home > writings

...Virtually There:
The Social Construction of Computer Mediated Identity

Anita Greenhill

Computer mediated identity as with that of real life (RL) is socially constructed. However, the 'presence' of identity within virtual spaces is experienced through the technological mediation of the screen. This is an homogenising influence which emphasises particular methods of interaction and, in turn, impacts upon the interpretation and ascription of identities that can be 'virtually' achieved. The construction of computer mediated identity is a fraught position found between the interposed detachment of the screen and the immersive qualities found 'in' virtual space. The articulation of this relationship is an environment of exotic otherness in which interaction is experienced as a distant interchange anchored by the screen (cf. Argyle 1969, 75). This is a simulacrum in which layers of meaning electronically overlay, and 'interlay', the 'presence' of space. This exotic configuration apparently provides a disassociation from real life experience which, in turn, enables a rethinking of the social influences that contribute to the construction of identities in both real and virtual lives. Poststructural approaches to interpreting society are particularly suited to the examination of computer mediated identity. The human/machine polarisations claimed for this space imitate the heavily trodden terrain of the mind/body. This dualistic reduction, in turn, produces considerations of power relations as a facet of this single dimension of concern.

The construction of computer mediated identity occurs when people interact with others through a computer interface that replaces the proxemics found with face to face communication. Nonetheless, an understanding, familiarity and interpretation of an identity is constructed. This identity is negotiated around an altered set of dichotomised cultural cues as a result of the lack of the 'conventional' reference points to previous identities. The dualisms of mind/ body, public/ private and others are diminished, if not totally dissolved, within the context of cyberspace (McRae 1996, 245). This shift in the manner through which identity is referenced assists in constructing cyberspace as a new social space, albeit one defined through the social worlds of 'real life' (Richardson 1974, 5; 8). The significance of spatial arrangements in the construction and contextualising of identity is evident in distinctions between, for example, the formation of public and private identities. The manner in which spatial phenomena are variously experienced as consumer, kin, worker, audience member, sexual being, citizen and as an 'other' similarly indicates the shifting frameworks by which we are understood and presented to those around us. These shifting relationships suggest that the experience of the social within computer mediated space can be considered as familiar interaction but one that is experienced in location of reordered significance. Contrariwise, as places founded upon the full range of cultural and social imperatives provided by the machinations of advanced capitalism, it is clear that many existing suppositions regarding human communication and interaction persist within cyberspace. The points of departure, if any exist, from other social spaces and their analysis is found in the extent to which 'real life' social structures can be claimed to have become untenable or irrelevant in cyberspace. These are arguably replaced by formations that can be claimed as 'new'. More reasonably, these 'new' social structures are the result of shifted emphasis of the 'social' into unusual or unexpected orders.

Various disparate visions of cyberspace are manifested in descriptions such as the techno-utopian boosterism of Nicholas Negroponte (1995), the celebratory new-ageism of Douglas Rushkoff (1994), the jaded dystopia found by Clifford Stoll (1995) or the masculinist jungle described by Dale Spender (1995). There is a need, however, to treat with caution these, and any, descriptions of cyberspace which attempt to describe a range of observed phenomena and experiences as universal expectations.

It is worth considering that cyberspace is not synonymous with the Internet. Cyberspace is the spatial phenomena enabled through the processes of telephony and computer technology that is utilised to communicate and interact in proxy to the capabilities of the human body. This distinction is an important one for it encompasses more than the WWW, the Internet or Gore's Information Superhighway. Cyberspace encompasses, for example, the spaces created by the operating theatre of remote surgery and the virtual lathe of computer aided manufacturing. This description, however, can be narrowed in the context of identity construction. Interaction and communication must eventually occur between people, although this interaction can be indefinitely deferred across time and space. Much of the press coverage regarding cyberspace has avoided any comparative or inclusive consideration of these spaces preferring instead to focus upon the Internet, Web, or Information Superhighway. Adrian (1995) is critical of this limitation and suggests that the latter term was developed to effectively sanitise cyberspace for the American mainstream. The Information Superhighway is, similarly not the Web, as, at its imagined fruition, it will incorporate all forms of entertainment, such as cable TV, video-on-demand and electronic shopping. Gore's new frontier would seek to reposition cyberspace solely as a globe spanning pleasure dome exporting the advantages of US consumer commodities. The implications for the construction of identity upon a Superhighway operating at full speed differ noticeably from the experience of these issues on the Internet. Concerns regarding the construction of gendered, ethnic or transgressive identities become bound up with issues relating to the what is seen as the Americanisation and homogenising influences of Anglophonic culture on a globe-spanning scale. Similarly, the fully audio-visual Superhighway would negate many of the concerns of identity 'spoofing' and the lack of cultural cues on the current web.

