Chapter 9: New Media & Communication

9.2 Online Identities

Impression Formation

In the 21st Century, so much of what we do involves interacting with people online. How we present ourselves to others through our online persona (impression formation) is very important. How we communicate via social media and how professional our online persona is can be determining factors in getting a job.

It’s important to understand that in today’s world, anything you put online can be found by someone else. According to the 2018 social recruiting survey, a survey of more than 1,000 hiring managers, 70% admit to screening potential employees using social media, and 66% use search engines to look up potential employees. In fact, having an online persona can be very beneficial. Fortyseven percent of hiring managers admit to not calling a potential employee when the employee does not have an online presence. You may be wondering what employers are looking for when they check out potential employees online. The main things employers look for are information to support someone’s qualifications (58%), whether or not an individual has a professional online persona (50%), to see what others say about the potential candidate (34%), and information that could lead a hiring manager to decide not to hire someone (22%).22 According to, here are the common reasons someone doesn’t get a job because of her/his/their online presence:

• Job candidate posted provocative or inappropriate photographs, videos or information: 40 percent
• Job candidate posted information about their alcohol of drug use: 36 percent
• Job candidate made discriminatory comments related to race, gender, religion, etc.: 31 percent
• Job candidate was linked to criminal behavior: 30 percent
• Job candidate lied about qualifications: 27 percent
• Job candidate had poor communication skills: 27 percent
• Job candidate bad-mouthed their previous company or fellow employee: 25 percent
• Job candidate’s screen name was unprofessional: 22 percent
• Job candidate shared confidential information from previous employers: 20 percent
• Job candidate lied about an absence: 16 percent
• Job candidate posted too frequently: 12 percent23

As you can see, having an online presence is important in the 21st Century. Some people make the mistake of having no social media presence, which can backfire. In today’s social media society, having no online presence can look very strange to hiring managers. You should consider your social media presence as an extension of your resume. At the very least, you should have a profile on LinkedIn, the social networking site most commonly used by corporate recruiters.

Types of Online Identities

Unlike traditional face to face interactions, online interactions can blur identities as people act in ways impossible in face to face interaction. Andrew F. Wood and Matthew J. Smith discussed three different ways that people express their identities online: anonymous, pseudonymous, and real life (Figure 12.9).49


A diagram featuring online identities - a white man is displayed with a mustache, glasses, and pronounced plastic nose to show he is pseudonymous
Figure 12.9 Types of Online Identities
Anonymous Identity

First, people in a CMC context can behave in a way that is completely anonymous. In this case, people in CMC interactions can communicate in a manner that conceals their actual identity. Now, it may be possible for some people to figure out who an anonymous person is (e.g., the NSA, the CIA), but if someone wants to maintain her or his anonymity, it’s usually possible to do so. Think about how many fake Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, and Grindr accounts exist. Some exist to try to persuade you to go to a website (often for illicit purposes like hacking your computer), while others may be “catfishing” for the fun of it.

Catfishing is a deceptive activity perpetrated by Internet predators when they fabricate online identities on social networking sites to lure unsuspecting victims into an emotional/romantic relationship. In the 2010 documentary Catfish, we are introduced to Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, a New York-based photographer, who starts an online relationship with an 8-year-old prodigy named Abby via Facebook. Over the course of nine months, the two exchange more than 1,500 messages, and Abby’s family (mother, father, and sister) also become friends with Nev on Facebook. Throughout the documentary, Nev and his brother Ariel (who is also the documentarian) start noticing inconsistencies in various stories that are being told. Music that was allegedly created by Abby is found to be taken from YouTube. Ariel convinces Nev to continue the relationship knowing that there are inconsistencies and lies just to see how it will all play out. The success of Catfish spawned a television show by the same name on MTV.

From this one story, we can easily see the problems that can arise from anonymity on the Internet. Often behavior that would be deemed completely inappropriate in a face to face encounter suddenly becomes appropriate because it’s deemed “less real” by some. One of the major problems with online anonymity has been cyberbullying. People today can post horrible things about one another online without any worry that the messages will be linked back to them directly. Unlike face to face bullying victims who leave the bullying behind when they leave school, teens facing cyberbullying cannot even find peace at home because the Internet follows them everywhere. In 2013 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide after being the perpetual victim of cyberbullying through social media apps on her phone. Rebecca suffered a barrage of bullying for over a year and by around 15 different girls in her school. Sadly, Rebecca’s tale is one that is all too familiar in today’s world. Nine percent of middle-school students reported being victims of cyberbullying, and there is a relationship between victimization and suicidal ideation.

It’s also important to understand that cyberbullying isn’t just a phenomenon that happens with children. A 2009 survey of Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union members, found that 34% of respondents faced FtF bullying, and 10.7% faced cyberbullying. All of the individuals who were targets of cyberbullying were also bullied FtF.51

Many people prefer anonymity when interacting with others online, and there can be legitimate reasons to engage in online interactions with others. For example, when one of our authors was coming out as LGBTQIA+, our coauthor regularly talked with people online as they melded the new LGBTQIA+ identity with their Southern and Christian identities. Having the ability to talk anonymously with others allowed our coauthor to gradually come out by forming anonymous relationships with others dealing with the same issues.

Pseudonymous Identity

The second category of interaction is pseudonymous. Wood and Smith used the term pseudonymous because of the prefix “pseudonym”: “Pseudonym comes from the Latin words for ‘false’ and ‘name,’ and it provides an audience with the ability to attribute statements and actions to a common source [emphasis in original].”52 Whereas an anonym allows someone to be completely anonymous, a pseudonym “allows one to contribute to the fashioning of one’s own image.”53 Using pseudonyms is hardly something new. Famed mystery author Agatha Christi wrote over 66 detective novels, but still published six romance novels using the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Bestselling science fiction author Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame), wrote under three different pseudonyms (John Lange, Jeffery Hudson, and Michael Douglas) when he was in medical school.

Even J. K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) used the pseudonym Robert Galbraith to write her follow-up novel to the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013). Rowling didn’t want the media hype or inflated reader expectations while writing her follow-up novel. Unfortunately for Rowling, the secret didn’t stay hidden very long.

The veneer of the Internet allows us to determine how much of an identity we wish to front in online presentations. These images can range from a vague silhouette to a detailed snapshot. Whatever the degree of identity presented, however, it appears that control and empowerment are benefits for users of these communication technologies.”54

Some people even adopt a pseudonym because their online actions may not be “on-brand” for their day-job or because they don’t want to be fully exposed online.

Real Life Identity

Lastly, some people have their real-life identities displayed online. You can find people on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc…. Some realize that this behavior is a part of their professional persona, so they don’t put anything on one of these sites they wouldn’t want other professionals to see and read. When it comes to people in the public eye, most of them use some variation of their real names to enhance their brands. That’s not to say that many of these same people don’t have multiple online accounts, some of which may be completely anonymous or even pseudonymous.


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Interpersonal Communication (Dutton) by [author removed at request of original publisher] is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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