As Gloria Raynor said - or was it God? - "I am who I am." But who are we? A report called Future Identities, published today by Foresight, part of the Government Office for Science, takes an in-depth look at the question of identity in the UK. As you might expect, it's not a simple issue. Foresight suggests that we have no 'identity' as such; we have multiple identities - social, religious, ethnic, national, and so on - which together make up the self: and whichever identity we might think is most relevant to us at any given moment can change. When a toddler is pushing banana into my ear on the sofa, that's a different facet of me than the person I am in a meeting at work; and I'm different again when I'm on Tumblr posting a particularly cute picture of Benedict Cumberbatch, or a kitten. Or a kitten who looks like Benedict Cumberbatch.
It used to be assumed that we were different online - that the internet was there to let people play out their fantasies and be whoever they wanted to be - but as the report points out, it's not like that any more, if it ever was. These days most of us carry smartphones around which allow us to connect anytime or all the time - what the report calls 'hyper-connectivity' - and segue between being online and offline as easily as we step in and out of a shop.
Facebook is really just an extension of our usual selves, mostly linking together people we already know offline who are likely to notice if you decide to be a completely different person online. Twitter is a lot like chatting to your friends in the world's biggest and most argumentative pub. We tweet from work and work online at home; we stand in shops checking comparable prices on our phones before purchasing; we can have lively arguments on a forum while we're commuting home. As the report puts it, the divide between online and offline identities is indeed dissolving, and it's hard to know at present what effect that might have on social norms and attitudes. One trend the report points to is a loss of privacy as more and more information about us is put into a 'public' sphere; along with this is a lessening of interest in privacy among young people. When my daughters are older, I fully expect to be finding out details of their social and sex lives via the internet - it's already happening to friends with teenage children.
But that's not the whole story either, of course. For every person whose offline and online personas are identical, there's another who uses the internet to escape, to hide, or to explore new sides of themselves. In some cases, they just want the chance to insult strangers without getting punched, but there are positive aspects too. The Foresight report instances Jason, a disabled man who plays Star Wards Galaxies, who's quoted as saying: "Virtual worlds bring people together. In the real world, people can be uncomfortable around me before they get to know me." Averaging 80 hours a week playing the game, you could argue that despite his distinction between virtual and real, his avator is as much 'him' as his physical self is. Mother, worker, activist, churchgoer, fanfic writer, Twitter troll, OK Cupid dater: it's not necessarily one integrated identity, but there's no question that it's all us.
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