Tina Indalecio

Tina Indalecio

Curious Media

Exploring Identity in the Virtual World - Is that REALLY you?

How much of an individual’s virtual identity, is really - real?

Posted Apr 30, 2010


According to Myers (2007), the self is the most researched topic in psychology. “Our sense of self organizes our thoughts, feelings and actions”(Myers, 2007, p. 25). When you complete the sentence, “I am ________” you are essentially defining or describing your identity, how you see yourself. You could fill in the blank to describe an element of your personal identity, for example, “I am sarcastic” or “I am athletic” or you could use terms to describe your social identity, such as, “I am Jewish” or “I am Gay” (Myers, 2007). Junglas, Johnson, Steel, Abraham, & Loughlin (2007) suggest that identity formation includes two processes, exploration and commitment. Exploration is the time period where someone questions or searches for their beliefs, and goals, and commitment is when they decide, and invest in the beliefs and goals (Junglas et. al, 2007). More research on where and how individuals explore their identities is beginning to surface, with the focus turning from real world to virtual worlds.

In a study done by Cabiria (2008), he compared participants’ real world experiences to their virtual world experiences, as a gay or lesbian individual. Part of his findings suggest that, “The structure and design of virtual worlds allows its users to freely explore many facets of their personalities in ways that are not easily available to them in real life” (Cabiria, 2008). One reason for this freedom of exploration can be attributed to the anonymity that virtual worlds provide. It gives the individual the ability to be free from social norms, family pressures or expectations they may face in their personal real world lives (Junglas et. al, 2007). However with this anonymity, other consequences come into play when you look at the commitment aspect of identity formation. For example, if an individual creates a virtual identity that is different from their real life identity, it can take a lot of psychological effort to maintain the false identity. In addition, one of the two options will occur, the identities may converge into one, making the virtual and real identities more true, or the individual may simply toss out the virtual identity, and start over with a new one (Junglas et. al, 2007). According to Junglas et. al (2007), they determined that:

“In regards to the formation of an individual’s identity in virtual worlds, we have inferred that exploration, which motivates such formation, may play a more dominant role than it does in the real world.” (Junglas et. al, 2007. p. 94)

Adrian (2008) has referred to virtual worlds as “domains of liquid identity” because you never really know “who” the individual is and the virtual identities can be quickly “self-defined rather than pre-ordained” (Adrian, 2008, p. 367). Boon and Sinclair (2009), go on to say that, in regards to virtual worlds like Second Life, it is almost impossible to tell the real identity of a user. In fact, Second Life does not allow the user to use their real name when they set up their account. As a result, “It provides a very real disconnect from the real” (Boon & Sinclair, 2009, p. 106).

The element of anonymity within virtual worlds, may provide individuals with a safe and private arena to explore their identity. However, anonymity also presents a problem for others who engage in virtual worlds, and that problem is trust. Anonymity can leave you scratching your head wondering how much, if any, of an individual’s virtual identity, is really - real.




Adrian, A. (2008). No one knows you are a dog: Identity and reputation in virtual worlds. The Computer Law and Security Report. 24(4), 366-374.

Boon, S., & Sinclair, C. (2009). A world I don't inhabit: disquiet and identity in Second Life and Facebook. Educational Media International. 46(2), 99-110.

Cabiria, J. (2008). Benefits of Virtual World Engagement: Implications for Marginalized Gay and Lesbian People. Media Psychology Review. 1 (1). Retrieved September 25, 2009 from http://mprcenter.org/mpr/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16...

Greenhow, C., & Robelia, B. (2009). Informal learning and identity formation in online social networks. Learning, Media and Technology. 34(2), 119-140.

Junglas, I. A., Johnson, N. A., Steel, D. J., Abraham, D. C., & Loughlin, P. M. (2007). Identity Formation, Learning Styles and Trust in Virtual Worlds. The Data Base for Advances in Information Systems : a Quarterly Publication of SIGBIT.. 38(4), 90-96.

Myers, D. G. (2007, 4th ed.). Exploring Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.


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