Virtual identities: The social construction of cybered selves

1996 1996

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Abstract (summary)

This theoretical and empirical project explores emerging practices of self-presentation and communication in a type of Internet system called a "$\rm\underline{MOO}$" (Multiple User Dimension, Object Oriented). MOO interactions are text-based and keyed to spatial simulations and persistent virtual objects.

Seven dimensions for conceptualizing identity from psychology, sociology, philosophy and literary studies provided initial theoretical frameworks. Theories about the social construction of identity were emphasized. Theoretical extensions included defining four "virtual parameters"--ways that MOOs differ from offline contexts in ways significant for the creation and use of virtual identities. "Experiential fields" were defined as specific complexes of social and material response where participants could experiment with a range of "imaginative identity resources."

Beginning with contemporary theory and practice in anthropology and rhetoric, the methodology was keyed to the distinctive challenges of cyberspace research and the topical goals of this study. Methods included "ethnographies of the particular" and rhetorical analyses of "identity texts" crafted by participants. Assessing the challenges of Internet research, including researcher and reader positionality, led to the figure of the "ethnographer-as-tour-guide."

Detailed longitudinal studies of four participants are presented. Ethnographies focus on motives for and uses of identity texts, sense-making about virtual identities in MOO communication, negotiations of MOO experiences with offline lives, and the "theories of self" used by participants. Particular attention was paid to the "experiential fields" that participants constructed and used. Virtual parameters often contributed to the sense that MOOs were "liminal" experiential fields where everyday values and practices were suspended. Negotiating borders between liminal and everyday activities was often experienced as deeply problematic by participants. Virtual identities were seen to be dynamically shaped by the social responses encountered in MOOs ("virtual surplus") that often offered participants surprising perspectives on themselves.

In conclusion, MOOs facilitate novel modes of self-presentation, including the development of multiple personae comprising diverse "imaginative identity resources" gleaned from personal experience, literature, history and media sources. Equally important, MOOs offer participants "hypercontextuality"--an amplified ability to create and select social and material contexts for identity experimentation.

Indexing (details)

Cultural anthropology;
0459: Communication
0326: Cultural anthropology
0681: Rhetoric
0681: Composition
Identifier / keyword
Communication and the arts; Social sciences; Language, literature and linguistics; Internet; Multiple User Dimension, Object Oriented; electronic mail; hypercontextuality; multiple personae
Virtual identities: The social construction of cybered selves
Allen, Christina Lee
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 57/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
Farrell, Thomas
Northwestern University
University location
United States -- Illinois
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
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