Entering cyberspace de-emphasises the corporeal cues to identity (Gumpert & Drucker 1994, 169; 170). Unlike communications media such as television, radio and telephone which rely upon visual, aural or oral information to assist in the construction of identity, the Internet of 1998 remains a generally textual and anonymous arena for communication and interaction. Identity or identities, then, can be heavily constructed in this space through one's own volition, without the direct influence of cultural assumptions and social stereotypes made by 'others' from a physical presence. This situation does not, however, disentangle or dissolve the range of power relations which inform our movement through on-line electronic spaces among others (Kendall 1996, 213). In cyberspace cues are still sought in order to define these relationships, the most apparent being the network identity which is carried through all computer-mediated exchanges. The most decipherable and only 'real life' meaningful piece of information that is directly conveyed by this, however, is the physical location of the computer handling the exchanges of each participant. When an individual utilises the Internet, through email, chat lines, the Web or the simulated environment of a MOO or MUD (Kendal 1996, 208), the communication is conducted via the keyboard. The user can generally only be identified by their electronic address, and possibly their signature (.sig) if they use one. The relatively readable address, 'A.Greenhill@hum.gu.edu.au', provides few clues regarding my identity, beyond the information that my email service is based at an Australian university. As an indication of this ambiguity, it is often assumed that 'A.Greenhill' is a man, possibly located within a computer science department, because of my association with various Web sites.

Other factors influence attempts at gendering electronic space beyond the assumptions regarding one's personal name. In many interactive environments the individual ascribes themselves a name, and in effect, an identity. Therefore the person can label themselves anything ranging from Erik Bloodaxe, the male hacker and editor of 2 600, to Saint Jude, the outspoken on-line technofeminist, who utilises an ambiguously gendered (and curiously theologised) name, to the use of a favourite media character. The result is a 'fantastic' association of one's personal identity with the well-known images and social attributes of a famous person. Despite the paucity of this received information, it does not stop participants in chat groups from choosing not to talk to people because they are apparently 'Australian', or of some other 'minority' group. Seeking cues regarding the identity of 'others' beyond a server's network address is a major activity of many chat groups. This generally involves trying to ascertain the gender, age and, sometimes, the ethnicity or education of the participants with a direct request. These parameters of identity and the gathering of this information corresponds, perhaps unsurprisingly, to many of the focal concerns of everyday sociological inquiry and serves to develop a range of social and power relations in cyberspace which mirrors our more conventional experience (Gisler 1997, 219).

Transgressing this convention provides the possibility for the formations of identity with alternate genders (Kendall 1996, 217). There are many urban legends associated with the direct manipulation of individual identity. One such example concerns the activities of a lesbian chat group.

A group of self identifying lesbians formed to chat, share experiences and possibly strike up romantic associations. At another chat group, in another part of the Internet, a group of young men were bragging about their shared experiences in all women's and lesbian groups. Two began to tell how they had struck up a pretend romantic communication under their assumed gender identities. Shocked that the other's tale was turning out to be extremely similar one of the men asked the other what name he used. It turned out that their experiences had been very similar because they had been chatting each other up.

These urban legends portray the simplicity with which identity and, particularly, gender identity can be confused and manipulated in this social space. While, at the same time, this example reconfirms the anchorage of existent 'real life' identification cues with cyberspace and contextualises the story by highlighting that no other individuals in this particular group were sufficiently fooled to be duped. Further analysis would be required to ascertain if the culture of close knit virtual communities is such that imposters become obvious when they try to present themselves for affiliation. This has significant implications for identity formation and processes of socialisation both generally, such as for women and ethnic minorities, and more particularly for transgressive groups who are utilising cyberspace as a communal and interactive space to develop cultures of association where none had previously existed.

