Exploring online identity

cyber 

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The name Gunawardena is one I have often quoted so it was a great pleasure to be able to hear Lani Gunwardena give a keynote yesterday at Eden 2008. The title of her talk was “Cultural aspects of communication processes online – identity, gender and languages in synchronous cybercultures”. She focused on the findings from a sabbatical study she did in 2004/2005 through fieldwork in Morocco and Sri Lanka. Some of the key questions she was trying to address in the study were:  
  • How do diverse sociocultural contexts shape communication processes online?
  • What are the communication conventions naturally developed by internet users when they use the medium informally?
  • How is identity expressed in such settings?
  • Are there gender differences?
  • How is language used to express identity?

The aim was to generate a conceptual framework of the socio-cultural factors that are important for users communicating in an informal context using anonymous, synchronous chat. She adopted a qualitative, ethnographic perspective; using grounded theory to develop the conceptual framework. Data was collected via interviews and focus groups in the field. The study took place in Morocco and Sri Lankan and involved around 100 adults. She described some of the key characteristics of each study group – age, gender, language, religion, cultural context, etc.  The study groups were the general public, using Internet cafes communicating via chat with people they didn’t know. She then described some of the overarching themes which emerged from the study.

  • The nature of identity in these settings – how trust is built, the role of self disclosure, cultural and gender differences
  • Innovative use of language to express identity and generate immediacy
  • Tokens of identity – age, sex and location, are all used in different ways, depending on context, to either reveal true identity, create a different identity or adopt a blended identity
  • Differences in the concepts of identity across different cultural settings, for example that the Moroccan concept of identity is collective
  • The use and importance of identity play – for example anonymity gave them more freedom to express themselves, age and sex appeared to be more important than location, identity can be changed to appeal to different audiences, stereotyping takes place more easily in text only environment. She described how a participant ‘Mohammed’ changed his name in the online chat to ‘green python’ because he experienced racial prejudice when he used his real name.
  • Evidence of boundary crossing – the use of role play, for example Moroccans posing as Europeans in order to generate discussion or users adopting different gender identities
  • Construction of cybernetic identities enabled disenfranchised individuals to participate and communities to deal with exclusion and marginalisation; in societies which are male dominated the online environment provides a safe haven for women to communicate with members of the opposite sex in a way that would not be possible face to face.
  • Trust building is closely linked to identity – she gave examples  of how many of the users will begin a chat session by  asking a series of questions initially and then ask the same questions later to check the validity of the other person, also that use of extensive exaggeration usually is a strong indicator that the other person is faking their gender identity. Similarly many will combine chat with mobile phones to verify authenticity
  • Trust building and use of media – hierarchized methods of communication: chatting - low risk, easy to dismiss, email - more personal and presents larger risk than chat and more serious, mobile phones – highest level of intimacy
  • Self disclosure also related to trust building
  • Gender differences – She cited Graiouid’s (2004) work on virtual identities; breaching the dichotomy of public and private space in Moroccan society and females enjoy anonymity which allows them to build relationships without compromising themselves, in contrast Sri Lankan women were less comfortable with self disclosure online
  • She found evidence that women will take extra effort to resolve misunderstanding even if relationship is not that strong
  • She gave a number of examples of how language is adapted and used in these chat sessions – use of numbers, issues with representation of a primarily oral language in textual format, use of different idioms to express realness and the ‘feel’ of the conversation, use of French for polite conversation cf. Moroccan Arabic to deal with conflict, use of emoticons
  • Combination of chat with other media – phones, webcams, email

She concluded by reflecting on the implications of this work for learning cultures: 

  • Expression of identity is important for relationship building, but self disclosure is not easy especially for women
  •  Creation of identity enables one to experience the world in a new way, will lend itself well to role play and simulations
  • Anonymity is important to facilitate honest dialogue on controversial issue
  • Posting photos can lead to stereotyping, so other means of self disclosure is recommended
  • Context is key to understanding messages

She now plans to build on this work by looking at how is identity, gender and language is expressed in virtual worlds such as second life, and how experimentation in cross cultural communication can occur in such contexts. She has a chapter describing this work in more dealing coming out in a chapter in the forthcoming book “Learning cultures in online education’  in Goodfellow and Lamy (Eds), Continium. A recent symposium at the Networked Learning conference gives a flavour of the content of the book. 

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