CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1The “real” and the “virtual” maintain ambiguous relations in the context of new sociabilities interfaced by representations. From the beginnings of the Internet to the latest Web 2.0 applications, instant messaging (ICQ, MSN, Live messenger), online dating websites (Lovelycos, Meetic), blogs (Vingtsix, Livejournal), and social media websites (Facebook, Myspace, Linkedin) have been feeding a cultural model of identity. In a world of representations, what does it mean “to be present”? How do users exist on the screen? How do they socialize online? Jeffrey Sconce, in his work on the notion of presence from the telegraph to television, shows that the evolution of communication devices changes the relationship to the Other, and consequently has a direct impact on the concept of presence (Sconce, 2000). The Internet and computer-mediated communication (CMC) are a continuation of these changes. As part of the user’s cognitive and informational environment (Peraya, 1999; Proulx, 2005), they mediate reality. A model of identity is shaped or “informed” (in the etymological sense of the Latin informare, “to give form”) through the body’s habituation to interacting with the device, in a process of shaping and reshaping. Studying identity in the context of the Web 2.0 allows us to better understand how digital interfaces change one’s perspective with respect to oneself, the Other, and the world.

2The social phenomenon of self-representation in gaming and communication is affecting new generations during an intense period of identity construction: the empowerment of digital practices on self-perception and the representation of one’s social surroundings is a societal issue of utmost importance. For our study, we have chosen an approach that does not include direct interaction with users, and through which users are observed at a distance. Drawing on the work of Daniel Peraya, we carried out our research from the perspective of an applied semiotics of online identity. The research programme required an examination of the structure of Self-representation, composed of signs visible on the screen that manifest and indicate the user’s presence. We sought to further our understanding of how this representation adheres to human perception and adopts its way of operating, thus constructing a cognitive continuity that allows for a natural perceptive transition towards the virtual community world. The Self-representation system thus defined was compared across approximately sixty interactive devices. We then used this comparative analysis to create a grammar of Self-representation (Georges, 2007: 254-311) that formalizes expectations which are culturally conditioned by the frequency of occurrences. In this article we present a simplified version of that grammar in order to highlight its applied dimension.

3In the first section, Self-representation and digital identity are presented as a set of graphic, auditory, and visual transpositions of representations of thought. Their technical function is to identify an individual and establish a relationship between them and the community. After defining Self-representation as being composed of signs visible on the screen that represent and manifest the user, we present its semiotic agencing. This consists of a shifter that denotes users (autonymous ligator), associated with elements that connote their personality. The Self-representation system is only one part of digital identity, which is constituted by an interweaving of all of the signs input by the Subject and all of those used by the device, the latter of which are a manifestation of a digital empowerment. Digital identity is divided into three sets of signs: declarative identity, acting identity, and calculated identity. “Declarative identity” is composed of data input by the user (example: name, date of birth, photograph); “Acting identity” is composed of the explicit breakdown of the user’s activities by the System (example: “x and y are now friends”); and “calculated identity” is manifested in quantified variables produced as the result of a computation by the System (example: number of friends, number of groups). This typology allows one to carry out a quantitative analysis of the cultural influence of Web 2.0 technologies on the representation of identity, through the example of Facebook. This analysis thus shows that declarative identity, which is the central aspect of identity in the Web 1.0, is no longer a distinctive criterion in the Web 2.0. This tendency of the Web 2.0 to place value on activity and quantity is discussed in the Conclusion. By encouraging users to continuously feed the identity structure that displays their presence, in order to exist in their community, the Web 2.0 compromises the development of a substantial and autonomous Self, instead handing it over to the precarity of immediate urgency.

From an abstract representation in thought to a technical representation in acts

4Digital identity is a graphic, auditory, and visual transposition of a representation in thought shaped by the Subject in the material of the interface. The term Self-representation, which can refer to three degrees of abstraction of the interpretive process, sums up the research question as follows: how can a technical representation be imbued with a symbolic level, and what are the implications from the point of view of self-presentation and the construction of reality? This first section discusses the elements on which this research question is grounded, as a basis for the presentation of the conceptual approach to self-representation and digital identity developed in the following two sections.

An outline of the self

5Everyday life often leads the Subject to conceive of a representation of him- or herself. Charles Sanders Peirce mentions this concept in the “skeleton diagram” or “outline sketch” of the self, [1] by describing the series of intellectual operations of a human being who desires something that he is not able to offer to himself and who wonders whether he truly desires it (Peirce, CP 2.227-229, 2012, p.98). To answer the question that he is asking himself, the Subject defines properties characteristic of himself by making an abstraction of certain criteria and thus being capable of questioning his desire. “He makes in his imagination a sort of skeleton diagram or outline sketch of himself, considers what modification the hypothetical state of things would require to be made in that picture, and then examines it, that is, observes what he has imagined, to see whether the same ardent desire is there to be discerned” (idem).