Regardless of whether hidden cues exist in the exchanges of the Internet, the corporeal distancing that the screen provides prompts many individuals to do and say things that they would not usually attempt in a direct interpersonal situation. Turkle (1996) describes many situations in which individuals admit to conduct they would not normally (in RL) consider let alone carry out. The physical disconnection of being 'logged in' however is not a new or yet to be experienced state. A similar sensation, an altered sense of being, exists in a number of situations. The reading of a book alters the sense of being, despite the unchanging physical presence of the reader the narrative can, at a different level, transport them anywhere. I utilise this analogy for the similarity that exists between the textual interconnectivity of the written text in both experiences. However, the sensation of altered being also occurs in the visual disassociation of watching television. This state or sensation is dramatically increased in a darkened room with surround sound and a big scene. In these examples although the individual's RL identity is not challenged, the sense of being is altered (Becker 1997, 211). Newer technology being brought to the Internet potentially enables a range of devices which return the ability to receive the 'real life' cues of identity. The impetus to provide the full range of human senses to the experience of computer mediated space has concentrated heavily upon providing aural and visual information. This type of technological development may eventually enable a more definite assertion of the on-line masculine jungle envisaged by Dale Spender (1995).

Cyberspace is, through the 'vision' of the Information Superhighway, viewed especially by the mainstream media as a new frontier. Many images have become available in the light of Al Gore's use of the term 'Information Superhighway'. Images such as roads, bridges, networks and areas under construction all suggest a masculinist domain. However, it is difficult to discern just what sort or scale of gender bias these representations portray. Quantifying the use of the Internet is a notoriously slippery discussion with various estimations suggesting that anything from 99% to 50% of all participants as males. Women, however, never figure as a majority in any of these calculations. The complexity of what constitutes cyberspace adds to this dilemma. It is accurate to state that women's access to knowledge, facilities and equipment needed to enter cyberspace are restricted in light of the prevailing social and cultural constructions of women's relationship to technology.

Cyberspace, in facilitating interaction without corporeality, reconstitutes gender and other categories of 'real life'. This 'space without physicality' doubly emphasises the constructed basis of social distinction (Ostwald 1993, 17; Gumpert & Drucker 1994, 169). Significantly, however, the participant has a much clearer pro-active and on going role in these constructions to the near complete exclusion, if the participant so desires, of others (McRae 1996, 247). This ability presents the possibility for the articulation of an alternate virtual persona. An extreme aspect of this position would be to claim that the virtual persona is an inevitable consequence of the experiences of computer mediated space. This is evidenced in the claim that a mirror of 'real life' physical features does not convey the same meaning in electronic space (Mitchell 1995, 73). The stories regarding gender switching, identity manipulation and spoofing have become too common to allow most experienced users of the Internet to accept initial descriptions and exchanges of identity information. Rather, the basis of electronic identity is founded upon the spatial context in which it is articulated.

Participating in a chat group at the fictitious 'hotsex.com' or telnetting into a multi-user dungeon or MUD at the imaginary 'viking-saga.com' provides cues of identity to the other participants, who share a common interest, unifies them in a community founded upon voluntary participation and common interest. The gendered bias in these examples is obvious. However, the software that drives 'hotsex.com' could as readily be turned to use in constructing a women's forum. This level of interchangeability extends to the slightly, incongruous possibility that despite the names, 'hotsex.com' and 'womensrights.com' for example, could exist on the same physical machine and use the same installations of software. The web pages, manuals and information files associated with each site produce a different context for the range of interaction and constructs distinct, even conflictal, online communities. As a means of offering an alternative perspective to the writing which regards women's physical exclusion from computer-mediated communications, it is suggested that once access can be gained into this space, and utility perceived for it, the processes by which identity is constructed in electronic space can be a source of empowerment for women, and the cyber-denizen more generally. It is a medium that can assist in the breakdown or call into question the existence of essentialist and structuralist dichotomies associated with the mind and body, masculine and feminine, public and private and reality and illusion. The technological determinist claims made for cyberspace can also be countered within this reading. As an alternate suggestion to the claims that electronic space is predefined to privilege a masculine experience, I argue that the extent and forms of exclusion experienced on-line indicates the extent to which the contemporary configurations of 'real life' impact upon cyberspace. These considerations reject the inevitability of cyberspace as a domain already defined by men but rather one in which the processes of defining identity are, and may necessarily always be, shifting and continually reconstructed at both individual and institutional levels of interaction. Similarly, the expectation that personal electronic publishing is an almost expected outcome of obtaining access provides empowerment by enabling any opinion or philosophy to become an aspect of the social construction of the network in toto.

