Cyberspace and Identity
We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine. Over a
decade ago, when I first called the computer a “second self” (1984), these identity-transforming relationships
were most usually one-on-one, a person alone with a machine.
This is no longer the case. A rapidly expanding
system of networks, collectively known as the Internet, links millions of people together in new spaces that are
changing the way we think, the nature of our sexuality, the form of our communities, our very identities. In
cyberspace, we are learning to live in virtual worlds. We may find ourselves alone as we navigate virtual
oceans, unravel virtual mysteries, and engineer virtual skyscrapers. But increasingly, when we step through the
looking glass, other people are there as well.
Over the past decade, I have been engaged in the ethnographic and clinical study of how people negotiate
the virtual and the “real” as they represent themselves on computer screens linked through the Internet. For
many people, such experiences challenge what they have traditionally called “identity,” which they are moved
to recast in terms of multiple windows and parallel lives. Online life is not the only factor that is pushing them
in this direction; there is no simple sense in which computers are causing a shift in notions of identity. It is,
rather, that today’s life on the screen dramatizes and concretizes a range of cultural trends that encourage us to
think of identity in terms of multiplicity and flexibility.
In this essay, I focus on one key element of online life and its impact on identity: the creation and projection of
constructed personae into virtual space. In cyberspace, it is well known, one’s body can be represented by one’s
own textual description: The obese can be slender, the beautiful plain. The fact that self-presentation is written
in text means that there is time to reflect upon and edit one’s “composition,” which makes it easier for the shy to
be outgoing, the “nerdy” sophisticated. The relative anonymity of life on the screen—one has the choice of
being known only by one’s chosen “handle” or online name—gives people the chance to express often
unexplored aspects of the self. Additionally, multiple aspects of self can be explored in parallel. Online services
offer their users the opportunity to be known by several different names. For example, it is not unusual for
someone to be BroncoBill in one online community, ArmaniBoy in another, and MrSensitive in a third.
The online exercise of playing with identity and trying out new identities is perhaps most explicit in “role
playing” virtual communities (such as Multi-User Domains, or MUDs) where participation literally begins with
the creation of a persona (or several); but it is by no means confined to these somewhat exotic locations. In
bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat rooms, the creation of personae may be less explicit than on MUDs, but it