How people identify online has changed as the way we communicate inches towards maturity.
Back in the day, you were only as good as your domain name – and perhaps a ‘made by Dave’ gif underneath a hit counter.
Next, forums allowed people to express themselves with 50×50 pixel avatars, and freshly-photoshopped signatures.
Their identities became tied to ‘join dates’ and post counts. Veteran forum users were exalted and ‘newbs’ were pilloried.
When ‘Web 2.0’ came along, you didn’t really need to have an identity. You were judged on what you said, not who you were. It had become effortless to publish content and leave comments online.
This was the 4chan generation of internet users, where anonymity was the default and any attempt to carve out an identity was laughed at.
Now we’re past ‘Web 2.0’, but no-one’s quite sure if this is ‘Web 3.0’ yet. Our identities are back, and they’re tied to our real-life passport names (not usernames like xXxWeed-killa420xXx).
Some say disappearing anonymity is a bad thing – the internet used to provide us with a level (worthless) playing field. Now, Facebook’s insistence on real-world identities introduces the same bias and prejudices that exist offline.
However, real-world identities help curb online harassment (to a small degree). Where kids used to get away with gross and threatening comment in online spaces, now people can literally go and tell their mother.
Even though Facebook (and increasingly, Twitter) ties us to who we really are, people identify in lots of different ways online.
We’ve done some light research into how people refer to themselves. By looking specifically for the phrase “as a ____ myself” we found over 5,000 unique authors from the past three months.
We found that parental status trumps all other identifiers online, that Twitter brings out the niche in people, and that – for some reason – paladins populate forums.
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The Story of Us
Running the analysis from raw mentions, we found lots of phrases which resembled “as a present for myself,” or “as a treat for myself”. We scrubbed these out along with any retweets, as they tend to skew data related to individuals.
By far, being a ‘parent’ is the most common identity online. It took the top spot in our web-wide analysis, with ‘father’ and ‘mother’ also placing very highly.
Why? Identifying as a parent says a lot of thing about a person.
It implies a great deal of maturity and experience. Also, it communicates a sense of sincerity and authority when talking about things that effect young people (“please won’t someone think of the children?”).
Religion also featured highly, which is to be expected. Associating with a specific world view, wildly different from other world views, can help clarify and guide the nature of the discourse.
“As a Christian myself” appeared many more times than “Hindu” and “Catholic”. Identifying a “gun owner” was more common than identifying as a Catholic.
I Know Places
Most people act differently when they’re with different people. Maybe they’re the serious one in the family, but the kooky one at work. They’re known as the Taylor Swift fan in their theatre group, but their spin class sees them as the gym nut.
Similar norms carry across social media – and they’re even more fluid.
Comparing Facebook, Twitter and Forums with the general conversations reveals the different identities people assume in different online spaces.
As with the overall analysis, the parenting identities are most common. Interestingly, “father” places highly on Twitter, but “mother” places highly on Facebook.
The most common identities on Twitter related to hobbies-come-professions. Terms like “writer”, “musician” and “photographer” reinforce the stereotype that Twitter is full of tech-savvy creative types, looking to push their new edgy drone-core installation.
Facebook is a place where you identify as who really are, where Twitter you’re defined by what you do.
Forums, on the other hand, are where people with niche interests go.
Your IRL friend circle on Twitter or Facebook might not be able to offer support in quitting smoking, or advice on coding your next webapp. Forums, though, are full of people with niche specialities that aren’t afraid to admit it.
Can you imagine admitting you’re a “human paladin” on Facebook? Unless you’ve got some very nerdy and like-minded friends, it’s only something people feel comfortable doing in the safe spaces of forums.
Speaking of safe spaces, forums allow people to make aliases that aren’t traceable back to real life. Hence, the abundance of self-described “dealers”.
Everything Has Changed
Our gender analysis is admittedly crude at the moment. As we have to analyze every web mention, we can’t rely on platform-specific user inputs. So, we check the author name against a massive database of names: it makes the name “Jamie” hard to sort.
Of the 5,000 mentions, only about 20% were successfully categorized by gender, but here’s the top 15 from each.
Obviously, the “mother” and “father” identities are much more common attached to their respective gender.
Strangely, we did find that “father” appearing (not shown) on the list for female authors. Also “liberal muslim woman” appeared on the list for male authors. Kinks in the system.
As social media continues to grow and mature, we might see people being open with more niche identities. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook will grow so large that users break off into forum-like sub-conversation.
To some extent, that’s already happening.
Certainly, millions more people will be joining social networks over the next few years. Like bees in a hive, or grains of rice in a burrito, each additional individual will make the whole more beautiful and more diverse.
And we’ll be there. Making a chart or two about it.