedom to share aspects of their everyday lives, building an online identity of themselves that they want their online social community to see, however also unknowingly allowing their ‘friends’ to build a persona of them through this engagement. An identity built unknowingly online: How ambient awareness builds a user’s identity from online social communities.


Online communities are broad in type and range from your offline friends in a social online community, such as Facebook, or they could be people you follow but don’t physically know, such as influencers on Instagram. Another type of online community is a local community group brought together in an online environment, based on where they reside, or a group bought together by a popular interest, such as the now popular ‘Mum’s Who Cook, Clean and Organise’ Facebook groups and Instagram pages. These online networks are all a “community” in a sense of the word and bring people together in the online world.  

The definition for community in the Cambridge Dictionary is, “the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality”. When looking at communities from a social or technological view, these online communities are usually easily identifiable for what they support or do (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar, 2005) and can be searched for on most social networking platforms. This doesn’t mean to say that an online community only connects and associates online, through whichever platform they exist, as these communities may also have an offline component to their forming (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar, 2005). It is important to recognise that the term ‘community’ is hard to define, as the definition depends on the way it is being used or interpreted.

An online social community such as Instagram and Facebook ‘friends’ can be formed in various ways. These ‘friends’ in this online context, and in these online social communities, may be known in person by the user (physically), or just in the online environment. They could be work colleagues, university peers, physical friends from childhood. No matter where these ‘friends’ originated from, they now form a user’s ‘friends’ list and are part of an online social community, that the user has established.

This online social community can build the persona of the user from their interactions with them online (directly and indirectly). These direct and indirect interactions assist in establishing the persona of the user, even when the ‘friends’ may not be intentionally focusing on this person or what engagements they are having in the online environment. This subtle building of a persona may just happen, unknowingly for the user and for their ‘friends’, however this could also be perceived as the identity they wish to be viewed as, which brings me to my next point, online identities.


Creating an online identity or online persona is open to how the user wants to be perceived by the online social community they are a part of. This online identity could simply reflect them and provide an insight into their everyday life. It could be a different version of them as a person, that they do not feel as comfortable revealing in everyday life or an Avatar version of them, created to portray a more private version of them. Wood and Solomon (2009) suggest there are four stages of virtual social identity: self-development, identity development, identity projection, and self-representation. These stages are reflected in the evolution from child to adult and the choices they make as they progressively get older and more aware and confident in their offline identity (Wood & Solomon, 2009).

When a person chooses to represent their online selves as an Avatar, they choose to show a side of their personality, perhaps trying to showcase their creativity. This identity creation allows the user to have some fun and subtly present to their online social community a version of them. Wood and Solomon (2009) also discuss that adults tend to have the ability to show different representations of them, based on the platform and online social community they are engaging (Wood and Solomon, 2009). This could then suggest that each online community may be building an entirely different version of the user, than another community they are a part of. This then brings us back to the question, is an online identity comparable to the users’ offline identity and is this identity unknowingly built online?

An online identity isn’t just built based on photos, videos or avatar versions of the user. It is also built indirectly perhaps by how the user writes, what pages’ they like and follow and what other online social communities they engage with – an online identity built through ambient awareness. 


In 2006, social networking platform, Facebook, introduced the ‘News Feed’; a feature which broadcasted instantly changes on a user’s page to their ‘friends’ (Thompson, 2008, para. 3). Users now had the ability to build their own online identity through the social networking platform and have ‘friends’ updates delivered to them, thus allowing them to also build a persona or online identity of their ‘friends’. Today, similar versions of this exist on most social networking platforms. Instagram for example has a rolling feed of the latest photos or videos posted by ‘friends’.

In the article, Thompson (2008) refers to these online interactions and observations that assist users in building a persona of their ‘friends’ as “ambient awareness”. Thompson (2008, para. 8) describes ambient awareness as “like being physically near someone and picking up on their mood,” however, in an online environment. In everyday life we use our bodies to project information about ourselves (Boyd, 2017), that those around us pick up on – physical ambient awareness. This could be the clothing we wear, the reactions we have to conversations or our current environment, and what we verbally communicate to those around us.

In an online environment, conveying these messages correctly may not be as easy as it might be in a physical sense. Identifying ambient awareness on social networking sites such as Instagram and Facebook, could be sensing the tones or underlying messages in a ‘status update’ or understanding what your friend likes to do or how they are feeling through photos and videos. All of these non-verbal social cues available on social networking sites, help build an online persona of ‘friends’, that the user can then connect with everyday life.

Connecting this online persona to an individual in everyday life requires the ‘friend’ to connect the dots. As Thompson (2008) explains, “this is the paradox of ambient awareness” (para. 13). However, depending on the social networking platforms that these online social communities have formed on, will depend on how authentic these observations may be. Influencers on Instagram for example, tend to showcase their fun and adventurous lives to the world, enjoying life and living in luxury on all expenses paid holidays. However, the question remains, how real is this ‘real life’ and is this the identity they wish to convey?

