As I reflect on my personal identity, I realize that, over the course of the different phases of my life, I assumed different identities. Those identities mostly depended on where I was living at the time, what I was doing, and the people who surrounded me. If I am being honest, I will have to admit, that it was not until a few years ago, when I reached my mid-thirties, that I really started to focus less on who I thought people wanted me to be and began working on displaying for myself and others, who I really am. As an adolescent, I did not have a sense of my identity because I was too busy trying to assume the identities of others. As a young teacher, I latched on to a few excellent teachers and literally pretended to be them in my classroom. As a young mother, I found women who I believed were excellent mothers and did everything possible to parent the way they did. During those times in my life, I had not yet developed a sense of identity within those various facets of my life; therefore, I created avatars, mostly in real life of, not who I was, but who I wanted to be.
A large part of why I crafted real-life avatars when I was younger, and why many people do, is because they use those avatars to convey a perception of themselves. And since perception plays a large role in establishing credibility and reputation, individuals often spend a lot of time crafting how others see them. I believe, that to some extent, we all do this in our lives; however, there are some who go to extremes. One reason why an individual might use an avatar to convey a fake sense of self might include dissatisfaction with their personal life. Another reason might include insecurity with who they are and by creating such avatars, they are really seeking approval and recognition from people who are less likely to know the truth and be critical. In Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, specifically in the chapter entitled, “True Confessions,” I was surprised to hear about “confessional sites.” I was also saddened by the fact that so many people, during their most vulnerable moments, would seek a medium such as this to find what they are missing in their lives. Based on some of the examples included by Turkle, it reinforces for me that an online identity is really never completely separate from one’s personal, true identity. Even after reading examples like Joel’s, who suggests that he created a second lives to accompany, and not replace his current life, I am convinced that we leave parts of us every time we write or type something.
Still another reason for creating avatars is often that individuals are lonely and instead of seeking authentic relationships with other people, they turn to artificial connections for validation. The irony there is that if something is artificial then there is really no true connection. As Turkle discusses, there are some, like Adam, a forty three year old single man who began playing online games in groups, but then moved to playing with artificial robots. During her study of Adam’s behavior, engagement and connections, Turkle proposes that he has come to a place in his life where, for him, “it is easy to forget that [robots] are not real.” Others like Adam express that they know the connections are not real, yet that does not bother them because they are not seeking authenticity; instead just validation, which they believe they can receive from an emotionless entity.
As Turkle discusses, there are some individuals who created avatars that are very different from their “real” lives. For example, there are some who use objects, even animals to reflect themselves and their companions. If Turkle is correct in saying that we create avatars out of a certain personal need or desire, then I can only conclude that there has to be some facet of the avatar that we hope will fulfill that need. Therefore, I cannot accept that avatars are completely disjointed from who we are. The issue with a curated online identity is that while a person might be able to make changes to it on spaces like Second Life or War of Worlds to reflect the present moment, they are not, to a large extent, able to change or manipulate their identities in places like Facebook and Instagram. The question then becomes, if our senses of self are always evolving with time and experiences, then how comfortable are we with creating online identities that may someday, not reflect who we become? It is especially important for us to consider the questions: Is there room within our online brands to encompass who we will become?