‘Identity’ as we know it derives mainly from the work of the psychologist Erik Erikson1 in the 1950s. Identity is part of human beings for millions of years due to the characteristic of the human being to recognize herself as an individual. The term ‘identity’ is used as an umbrella term throughout science. In psychology it usually defines the process of empathizing with another human being and, in doing so, defining an individuality and/or group affiliations. Social psychology tries to investigate the issues of how an individual reacts to the social environment.
Identity is shown through markers, such as fashion, behavior, or language. Markers create certain boundaries, that define the extent of the identification of an individual. These markers are not always universally understood and can be confusing to outsiders. The boundaries established by an individual serve as being either inclusive or exclusive.
A simple login feature that is used to provide or deny access to a computer or a web community is based on a username. Although a username is a very limited way to reveal identity it is able to provide quite some amount of information. Many usernames provoke a certain image of its user (Sk8rBoy, xxxsweet_girlxxx, WebSurfer, cool_guy_17), some nicknames are chosen from fictional characters or animals (rambo123, trillian_jedi, polarbear88), others are just an adaption of real names (mike12345, smith1975, katty_style). Whether the username is a pseudonym or a short version of the real name it still provides a space for self-disclosure. Most usernames reveal at least the sex of its holder.
In Web 2.0 the possiblities of user profile creation have become much more complex. Users do not only identify themselves via usernames and text based communication but also through the social connections that they establish. Digital identity management is becoming more and more sophisticated, but it is still far from the complexity of analog identity management. Although Web 2.0 services have already established as an important dimension in digital communication the evolution of digital identity, or identity 2.0 as it is called, is still happening.
Basically there are three types of identity management in online communities: Anonymous, pseudononymous or real identity based.
Although one might argue that there is no real anonymity in computer-mediated communication, we can discover something like limited anonymity. This limited anonymity can happen in web forums or chats when a user chooses a username that does not reveal any information, either true or false, about his persona (e.g. “xUm61a1″). The administrator of this forum might be able to identify the IP-address and eventually an email address of this user, but to the broad public this user can remain anonymous. A user can reveal information about herself through language, typography and chronemic information, that is why a user gradually looses anonymity with every communication piece.
Some communities allow or encourage the use of pseudonyms. By doing so they provide a free conversation environment for their users that is not restricted to the limitations of anonymous identities. This form of digital identity reminds of the principles of role-plaing in analog conversations described by Goffmann (1959). Many Web 2.0 applications allow their users to create complex multimedia profiles of themselves and further provide tool for communication. Famous examples of such Web 2.0 services are World of Warcraft, MySpace, or Second Life.
The third type of digital identity is the management of users based on their real identity. In these environments users are encouraged or even obligated to provide a real identity. The first service that has successfully accomplished this on a great scale was Facebook. The network suceeded in establishing a certain trust relationship with its user which facilitated the massive adoption of real identity based networking.
Identity 2.0 is likely to become as complex as identity in the real world. Still there are great limitations to the amount of digital complexity. Users are stuggeling to keep up with their digital sozialization and identities are different from one community to another, since they cannot be transfered. The evolution of identity 2.0 is still happening and will depend on economic, business strategic and political decisions.
GOFFMAN, Erving (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New York, Anchor Books.