The importance of the usage of the mind/body dichotomy in maintaining structural inequalities is evident here. While women are seen to hold a heavily gendered association with the body they will continue to be marginalised in cyberspace and more generally. Equally while it is assumed that masculine attributes provide advantages to acquisition of knowledge, and by implication the mind, a hierarchical order of male hegemony will be maintained (Farganis 1986, 157). I have asserted that cyberspace allows a rethinking of the mind/body dichotomy because the processes of identity formation and sociality move beyond simple ascriptions. The shifting nature and ability to alter one's 'self' in cyberspace forces a reconsideration of the authority and legitimacy of conceptualisation of the mind and body as separable 'things'. The complex interplay of sociality that exists between people is similar, at a generalised level, within this space and those spaces of 'real life'. The difference of cyberspace is evidenced in the differing parameters applied to the construction of identity. The existent notions of identity construction that are associated with 'real life' have been mutually extended, reprioritised and recrafted. Popular representations of melded mind with machine - the cyborg - even in the most extreme situations do not reflect the experience of computer mediated identity construction .


Adrian, Robert (1995), “Infobahn Blue”, C Theory, http://www.ctheory.com/a-infobahn_blues.html

Argyle, Michael (1969), Social Interaction, London, Meuthuen.

Becker, Barbara (1997), “To be in Touch or not? Some Remarks on Communication in Virtual Environments”, in A. Frances Grundy, Doris Köhler, Veronika Oechtering, Ulrike Petersen (eds), Women, Work and Computerization: Spinning a web from past to future, Proceedings of the 6th International IFIP - Conference, Bonn, Germany, May 24-27, 211-212.

Farganis, Sondra (1986), “Feminism and the Reconstruction of Social Science”, in Alison Jaggar & Susan Bordo (eds.), Gender/ Body/ Knowledge, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.

Gisler Priska (1997), “Does Gender Still Matter? Bodily Functions in Cyberspace: a Feminist Approach”, in A. Frances Grundy, Doris Köhler, Veronika Oechtering, Ulrike Petersen (eds) Women, Work and Computerization: Spinning a web from past to future, Proceedings of the 6th International IFIP - Conference, Bonn, Germany, May 24-27, 219-220.

Gumpert, Gary & Drucker, Susan (1994), “Public Space and Urban Life: Challenges in the Communication Landscape”, Journal of Communication, 44, 4, 169-77.

Kendall, Lori (1996), “MUDer? I Hardly Know ‘Er! Adventures of a Feminist MUDer” in Lynn Cherney & Elizabeth Reba Weise (eds.), Wired_Women, Seattle, Seal Press.

McRae, Shannon (1996), “Coming Apart at the Seams:Sex, Text and the Virtual Body", in Lynn Cherney & Elizabeth Reba Weise (eds.), Wired_Women, Seattle, Seal Press.

Mitchell, William (1995), City of Bits, Cambridge, MIT Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas (1995), Being Digital, New York, Vintage Books.

Ostwald, Michael (1993), “Virtual Urban Spaces: field theory and the search for a new spatial typology”, Transition, 42, 4-25; 64-5.

Richardson, Miles (1989), “The Artefacts as Abbreviated Act: A Social Interpretation of Material Culture”, in Ian Hodder (ed.), The Meaning of Things: Material Culture and Symbolic Expression, London, Harper Collins Academic.

Rushkoff, Douglas (1994), Media Virus, Sydney, Random House.

Spender, Dale (1995), Nattering on the Net; Women, Power and Cyberspace, North Melbourne, Spinifex Press.

Stoll, Clifford (1995), Silicon Snake Oil, London, Macmillan.

Turkle, Sherry (1996), Life on the Screen, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.