Expression of identity in online communication

Online identities and their relation to offline identities

Kaapo Leppäniemi



In this essay, I wish to examine the nature of identity and the expression of it in online communication. As we know, the growing use of internet and social media has given birth to a plethora of research in many fields. Social psychology and media studies have come together in constructing an understanding of the relation between identity and online spaces. In this essay, we are interested in the following questions. What factors are important when it comes to online identity expression, how are these factors concretely implemented in the online world and how should we understand the relation between online and offline identities? By shedding some light to these questions, we will try to construct a unique understanding of identity and give it a tangible form using Erving Goffmann’s conceptual framework.

We will begin with Goffmann’s ideas of self-presentation, followed by complementary literature regarding online identities. Here we will try to identify the important factors concerning identity expression in online environments. These factors will be more thoroughly examined by concentrating on the social media site Instagram. After highlighting the important platform functions for identity expression, we will proceed to apply Goffmann’s ideas to the notion of separate online and offline identities. The final chapter of the essay will aim to summarize the main points and review the compatibility of the chosen theoretical approaches.

Identity and self-presentation

Erving Goffmann (1959) proposes the idea of seeing self-presentation through theater concepts of actors and stages. While there is a front stage, where the performing individual or actor is conscious of audience’s presence and the state of being observed, there is also a private backstage, where the actor is not performing. Goffmann also presents the idea that individuals have two types of expressions. The first one is an expression that the individual gives, referring to an expression that is intentionally communicated to the audience by the person performing. The second one is an expression that the individual gives off, an impression that is unintentional, yet picked up by the audience. While there are different opinions of the relevancy of Goffmann’s ideas of self-presentation in the contemporary media environment, many researchers have concluded that it is very much applicable to the new ways of communicating and have therefore utilized his ideas when it comes to online identities (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013).

One could apply Goffmann’s idea of an actor acting on a front stage to users using social media sites, with the thought of offline world being a backstage. However, this sort of distinction is often accompanied with the thought of having a separate online and offline identity, where the offline one is in some sense more real. Even if identity is thought of this way, it is still important to understand the interdependence between these two identities. It seems that the presumable online self is often consistent with and ‘anchored’ to the offline one (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013; Davis, 2011), at least when considered outside of a game environment (Merchant, 2006). Rather than thinking of identity being twofold, Davis points out the increasing variety of social roles people assume nowadays which then leads to different ways of constructing and experiencing identities, giving birth to a notion of identity that is “multi-faceted and fluid”. Performing identity online is then more about showing different facets of self than expressing a distinct online identity.

Performing identity in an online environment has two important factors: the audience of identity performance and the platform that is used to express identity (Merchant, 2006; Kimmons, 2014; Davis, 2011; boyd, 2007; Van Dijck, 2013). Identity is then in a constant flux: it has different facets that are presented online in different ways affected by the platform and audience in question. Next, we will look at Instagram and the platform’s functions that make possible the expression of multi-faceted online identities to defined audiences.

Instagram: creating diverse representations

Instagram allows individuals to create diverse representations. There is obviously the availability of different forms of representations, including text, photo, audio and video. There is also the option to either create a post, which will make it appear in other people’s feed and in your own profile, or to post it as a story, in which case it will be shown in the story-feed for a period of 24 hours. There are also some newer additions like IG-tv, which allows the publishing of longer videos, and reels, which is Instagram’s own attempt in the TikTok-like short-video department. Creating a post or a story remain the most common ways of making a representation. In my personal experience, these two are often used for slightly different purposes, the former being a way to highlight aesthetically inspiring material, while the latter is being used for sharing other people’s content, or to present quotidian, humorous or informative content. In addition to the various possible forms of representation, there is also the opportunity to customize these representations, through third-party applications or Instagram’s own customization-options, by applying filters for example.

Instagram: defining the audience

Instagram has many tools for defining the audience of a chosen representation. By defining an audience, I mean the individual’s ability to choose the people who can see the given content. Now, although there is the eternal problem of having your content shared to people who were not intended to see it, there remains options to choose from which significantly decrease the possibility of happening so. Many of the unwanted looks are caught by setting one’s profile public, which means that literally everyone has the access to one’s profile and shared content. Having a private profile means that only approved followers can see the content, which in turn gives the user the ability to define an audience for future representations.

