Skip to content
Aug 8 / Christine Illichmann

Managing Digital Identity: Self-Presentation and Social Structures

Dr. Timothy Bowman, SLIS assistant professor, will be contributing a series of blog posts on the topic of Managing Digital Identity. Dr. Bowman draws on his research related to the presentation of self in online environments to help students and alumni understand the impact of digital identity on professional life.

Individual impressions create a bigger picture
As I mention in the first blog post on managing digital identity (, how you act and the information you share with others in specific contexts will be how your audience identifies you. What I did not specifically address is that this impression will be created in a way that takes into account both your past actions and your current actions to create a new composite of an impression your audience has of you. Your past actions will have an influence on the impression an audience may have of you (across time); if you have a long history with someone, they will take this into account when forming the impressions they have of you in the current context. Thus, if you act completely out of character (not consistent with the self-presentation you’ve maintained in the past), the audience may consider you out of sorts (perhaps you are ill, have dealt with some major life event, have something else on your mind). This happens frequently in day-to-day social interaction. Why do others think this and what motivates them to either put aside this new impression as a one-time occurrence or become worried that something is amiss? How does this impact the overall impression an audience may have of you?

Change is a constant
While an audience does look for consistency, both in the current context of interaction and across time, each individual’s self-presentation strategies and identity is in constant flux. This may seem self-evident, but when we truly think about it, we realize that this suggests that our identities are ever-changing and that there may not be one, true self. How do we maintain a consistent identity and self-presentation when our own ideas about who we are change day-to-day?

If we look simply at distinguishing characteristics, we realize that these may change frequently; for example, your hair may change color (naturally or synthetically), your weight and height may fluctuate, your eye color may change, your name may change (when married), etc. If we then look at identifying the information we reveal about ourselves (self-presentation) in day-to-day social interactions, we realize that this also changes depending on various factors including our past experiences, the context in which we interact, the role we portray, and the overall impressions we want to make on our audience. A person’s identity and the way in which they present themselves change, both in the online world and in the day-to-day interactions they have offline. These changes may be consistent across both offline and online contexts or they may be very different.

The greater system and your identity
Another factor we should consider involves the social systems that we interact within. Social structures make up these systems and include norms and rules, social network ties, and the class structures in which we interact. If one were to agree with Giddens (1984), they may argue that the social system is both created by, and reinforced by, social interactions. It is an iterative process where acts both rely on and reinforce the social structures through day-to-day activities. If one were to consider online behavior like interacting on Facebook, we may look at the ways in which persons use the news feed consistently or the ways in which they describe themselves in profiles. The norms and rules of interacting on Facebook have changed since it was released in 2004. Early on, Facebook was available only to university students and used in a much different way than it is today. As early adopters began to use Facebook, certain consistencies could be identified in the ways in which they made use of the application. These consistencies became part of the norms and structures of use through both action and reinforcement. Some of the ways in which early adopters used Facebook were not planned by the designers and developers of Facebook, yet these consistent actions became part of the system and remained constant as Facebook became available to an ever-widening pool of users.

Similarly, early users of Twitter also helped develop and establish the social system of tweeting. Twitter users began using special symbols, such as a hashtag, to add special meaning to words in order to organize or distinguish tweets. This practice was continually reinforced until it became part of the structure of interaction on Twitter. Countless other examples of this behavior occur in the online world.

In the offline world, we can examine interaction in various contexts and see similar behaviors. For example, as information and library professionals with advanced degrees, you may be put in a situation where there are norms and rules dictating how you present yourself to others. As a public librarian on the reference desk, you may have certain rules and norms dictating how you can respond to a patron’s request both at a micro and a macro level. At the micro level, you have a duty to remain professional, which may entail certain rules for communicating and interacting with others. This type of library professionalism may be different from a professional in business or health, as each field has different expectations, norms, and rules on which to rely. At the macro level, libraries are in a different class from businesses or health organizations in the U.S.A., thus different rules, norms, and expectations are applied at this level as well. These social structures can influence the ways in which we identify ourselves and present ourselves to others.

These and other factors place pressure on us to act and interact with others in specific ways depending on several factors including time, context, and the roles in which we act.

In the third blog post, I will describe several incidents in which persons interacting on social media have presented themselves in ways that were detrimental to their careers.

Giddens, A. (1986). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity.

Puzzle pieces photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash
Soccer table photo by Mpho Mojapelo on Unsplash