Social media users are now more aware of the content they are posting online and essentially leaving behind – their ‘digital footprint’ (“Ruptured Reality”, 2013). Though by devoting so much time and energy into creating an online identity that draws in more ‘friends’ to their profiles, are they really showcasing a true version of themselves or is this the version they want people to take note of and follow to avoid showcasing their everyday life? The interactions the online social community has with these types of ‘friends’ needs to be understood before creating a persona of them, as for these ‘influencers’ this is their job. Showcasing the amazing life they ‘live’, just gets them paid and doesn’t necessarily reflect the authentic self of the individual. The ambient awareness that could be drawn from these influencers may be an underlying message that their ‘friends’ may not pick up on.


It is important to identify and realise the differences between the online identity ‘friends’ want you to see and the everyday life they live, offline. This possibly isn’t as glamorous or exciting as the online social community may think, and therefore it may not truly be reflected in their online persona.

Online social communities can be a place of comfort, a place you go to engage with those you know physically and virtually, or just in the online environment. It is a place where you can share your true self or a version of you. Online social communities don’t necessarily fit the same definition of a physical community; however, they are still a collection of individuals who have come together in a common place.

An identity built online is there for ‘friends’ to build a persona of the user and for the user to express their personality or creativity how they see fit. This may have underlying messages or resemblances true to everyday life, however this might not be obvious at first glance. Ambient awareness overtime can contribute to building that persona. For online social communities to really understand a ‘friend’ on social networking platforms, they must piece together many aspects of that person, including the identity they have built online, and them as a physical person. It isn’t possible to really know someone and build a true persona of them until you have physically been a part of or ‘lived’ in their online and offline worlds. Even then, you may never know the true identity of someone, just a portrait you have created of what you understand and interpret from what they physically and digitally showcase.

So how do these online social communities find a place in the offline world? With technology evolving so rapidly, and users having access to these online social communities on smartphones whenever they wish, they are essentially part of the offline world already. Access to social networking platforms and daily interaction on these is part of almost everyone’s everyday lives now, which could indicate that the line between online and offline is now permanently blurred.

This means these identities, built unknowingly online, are more often showcased in an offline world. With the generations of pre-internet days ageing, and the younger generations not knowing any difference between living online and offline as they have always had access to both, these two ‘worlds’ may just become a community and identity – no ambient awareness or persona variations required. 


boyd, d. (2017). Why youth heart social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (pp. 119–142). The MIT Press.

Community (n.d.) In Cambridge Dictionary.

Retrieved April 5, 2020, from

Facebook. (2020). News.

Instagram. (2020). About Us.

Preece, J., and Maloney-Krichmar, D. (2005). Online Communities: Design, Theory, and Practice. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(4).

Ruptured Reality. (2013, July). Haymarket Business Publications Ltd.

Thompson, C. (2008. September 5). Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. New York Times Magazine.

Wood, N.T., and Solomon, M.R. (2009). Virtual Social Identity and Consumer Behaviour. Routledge.

14 replies on “Identity built unknowingly online: Ambient awareness building a user’s identity from online social communities.”

Hi Bobbie-Jo,
I was quite intrigued that you chose to highlight “ambient awareness” in your paper, and this caught my eye. I wonder if users deliberate manipulate this ambient awareness in their own self-presentation? Do you think it is possible, for example, for someone like Ariana Grande on Instagram to deliberately choose certain images, hashtags, and friends to follow, so that fans will sense a particular “ambience” and use this to construct a favourable impression of her? I would love to hear your thoughts on the connections between ambient awareness and impression management – or anyone else’s ideas, for that matter. Thank you for an interesting read.

Hi Deepti,

Thanks for your comment. I do think that celebrities/influencers and the general public would make deliberate decisions on what images/content to post or pages to like to influence a favourable impression. I have known of people who will only post images and content at certain times to ensure that they get an increased amount of likes/shares. I know in a business context this is important, but for the general public it shouldn’t be something that’s considered, however sadly this is an area that gets a lot of thought and attention these days, perhaps too much. This being said, I also think followers of these pages engage with this user at certain times in their day to inspire themselves with the content. For example, the user may be posting images and content that relate to a healthy and energetic lifestyle, and the followers may use this as motivation to better themselves. So the ambient awareness factor in this is working for the follower. The interesting thing when you look at it like that, is when you consider if the user is posting everything (the good and the bad), or just the inspiring stuff? Do they use filters etc. on the images and content to hide themselves having a bad day?

Hello Bobbie-Jo, your paper is really interesting and it was a pleasure reading it. I definitely agree to your point that an online community contributes to building the persona of a user.
When you said that ”adults tend to have the ability to show different different representations of them based on the social community they are engaging” don’t you think that this can be somehow deceptive? Or that this does not represent their true selves thus, having a detrimental impact on their identity?
Your argument on ambient awareness really deepened my knowledge on the topic.
Your explanation on how influencers may not be showcasing their real lifestyle is definitely legitimate and makes me wonder how this might impact on themselves, what do you think?

