Digital Identity
A Revolution For Our Egos?

Avatars | Photo (detail): © rtguest,

The Internet opens up creative freedom for digital identity and thus poses both a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. In Germany, in particular, critics warn us of the danger of surrendering our private sphere.

In early 2014 the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (German Federal Agency for Civic Education) held a conference on the subject of digital identity. Representatives of both the German and international net culture got together in Berlin to discuss questions like these: How should the data that can be found on the Internet about a person be evaluated? To what extent do the data reflect an individual's real personality? And what does this opportunity to portray oneself virtually mean to the people themselves?

Although a lot of standpoints were heard at the conference, it was above all the lecture held by the media scientist, Miriam Meckel, a professor for corporate communication at the University of St. Gallen, that was taken up by the German media. For Professor Meckel identity in the Internet is a distortion, since it is often understood as a product. In her lecture she contended that users have to update their egos continually, in order to be able to hold their own in a competition for the best ideas. On the Internet, she said, there was no longer any room for identities to change, for human weakness, for individuality and waywardness. 

Identity is becoming procedural

Whereas the classic concept of identity is defined by external features, i.e. our name, date of birth, place of residence, signature and distinguishing biometric data such as colour of eyes and fingerprints, identity on the Internet is more dynamic, more procedural. It is determined by the digital tracks we leave behind when we are online: who we have communicated with, places we have been, things we have bought. It is, however, also determined by the way we portray ourselves on the Internet. “In pre-digital times identity was above all something private. In public I play a role, in my private life I am the “real me”. And it is this “real me” that is now becoming public,” says sociologist, Sarah Mönkeberg, from the University of Kassel.

“What we are dealing with here are the new opportunities for creating one's identity,” says Mönkeberg. “Feedback processes, like the ones we observe on the social media sites, for example, saying you “like” selfies on Instagram, can be of help when developing and maintaining ones own identity. In this way it is possible to to test and compare various identity models.”

The possibilities of self-portrayal

In her essay entitled Selfies, #me: Glimpses of Authenticity, the Australian researcher, Karen Ann Donnachie, states that for teenagers, for example, the impulse to pose for an imaginary audience is part of the natural development process of a person's identity. With this in mind the selfie is the ideal medium for experimenting with oneself, with one's ego. When it comes to our digital identity are we then maybe not so controlled and bound by the pressure to portray ourselves as the critics would have us believe? “I believe it is above all a question of competence,” says Internet-sociologist, Stephan Humer, “the theory that “we are completely overwhelmed by digitalisation and that our room for manoeuvring has been restricted is mostly just a cheap excuse.” Those people who really delve into the risks and opportunities of digitalisation will also be able to adopt a sensible approach to the way they manage their identity.

A new form of identity management

For Humer, identity management means above all facing up to the new roles people are confronted with when using the Internet.”Digital identity has long since become a part of our overall identity. It is no longer something that we can or should protect ourselves from.” He went on to say that no matter how complex this task may be, we have no choice but to face up to it. “Digitalisation is a revolution, for our egos, too.” 

In the end, however, does not this casual changing of online identities lead to us viewing our offline identity as just one of the many identities available in our arsenal of “me” models? For quite some time now we have actually been operating in state-changing mode, wrote cultural scientist, Klaus Theweleit, in May 2015 in an essay for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. The new digital identities, he said, were simply a continuation of this trend. The concept of the true, consistent self, on the other hand, was invented by the modern novel since the late 19th century when it constructed the bourgeois self, which in turn served as a role model for the ego in Sigmund Freud's works on psychoanalysis.

Just how free are we on the Internet?

Irrespective of whether digital identity is seen as an obsession to expose oneself or as a form of creative variability, the question still remains – to what extent is it at all possible to portray one's “self” freely on the Internet? “The way we portray our “self” and the way we would like to present it on the Internet may well remain up to us, but our operational identity, i.e. the way our “self” interacts with our environment, basically provides us with less and less leeway. As more and more of it is being documented,” thus is stored as digital traces, says sociologist, Sarah Mönkeberg.

The German journalist and blogger, Enno Park, takes a different view of the whole thing. Despite all the risks, he above all feels that digitalisation could lead to a new and more flexible understanding of identity. For the last four years Park has been benefiting from a medical so-called cochlear implant that has provided him with an almost natural sense of hearing. Without the device he would be almost deaf; an attack of measles robbed him of his hearing when he was 17 years old. “Due to digitalisation it has now become visible that our identity is something that is quite contradictory and that we all deviate from the norm in some way. This visibility is the prerequisite for us to be part of a tolerant society in which we can be really open about ourselves in our private sphere without having to play hide-and-seek.”