Thinking About Identity in the Digital World

Early in human history, an individual’s identity was created by and for the people with whom the individual lived, and this number was small. Anthologist Robin Dunbar (1992) concluded that the size of the human neocortex limits the size of humans groups that can be maintained to about 150 individuals. Creating a new identity was possible if an individual left one group and found another to join; anthropologists have documented how marriage practices in many cultures encouraged this type of movement between groups for young adults.

With the arrival of writing, laws and other permanent records became possible especially in populations that abandoned nomadic for agricultural lifestyles. These changes led to the establishment of individuals’ legal identities that are more permanent than those found in cultures demonstrating primary orality. It was possible still for each individual to maintain multiple identities simultaneously, however. As a teen becoming an adult late 20th century, it was easy for me to create and maintain separate identities: My identity as a high school student was separate form my identity as a family member, and those were largely lost as I became a college student, and then an adult child with an adult sibling. Further, my family identity changed as I became a spouse and then a parent. I also had a professional identity that was separate from my other identities. Those identities did occasionally merge; for example, when I worked in schools that enrolled youngsters whose aunts, uncles, and then mothers and fathers, had known me in high school; I had to explain the story behind my high school nickname. On those occasions, my long-forgotten identity as a high school student was revived and had to be reconciled with my professional identity.

Today, all of my identities have merged in my FaceBook page. My friend list includes professional colleagues, friends from high school, cousins (and their children), and a few other acquaintances. I do not accept friend requests of students, although I receive such requests on occasion. In the convergence of one’s identities into an online identity, we can observe that technology has reversed the trend of individuals maintaining multiple separate identities which has been possible for recent generations.

Interestingly, in the digital world, it has become possible to maintain many different identities as well; these identities can be imaginative and even contrary to any physical identity. There are thousands of online communities that focus on just about any topic imaginable. Joining those communities (usually) requires only an email address which can be obtained with relative anonymity from many sources, and it is very difficult to verify the physical identity of anyone who is a member of online communities. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist from MIT studied computer users’ sense of identity early in the days of Internet-mediated communication. She observed that many users at the time were creating multiple online identities and that many users were exploring different senses of identity through those online spaces, and Turkel (1995) began her book Life on the Screen with the observation,

At one level, the computer is a tool. It helps us write, keep track of our accounts, and communicate with others. Beyond this, computers offer us both new models of mind and a new medium in which to project our ideas and fantasies. Most recently, the computer has become even more than tool and mirror. We are able to step through the looking glass. We are living in virtual worlds. We may find ourselves alone as we navigate virtual oceans, unravel virtual mysteries, and engineer virtual skyscrapers. Increasingly, when we step through the looking glass, other people are there as well (9).

Turkle’s observations proved to be an accurate prediction about the future of the Internet as it was an observation of the initial days of the Internet. Today, members of the digital generations are creating an online presence at an early age, and they demonstrate an openness and comfort in living online in a manner that is disconcerting and perceived to be artificial to those who belong to pre-digital generations.


Dunbar, Robin. 1992. “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): 469–493. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(92)90081-J.

Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.