And again, I really enjoyed reading your paper

Hi Tania, I agree this could be somewhat deceptive, but then again it could also just be showing what they want that audience to see – very similar to an influencer in my opinion. I believe that a lot of people would have this approach, especially when creating their online identity – this is something we would see quite a lot with celebrities, who have very different private lives (or so we are told) to that of their “famous” life we are showcased.

I also agree that some influencers who live in this ‘Instagram World’ – surely this has an impact on their everyday lives offline. I am with you and wonder what this must be like, trying to keep up that ‘appearance’ on a regular basis.

Thanks again for commenting, really liked your perspective!

Hi Bobbie,
I enjoyed reading your paper. Your topic was interesting and enriching. I agree on the point that you’ve highlighted about online identity is not fully connected just to an avatar or picture as it is rather tricky to really understand an individual only through these because then we might have the tendency to create additional meanings or form an image that was not necessarily there to begin with but it is much more with how they engage and voice out their opinions online. There is definitely a line that separates what is online to offline but I think with people whom one share stronger closer bonds/relationships, there might not be much of a difference because they are more likely to know you better than those present in your networks/know as an acquaintance. Establishing friend relationship online is filled with uncertainty as there are too many factors that play a part in discerning meanings and at the end of the day, it is common interests or mindset that draw people together.


Hi Bobbie-Jo,

Well done, you’ve written a great paper and I enjoyed reading it!

I think you’ve raised a number of interesting points around how we create and project notions of identity online, and how they comprise part of our broader lived experience. I’m wondering, what are your thoughts on the ambient awareness created when you take all of your different social media accounts into account? In other words, if you collate the different kinds of interactions and content a person might post from across a range of different social media platforms, some of which might project quite different aspects of a personality, how does that impact the ambient awareness created? Perhaps it makes it more complex, or at times even contradictory?

All the best

Luke Webster
PhD Candidate
Curtin Internet Studies

Hi Luke,
Thanks for your comment. Very interesting point you bring up about the impact of the ambient awareness created if collating a number of social media accounts for one user.
My personal opinion on this is that it would be both more complex and contradictory. The accumulation of ones social footprint from various channels would paint and extremely different picture of that user than just solely looking at their account on one platform. The content shared of different social media platforms is done so for many reasons, however these may include privacy and audience they are sharing with, the suggested use of the platform (e.g. not posting personal updates on LinkedIn), and perhaps the version of themselves they wish to portray on that particular platform. I like how thought provoking your point was, it definitely made me think more broadly on the topic!

Hi Bobbie-Jo,

I’m here from your comment on my paper. Thank you so much for participating in that!

Your paper was a very enjoyable read. I found your topic very interesting and links quite well to what I have written about. This is a topic that I find myself being more passionate about. Your arguments are strong and I find myself agreeing with many points mentioned in this paper.

You wrote about online identity and how it could be disconnected from the individual outside of the platform. This is extremely relevant today, due to many people creating new online identities, separate from their personal lives. I like that you added that it is all about how people engage and connect, and less about who they are at first glance.

I connected with your paper as most of what you have written is relevant today – with Instagram being one of the most influential platforms. Overall, I find that this was a very well executed paper and I found it very informative. Great job!

Best regards,

Thanks so much for reading my paper and your comments Stefi, really appreciate it.
I love how connected, relevant and thought provoking all the papers are!

Hi Bobbie,

Thanks for reaching out to me and letting me know about your paper! You’ve introduced me to a topic I have only heard once before and never got to fully understand it until now.

I think you have raised some really good points within your argument, especially discussing users awareness of their digital footprint and how some users are manipulating this footprint to further present an identity to others.

Do you think that the presentation of different personalities depending on the platform used, such as a professional self on LinkedIn could impact the way in which people ‘connect the dots’ as you put? Or is this constructed identity strong enough for these personalities to not influence how people perceive you?

I’d love to hear what you have to say.


Hi Sam,
Thanks for your comment and apologies for the delayed reply.
Very interesting point you raise. I would say it would depend on the person and at what level they engage and share aspects online. I think that everyone will perceive you differently even if they are viewing the same content as each other, so would be very much a case by case. Very interesting to think about this though, and I’d need to explore that more for sure!

Hi Bobbie-Jo,

I found your paper really interesting!

I enjoyed the discussion around a persons “online self”. I liked how you gave different reasons as to why someone might present themselves in a different way online (i.e creativity). I agree that many use social media platforms as a way to either express themselves or sometimes as an escape from their reality.

My question for you would be do you feel like it could impact someones sense of self having different alter ego online and offline?

Thank you again for commenting on my paper!


Hi Victoria,

Thanks for your comment and apologies for the delayed reply.
I personally think that it could impact someones sense of self, however depends on the type of person they are how strong in character they are. I would think someone who shares online for attention or for a deeper reason would be impacted by this online alter ego more intensely than someone who perhaps just shares out of creativity. Great points though and I think it would definitely need more exploring and research into this. What are your thoughts on that?

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