FORMING ONLINE IDENTITIES

An identity is a complex personal and social construct, consisting in part of who we think ourselves to be, how we wish others to perceive us, and how they actually perceive us. In particular, CMC research has looked at the second of these fragments: how we wish others to perceive us. The process of setting forth an image we want others to perceive is known as self-presentation.

THE PRINCIPLE OF TELEPRESENCE: IS ANYONE OUT THERE?

One of the foundational issues in establishing a sense of online identity has to do with the degree to which people feel they are able to experience a connection to others through technology. Some people are able to look at a computer screen and declare, “Those are just words,” whereas others report that they are able to perceive personal characteristics and relational content through text-only messages. As in many such cases where the same phenomenon can render different interpretations by different audiences, human perception functions to make the experience richer or poorer.

Whenever we interact in face-to-face contexts, we take our surroundings, and the multiple senses that are stimulated, for granted. When you take a walk in the park, you probably are aware, but don’t deeply contemplate, all the sensations that make the experience real to you: the sight of oak trees, the sound of singing robins, the smell of spring blossoms, and the feel of the dirt path beneath your feet. These stimuli create a feeling of presence for you. In mediated contexts, such as reading a description of a walk through the virtual park of a MUD, requires that you perceive the same sensations as creating (or re-creating) the experience for you. This is telepresence, “the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment” (Steuer, 1992, p. 76). Even slight distinctions among mediating technologies can vary the experience of telepresence. Consider, for example, the difference between an audio recording cut in the studio and one made at a concert. A concert recording can seem more realistic because of the addition of background noises that recreate the experience of being a part of an audience for a listener.

According to Steuer (1992), the sense of “being there” that many report experiencing while engaged in the virtual realities communicated through cyberspace can be explained in terms of telepresence. His model (as depicted in Fig. Below) suggests that varying degrees of vividness and interactivity on the part of the medium indicate how realistic a person will perceive the limited stimuli offered to be.

The quality of vividness refers to the amount of sensory information the medium makes available to a person. According to Steuer, a sense of vividness is created by both the breadth of senses engaged and the depths to which any one of those senses is stimulated. If you compare media rated as “high” in vividness with those rated as “low,” you will see a difference in both the breadth and the depth of sensory information available. For instance, compare 3-D films, which rate relatively high on vividness, to books, which rate relatively low. A 3-D film, such as the Universal Pictures classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, is a more vivid depiction of an alternate reality than that available in the latest Tom Clancy novel. The film displays more breadth than the book because it makes use of our senses of both sight and hearing. The book would only engage our sight. The film also represents greater depth of vividness. Three-dimensional cinema uses technology to create an illusion of multiple layers to enhance our visual perceptions more than traditional filming or photography. Books lack such sensory depth, relying instead on our imaginations to add dimensions of meaning to the words we read in them.

The sense of realism that comes with telepresence is also enhanced by the degree of interactivity the medium presents to people. A measure of interactivity deals with the degree to which a person can manipulate the environment of a medium. A sense of interactivity is suggested by three factors. The first of these is speed, or how quickly a user can manipulate the environment. The second is range, or how much a user manipulates the environment, and the third deals with mapping, or how the actions of a user are related to reactions in the virtual environment.