Digital freedom Virtual reality, avatars, and multiple identities Jim Blascovich at TEDxWinnipeg

Digital freedom Virtual reality, avatars, and multiple identities Jim Blascovich at TEDxWinnipeg

Digital freedom: Virtual reality, avatars, and multiple identities

An in depth view of Anonymity, Avatars, and Identities generally associated with common Internet use.


While most of what we search, purchase, and view on the internet is now done with the knowledge that whatever action you do will be tracked, whether by an advertising agency, the government, or even just the browsers history, it is still quite possible to remain anonymous while navigating the web. The reasons a person would want to be anonymous on the internet vary greatly, and are not reserved solely for nefarious deeds. [1] This allows for people to discuss sensitive topics in online communities that that person may not be able to discuss in a face to face conversation. When discussing personal problems, such as abuse, addiction, alcoholism,etc., this mask of anonymity can foster a much deeper and meaningful discussion.Those involved in the discussion can continue on with their lives off the internet, while still able to “air their grievances.”

Anonymity can also lead to more trivial, less serious behaviors that do not exist as readily in the physical social world as they do online. For example, the growing trend of “trolling” online is greatly benefited by the perceived anonymity that a person experiences when commenting online. People are far more comfortable posting non-constructive, purposefully misleading and even, or rather, mostly negative feedback to trivial things in order to illicit a reaction.[1]


It is common in various cultures among the internet, e.g. massively multiplayer online games, for users to create an avatar that is meant to represent themselves in the virtual world. These avatars generally take the forms of human and mimic reality as reasonably as possible.They are not exclusively human form. [2]



This is seen more in female users than in male users and is called the Proteus Effect. Though it does affect male users, it seems the hypersexualized world of the internet causes this to occur often to females, who are often treated differently than their male counterparts online, e.g. users with taller avatars negotiate through the environment more confidently than their short bodies do in the physical world. It is common for female avatars to have more sexualized features than male avatars, so females may feel objectified while playing as these hypersexualized characters.[2]


The internet changes the way people perceive their own identities as the meaning behind having an identity on the internet shifts. Matters of identity are not affected solely by the way a person interacts with a self created avatar or by whether or not they choose to remain anonymous, but it is also affected by all the actions they perform while on the web, and who views these seemingly anonymous interactions with their environment. What exactly constitutes an identity on the internet is debatable. Many casual users see identity as something that can be stolen or as a way to access personal information. [4] Neither of these interpretations of identity in the context of the internet is wrong, but they each raise their own contradictions and concerns. For example, does a player's avatar have any connection to the physical world beyond being created and controlled by the person who claims it as their own, and is this a thing that can be stolen? Inversely, if a persons identity is stolen, though the culprit gains access to that person’s private details, do they, in a way, steal the identity of this person? The avatar is likely closer to the person who created its personal identity than their checking account number, so even if a person were to steal the avatar, they would not be able to steal the identity of it, since it exists with the creator of the avatar. Also to consider, personal identification numbers for bank accounts are arbitrary numbers assigned to clients that have nothing to do with their personality, yet they can be considered that person’s identity in the context of the law.

When online, it seems that a personal identity is created by a combination of these things. Though a person can attempt to construct their own identity, [5] To some users, their identity could consist of Paypal statements and bank transactions, yet to others, it is a record of missions completed in a game and posts on a forum.

Neither of these interpretations is necessarily wrong, as their identities emerge with the way they navigate the internet. This creates a far more abstract form of identity that is still relatively new in the world, and as a result, creates problems that have never existed. For example, how is the law supposed to treat identity online when different users identities are constructed of such different things? As it currently stands, it seems that social security numbers and credit card information are the default form of identity in a legal sense on the internet, but as the way people interact on the internet changes, the way identity is viewed may also have to shift.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Frisch, B., Peirano, D. J., & Rogaway, P. (2011). Mask of Technology: How the Perceived Anonymity of Technology Affects Ethical Decisions.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Fox, J., Bailenson, J., & Tricase, L. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatars. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 930-938. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from
  3. Example online Avatars
  5. Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.