Exploring Identity Construction: Considerations of Student Identity Expression in Online Modalities

Exploring Identity Construction: Considerations of Student Identity Expression in Online Modalities

Michael Gallardo (California State University, Channel Islands, Camarillo, CA, USA), J. Jacob Jenkins (California State University, Channel Islands, Camarillo, CA, USA) and Patrick J. Dillon (University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJICTHD.2016100103


This teaching activity uses the social networking site Facebook to explore the conception, construction, and expression of personal identity. By asking students to create a fictitious Facebook account that is dissimilar from the way they perceive themselves, students are faced with decisions about how to construct such an identity, as well as how this identity may or may not be perceived by others. Students conclude by presenting their fictitious Facebook profiles to their peers, and then discussing how/why it differs from their “real” self-identities, how/why they made the decisions they did, and so on. Throughout this process, the activity offers potential entry and discussion points for an instructor to clarify or expound upon claims made by students regarding the construction and performance of personal identity. In doing so, it generates an environment of mutual respect, and uses social networking technology to engage students in an academic manner, while also promoting reflexivity beyond the classroom setting alone.
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The conception, construction, and expression of personal identity are integral elements of the shared human experience (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000). Self-identity is also a fluid and never-ending process, which can be shaped by social, relational and contextual influences, to name but a few (Leary & Tangney, 2003). The inherent complexities that simultaneously dictate and allow for the conception of one’s personal identity has only become more intricate in recent years through the increased popularity of social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook (e.g., Debatin, Lovejoy, Horn, & Hughes, 2009; Mansson & Myers, 2011; Rosenberg & Egbert, 2011).

Within virtual contexts, users have more freedom and ability than ever before to create personal identities that mirror, augment, or even contradict their tacit identity in everyday life. Users of SNS often seek to construct an online identity they believe to be identical to their physical identity: “Prominent SNS like Facebook, for instance, are built on the premise that people can express their authentic identities online by connecting with friends, posting personal information about themselves, and interacting in a variety of ways” (Kimmons, 2014, p. 95; see also Strano & Queen, 2012). These users often fail to realize, however, that the structural and procedural confines of SNS only allow them to express certain aspects of their identity, while simultaneously forcing them to express those aspects in certain ways. SNS like Facebook construct the means by which people are able to communicate, which increases the use of certain types of information and the omission of others. For this reason, Kimmons (2014) argues that educators must “empower learners to participate in SNS in ways that are meaningful and truthful for them but that do not reduce identity to the strict confines of the medium” (p. 97).

Other than the recreation of one’s physical identity online, additional motivations for virtual identity management include the need for social acceptability, group deception, and even political activism. Participants in virtual teams and online groups that are organized around gaming platforms commonly feel a need to communicate characteristics typical of the group in effort to appear more socially attractive (Gabbiadini et al. 2014). The specific way(s) in which users do this often depends upon which virtual environment is being utilized at the time: “It is likely that the motivations leading to online social identity could be due to characteristics specific to a given virtual environment” (p. 150). Conversely, the ability to suppress particular aspects of one’s identity on SNS and other online forums also enables users to construct identities that are more socially acceptable for online communities. Strano and Queen (2012) argue that the suppression of certain identity aspects is often as significant to Facebook users as is the projection of favorable ones. The authors go on to comment on the specific rationale for this significance by writing, “Reasons given for engaging in suppression activities certainly reflect an emphasis on social influences, especially when users say they want to hide actions from social disapproval, hide actions from authority figures, and disassociate themselves from a social group” (p. 177). Finally, users of SNS can utilize these platforms to generate deceptive identities for personal or political means – especially in contexts that offer limited freedom of speech. One such example is Thai citizens who routinely use SNS to anonymously voice their support or opposition toward the ruling party: “Thai users are using [Facebook] in a creative way … The newly created persona then allows the person behind to say such things that would not be possible if the person revealed who she really is to the world” (Hongladarom, 2011, p. 538).

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