When having a public profile, the main way of attracting certain audiences is reliant on the hashtag-function. Hashtags (#) allow users to categorize content, which is often needed if one wishes for visibility among a certain audience. Although, when having a public profile, the audience is often quite undefined; being public on Instagram is usually a way to simply gain more traction, which in turn is not that intriguing from the identity perspective.

Nevertheless, there is an interesting function when it comes to defining audiences. Instagram released the close-friends function in late 2018, allowing users to define another audience in addition to the people following them, who then have the access to the story-content that is shared only to the people on the close-friends list. Instead of having to settle for a rigid degree of privacy, this allowed users to have a little more flex and control in their audiences, making it more viable to host different identities under a single profile.

When it comes to audiences, there has been a problem with expressing your identity online. The identity we want to express is dependent on the audience in question. It is very much different acting in front of your parents and acting among close friends, especially for younger people. When facing the dilemma of dealing with different audiences, users decided it would be best to create two accounts, one that is public and decent under the eyes of parents and employers, for example, and one that is private, often containing the bulk of more personal identity expressions. The close-friends function is essentially Instagram’s answer to the common strategy of two accounts, which some users have previously adopted. Although the incentive for mere user satisfaction is there, van Dijck points out the platforms’ motive for more uniform data.

Identity in online and offline worlds

It is sometimes thought that individual’s identity is divided between his online and offline self. These platforms allow one to create presentations of self that can be very distinct from the real-life person. Combined with the thought that we want to be seen as the best versions of ourselves, this often leads to a conclusion that our online identities are just better, more curated versions of our offline ones. Even if this was an accurate depiction of the relation between online and offline identities, I suggest we develop a slightly different understanding using Goffmann’s ideas.

When applying Goffmann’s idea of stages and actors, it would be a waste of the explanatory potential of the theory to say, that offline equals backstage, and online is the front stage. Even though it is very tempting to link the online identity to the thought of people acting on the front stage while trying to give desirable expressions, it is crucial to understand that the offline world is all about the front stage too. This leads us to a completely different application of Goffmann’s theory of self.

I would like you to imagine that there are two separate theaters. One for the offline and one for the online world. Both of these have a front stage where the individuals act and express their identity aware of the audience, and a backstage where they drop the act. This would suggest that acting in the online theater is comparable to acting in the offline theater. In both, we give and give off expressions while having a particular concept of audience. This could be translated to clowning around in a math lecture where our classmates are the audience or posting a picture on Instagram, where our followers are the audience.

The backstage in offline world could be whatever from being home alone to hanging with people with whom you are comfortable. The close-friends function of Instagram could serve as an online world equivalent of the backstage. What I propose here is that Goffmann’s theory of self can be applied to performing identity, not in the way of thinking that online and offline worlds are separated by attributing the front stage to the former and the backstage to the latter, but by highlighting the possession of these stages by both of them.

But why are there two theaters if both worlds have these same stages? Well, even if they share the characteristics of the stages, the worlds are still inherently different. What is possible in the online world is not necessarily possible in the offline world and vice versa. You cannot touch in the online theater, but the absence of constraints attributed to the offline world allows unique expressions of identity.


We explored how identity has previously been seen in the online environments. An idea of identity that is multi-faceted and fluid but also limited by the world in question seems to be applicable to understanding online and offline identities through the ideas of Goffmann. By highlighting the various possibilities of creating representations and defining audiences using the example of Instagram, we aimed to emphasize the increasing potential for diverse identity expressions in online environments.

Rather than seeing the online world as a mere extension to the offline world, I suggest we see it as a theater of its own. Even though they are ever more alike, it is necessary to point out that these theaters operate on very different rulesets when it comes to expressing your identity. This should not be understood as associating a “real” identity exclusively to the offline realm, but rather thinking that different facets of identity are expressed on different stages of different theaters. Increased control in the online environments does make a point for amounting to a greater number of expressions that are given, or in other words intentional, but this increased control also allows us to express facets of identity that could not be expressed in the offline world.

Kaapo Leppäniemi is a student in the Bachelor’s Programme in Politics, Media and Communication at the University of Helsinki. He has a particular interest in new media and communication technologies in the societal context.


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