FORMING ONLINE IDENTITIES
Looking at the proliferation of personal Web pages on the Net, it looks like very soon everyone on Earth will have 15 megabytes of fame.
—M. G. Siriam
For 3 years, women who participated in a CompuServe discussion group grew closer and closer to a woman they knew as Julie Graham. During that time, Julie posted messages that disclosed increasingly intimate details of her life, including the fact that she was a mute, paraplegic victim of a car crash who had wrestled with suicidal depression. Her plight so moved her fellow participants that after a number of months of interacting with her online, one well-intentioned woman set out to find Julie and offer her face-to-face comfort and support. Much to this woman's surprise, “Julie Graham” turned out to be a fiction, and the facts behind the person creating her were quite contrary to what the woman and others had read. First of all, Julie wasn't a mute paraplegic. Second, she wasn't housebound, but a full-time professional psychologist. Third, she wasn't a she, but a man who had created the online persona of Julie to delve deeper into the female psyche by impersonating one. When the sleuthing woman reported her discovery to the rest of the bulletin board's participants, outraged contributors condemned the experiment, remarking that in impersonating one of them, the psychologist had violated their privacy (Stone, 1991).
Why were the women upset with “Julie's” deception? After all, how could these women feel betrayed by someone with whom they had never met face-to-face? Despite the intuitive conclusion of those outside the context that these were “just words, ” the self that this psychologist presented and the one that his conversation partners perceived seemed quite authentic. CMC contexts, like no other person-to-person media before them, offer communicators the ability to manipulate their personal identities in ways that call into question assumptions about what is possible and what is appropriate in the presentation of self.
Professor Sherry Turkle has been particulary helpful in illuminating just how computing technologies have challenged us to reevaluate how we think about ourselves. Turkle has thus labeled the computer an evocative object, that is, an object to think with (Rheingold, n.d. ). As we review shortly, computers have been helpful in showing us just how multifaceted our lives are. Whereas popular conceptions of psychological health have considered an unfragmented, unitary self the ideal, Turkle suggests that the ability to move from one aspect, or self, to another and to do so with an understanding of the process is a more healthy conception of who we are. Computers, with their ability to multitask various jobs simultaneously, serve as a metaphor for our own