ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Digital Personalities and Identities

By Newton Lee

Digital Personalities and Identities

It used to be that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”– as it was cleverly depicted by Peter Steiner in his famous cartoon published on July 5, 1993 in The New Yorker [1]. Six years later on May 7, 2009, a real dog named “Boo” joined Facebook [2]. Three years later in May 2012, Boo has garnered 4.4 million “Likes” on Facebook, surpassing the popularity of most humans on the social network. Everyone can have his or her own digital personality and identity online. 

IBM released a new study in April 2012 that identified four emerging digital personalities— efficiency experts, content maestros, social butterflies, and content kings—respectively representing 41%, 35%, 15%, and 9% of the online population [3]. Efficiency experts are proficient Internet users; content maestros are media consumers and gamers on the web and on mobile devices; social butterflies are Facebook and Twitter addicts; and content kings are both consumers and creators of rich media. 

Prof. Mitja Back of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, studied a group of Facebook users and concluded, “Online social networks are so popular and so likely to reveal people’s actual personalities because they allow for social interactions that feel real in many ways. … Facebook is so true to life that encountering a person there for the first time generally results in a more accurate personality appraisal than meeting face to face” [4]. 

On the other hand, Consumer Reports magazine conducted a survey of 2,002 online households, including 1,340 that are active on Facebook. The findings based on the January 2012 survey showed that 25 percent of Facebook users falsified information in their profiles to protect their identity [5]. 

Moreover, a Facebook profile may represent the alter ego of a person. UCLA Prof. Patricia Greenfield and researcher Adriana Manago published their research on Facebook and MySpace in the November-December 2008 issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology [6]. “You can manifest your ideal self,” said Manago, “You can manifest who you want to be and then try to grow into that. We’re always engaging in self-presentation; we’re always trying to put our best foot forward. Social networking sites take this to a whole new level. You can change what you look like, you can Photoshop your face, you can select only the pictures that show you in a perfect lighting. These websites intensify the ability to present yourself in a positive light and explore different aspects of your personality and how you present yourself. You can try on different things, possible identities, and explore in a way that is common for emerging adulthood. It becomes psychologically real. People put up something that they would like to become—not completely different from who they are but maybe a little different—and the more it gets reflected off of others, the more it may be integrated into their sense of self as they share words and photos with so many people.” 

“People are living life online,” Greenfield added to Manago’s statements. “Identity, romantic relations and sexuality all get played out on these social networking sites. All of these things are what teenagers always do, but the social networking sites give them much more power to do it in a more extreme way. In the arena of identity formation, this makes people more individualistic and more narcissistic; people sculpt themselves with their profiles.” 

In the case of Boo the dog on Facebook, Boo is the living alter ego of his behind-the-scene owner who never appears in any of the Facebook pictures. Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said at the January 2012 Digital Life Design (DLD) conference in Munich, “We are our real identities online” [7].


[Reprinted from Facebook Nation: Total Information Awareness with permission from Springer Science+Business Media.]



[1] Fleishman, Glenn. (December 14, 2000). Cartoon Captures Spirit of the Internet. The New York Times.

[2] Boo. (Retrieved May 8, 2012). Boo Facebook Timeline. Facebook.

[3] Guildhary, Fabienne. (April 16, 2012). IBM Survey Reveals Digital Behavioral Trends for Consumers: What is your Digital Personality? IBM News Releases. 

[4] Bower, Bruce. (February 26, 2010). No Lie! Your Facebook Profile Is the Real You. Wired.

[5] Consumer Reports magazine editors. (June 2012).Facebook & your privacy. Who sees the data you share on the biggest social network? Consumer Reports. 

[6] Wolpert, Stuart. (November 17, 2008). Crafting your image for your 1,000 friends on Facebook or MySpace. UCLA Newsroom.

[7] Keen, Andrew. (January 25, 2012). Battle Lines Drawn as Data Becomes Oil of Digital Age. DLD (Digital Life Design).

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