Who am I? - Digital versus Physical self

"I'm scared that I'm not myself in here, and I'm scared that I am."

Piper Chapman, Orange Is the New Black, Episode 10

In the new hit Netflix Show, "Orange is the New Black" Piper Chapman says that she is scared that she is not herself in prison but at the same time she is her true self. This got me thinking that can the same thing be said about being online? Does the online environment make us more or less like our true self? If so which version of ourselves is the better representation? or is it just prospective? Is it that we just are more truthful online then we are in person?

I have spent the last year studying the online environment with a focus on social networks and Web 2.0. As a result I have more thoughts and considerations about the online world than when I started; however I still don't have a definitive answer. Maybe this is due to the changing developments that happened so rapidly on the web, that I can't keep up with the ethical implications on how this affects my life. However, I may not be able to decide on a definitive answer because I don't see there being a difference between both spheres but just an alternate filter that the rest of the world sees.  Let me try to explain and explore some ideas and thoughts that I have on the topic; possibly by the end I might have a clearer understanding of my position. (Please share your ideas and thoughts on this topic in the comment box.)

For a long time before studying the online world I thought that this statement was true - “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” -  Oscar Wilde Now, however, I am less sure. One thing that I am sure of is that, whether that mask should be physical, philosophical, or (for the purposes of this conversation) digital, it increases the impulsivity and spontaneity of individuals without showing their true character. The online profile can be many things, one of which can be a mask to allow people to speak freely and impulsively. This ability to distance themselves from social conventions and traditions is called, in social psychology, deindividuation. This concept was explain and demonstrated in the Channel 4 show, "Derren Brown: The Experiments - Episode 2 The Gameshow." On the other hand, It can also be seen in the "2011 England Riots" when people saw the opportunity to become apart of a faceless crowd and were given the ability to steal, destroy and abuse their surroundings; without, they thought, being court. Please note that there are other contributing factors to the 2011 England riots but it has to be acknowledged that deindividuation could have contributed to the disturbance; humans are opportunistic.

What does this have to do with the online world and physical and digital self? Individuals using online profiles such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, etc can lose their self-awareness and inhibitions to become more argumentative, provocative and truthful because of the perceived divide between physical and virtual interaction. Divide between the perceived online and physical spheres has an example in the interactions of Internet trolls. These individuals that find pleasure in abusing others or known as 'Schadenfreude'. No where greater can you find trolls an in the comments of YouTube videos or on Facebook memorial sites. These individuals psychologically see a difference between both physical and digital worlds they are the extreme of deindividuation. Showing a complete loss of self-awareness for others on social networks but finding pleasure in the misfortunes they bring.  Why do they do this? Because they see a fundamental difference between the online world and the offline world; they don't regard their actions as having consequences. The aggravation and annoyance that these individuals created for regular people as well as content creators on the internet sparked the internet meme "Haters Gonna Hate."

Haters Gonna Hate

 There have been periods of the internet, Web 1.0 and now Web 2.0; but what is the difference. Well, David Gauntlett a Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster, defines the periods as follows:

  • Web 1.0 - The Media where like Gods distributing content to the people.
  • Web 2.0 - Users produce content and distribute it on social networks to other users to view.

Content is understood as anything that is relayed to others, so for example YouTube Videos or statuses on Facebook or Tweets on Twitter. However, others and I regards some of this contents as vacuous. A personal example and the reason I took a year away from Facebook was that an individual updated their status to say, "Just eat a bagel." This is what I mean by vacuous information, it does not add anything to my life; no meaning, no substance, no interest, it is just empty. This vacuous content seems to come about when the hype and frenzy of the new social network of the day has died out and what is left is emptiness that needs to be filled with something and that something is nothing. An example of this happening in real-time is on Twitter, still regarded as the new kid on the block Twitter has started to lose its appeal and as a result accounts like this have started popping up, "Boring Tweeter". Humorous, ironic, parody - maybe. The problem with this sort of ironic self-expression is that others will not just view the content but also share, retweet, repost this vacuous information and presented as their own thoughts and own opinions as it appears on their feed along side their own posts.

