In chapter three of New Media, Lister et al. suggest that, when communicating through different types of media, we adopt different identities as a consequence of each medium’s particular affordances – the way we express ourselves through email is different from how we do so via Facebook, for example. The authors go on to address attempts to answer the question “who are we when we are online?” (210).
I think that E. T. Higgins’ self-discrepancy theory, which addresses the emotional effects of disparity between our perceptions of ourselves (our actual selves) and what we wish to or think we should be (our ideal and ought selves), is useful in one possible approach to answering this question, particularly with regard to social networking sites. Online representations of ourselves on social networking sites are closely associated with our actual selves: they generally have our real names, pictures of ourselves, and personal details. As a result, we expect that a Facebook profile and related communication will be fairly representative of an individual. At the same time, the medium abstracts and mediates the self, so there isn’t a perfect correlation between the two. These expectations and mediations create the opportunity to intentionally diverge from the actual self and present in a manner more similar to the ideal and/or ought self.
Normally this focus on the ideal self might bring attention to the discrepancy between actual and ideal selves, which could result in low self-esteem or depression (a recent study has suggested a correlation between depression and more frequent email and online chat use). On social networking sites, however, the ideal self is not only brought to attention, it is also constructed and adopted by the individual: we think of our Facebook profiles as representations of ourselves, not of who we would like to be. Through interaction with the medium, the actual and ideal selves intersect, and the ideal self becomes at least partially actualized.
Through this approach, the answer to the original question of who we are when we are online, in the context of social networking sites, is a version of ourselves that better represents our ideals but not to the extent that we really acknowledge how it differs from who we are in other contexts. Is this is why people spend so much time on Facebook?
Higgins, E. Tory. “Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect.” Psychological Review 94.3 (1987): 319-40. Web.
Lister, Martin et al. New Media: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.