Alongside this user-generated content (whether it be vacuous or not) is the argument that social networks blur boundaries of friendship. Danah Boyd a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University in her article "Incantations for Muggles: The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life" says "As we tweet our way to friendship, scoring ourselves based on the number of 'friends' we can convince to subscribe to our existence, perhaps we lose track of what friendship and connection means." Boyd is arguing that individuals do not find pleasure in the content that is distributed, but find a greater sense of satisfaction and gratification over the number of people that they can persuade to subscribe, follow, friend to their existence. Moreover she argues that it doesn't matter if these subscribers to that individual's existence are actually true friends, in the sense that they know them and have a relationship with them in person. In fact it is actually the number that appears on their profile indicating how many people subscribe that increases the individuals self-worth and idea of how popular and how liked they are amongst others. There are even websites that promise to increase your follow account by ensuring that if you follow others they'll follow you - "Follow for Follow".  Just reenforcing the dilutions of friendship on the Internet.

In addition, others don't just argue that there is a blurring of friendship on social networks but instead users are after instant gratification. Christine Rosen writes about the social and cultural impact of technology for the "The New Atlantis" and in her article "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism" she says "The activities social networking sites promote are precisely the ones weak ties foster, like rumor-mongering, gossip, finding people, and tracking the ever-shifting movements of popular culture and fad." Social networks is glory hunting and self-fulfilment rather than actual connection to others. She argues that social networks promote the pleasure and narcissism in one's own self rather than pleasure in the connection that is created. You just have to look at such sites like Twitter and Facebook that constantly are advising you on people who you might know or that you should follow, to recognise that what is driving these social networks for profit is individuals narcissism to keep them in gauged on the site to promote more advertising so they can cash in on the revenue.

However others argue that there isn't a blurring or divide between physical and digital self,  both are the same and are treated as the same. Nathan Jurgenson argues that Facebook is real life there is no difference between digital and physical which he calls atoms in bits. Atoms be in the physical because that's the lowest form our physical selves can take, atoms and a digital being bits for the same reason. In his article "Digital Dualism and the Fallacy of Web Objectivity" he says "…social media has everything to do with the physical world and our offline lives are increasingly influenced by social media, even when logged off. We need to shed the digital dualist bias because our Facebook pages are indeed “real life” and our offline existence is increasingly virtual." Jurgenson argues that social media has effected how we act in the physical world when we are offline because social media has become so influential in our lives. But it goes further than that and in fact our atom world is becoming more and more virtual, our Facebook Pages or populated by real atom events, the photos we take our uploaded to Facebook and that is our real life. We also have our phones and now with the invention of Google Glass, technology at our fingertips that influences how we act and what we do and therefore either being offline or online affects each other equally.  With Google's 'Real Name' policy applying for all their applications such as G+ users are no longer allowed to use pseudonyms to hide their identity bridging the gap to a greater extent between the physical and digital worlds. In a sense Google are saying you have to be yourself online.

So what do I think I believe. Well, this is what I know;


  • I only follow people who interest and stimulate my thoughts, expanding, challenging or confirming and reinforcing them and who I enjoy.
  • I only post information that I find informing, interesting or challenging.
  • I don't care about how many people I follow or follow me.
  • Finally I never write or dislike others work whether that be a video on YouTube or a tweet on Twitter.


  • I am friends with people who I find interesting, stimulating and who I find enjoyable.
  • I only share information that I find informing, interesting or challenging.
  • I don't care about how many people are my friends and how many friends I have.
  • Finally I never say I dislike others work or their opinion.

I don't see there being a difference between both world if the set of values that are important to an individual are the same in both spheres. If their moral compass is the same on both sides of the screen.

I would love to know what you think of this topic so please add to the discussion.