6If we consider that personal identity is awareness of being the same, this operation clearly involves a process of shaping the Self. Identity is the product of streams of daily events, certain memories of which the Subject mobilizes in the attempt to create an abstract representation (or outline sketch) of herself. In this sense, the user, facing a registration form to sign up for a community service, is led to ask herself: “if I had to sum myself up in a few words or symbols, what would they be?” In this process, the subject ignores certain information deemed to be irrelevant, and chooses other that she deems to be more suitable, that is, more compliant with the general idea that she has of herself.

7Each interaction puts the solidity of this structure to the test and occasionally changes the idea that the Subject has thus shaped of herself. By inviting users to create a profile that represents themselves, computer-mediated communication (CMC) plays a role in this shaping process by introducing a visual, auditory, and textual medium of the Self into the reflexive loop of self-representation. In this respect, analysing the impact and cultural empowerment of CMC on the representation of identity has fundamental implications for society.

Re-presenting oneself in order to exist

8As I have just presented it, self-representation in thought and self-representation on the screen both play a role in a process of the so-called “abstractive observation” (CP 2.227-229, 2012, p.98) of oneself. The situation is different when we consider a peer’s point of view on the Subject. In the “real” world, the presence of the body is absolute proof of existence. In the digital world, consulting a website is not sufficient to give the user an observable existence for a “distant” peer. The user must take on existence (lat. ek-sistere) to communicate: if he does not create a personal profile, he does not exist for the community because he is not visible to it.

9In everyday “non-digitally-interfaced” life, personal identity does not have a material form other than that of the body. The image of the body therefore takes on disproportionate importance in the image that people create for themselves of a person, compared to his or her intellectual activity, for example, which is abstracted from this representation.

10On the digital screen, personal identity is informed differently: computer-mediated communication (CMC) software gives shape to that which does not have a form in reality, such as centres of interest or thoughts. The representation of identity in a mixed reality changes, at least partially, the problematic of self-representation: in it, reality is interfaced with a layer of digital information in which the body a priori resumes its place in the representation of the person, although it can also be augmented by information visible to a third party (for example, by visually associating facial recognition with information on that person’s centres of interest). The consequences are significant: in “on-screen” devices, users remotely dialogue through the intermediary of a graphic, auditory, and textual representation of their identity.

11Aside from these aspects, which pertain to the human interpretation of identity and Self-awareness, I will examine the formal function of the representation of a person, which is to identify an individual by differentiating him or her from other individuals.

Identity and difference

12In the virtual as well as the real world, identity is strictly related to the concept of difference. For example, if you try to describe a person whose name you have forgotten to a friend, you will try to find signs that distinguish that person from someone else. Identity is therefore dependent on context. If you mention “a brown-haired man” who is absent from the visual field, it is very likely that the person with whom you are speaking will not precisely identify him. You will have to resort to less ordinary signs to describe him. Therefore, from this point of view, identity cannot consist of common and shared signs.

13As the product of a reduction, the oral or graphic representation of a person consists in revealing signs that empirically distinguish one individual from another. In the case of CMC, the representation of a user, in its default appearance, does not distinguish that user from another. The minimum information is the pseudonym (or, as used above, “autonym” to refer to a name given to oneself by oneself cf. lat. auto-), which should not constitute a sufficiently distinctive criterion to identify a person, as many users may have the same one. The representation acquires a distinctive nature from that which informs it: the more signs the user profile contains, the more distinctive the representation is. Note that, on the contrary, if the signs that represent individuals are too distinctive, there are not interrelation criteria in search engines to “match individuals” (Cardon, 2008: 107).

14This notion of an identity that is not inherent to the Subject, but rather that must be empirically verifiable, evokes Locke’s theory of identity and diversity (Locke: chapter XXVII

15Of Identity and Diversity). Locke distinguishes identity of substances from personal identity. Identity of substances covers matter and its organization; personal identity, which is specific to humanity, consists of a person’s consciousness of being that person, even despite physical changes that may affect him or her. The technical function of distinguishing an individual by means of an oral or graphic representation pertains to the problem of identity of substances. Personal identity will be discussed below with respect to the reflexive dimension of Self-representation.

16To dialogue at a distance, the issue of identity and difference thus becomes critical. As I will show through the quali-quantitative analysis of on identity in the case of Facebook, Web 2.0 applications provide tools to specify self-representation, in such a way that each profile can present distinctive signs, all the while generating networks of relations necessary for the community dynamics. A negotiation between identity and difference, identity by substance and personal identity, is thus shaped, based on the subtle mixing of the constraints of search engines and identification.

17The following two sections present the agencing and informational and cognitive dynamics of digital identity in CMC. This identity device is woven between two main actors: users and the System [2]. Users create an initial set of declarative signs (Self-representation or declarative identity): they input information within the framework given by the System. This initial set is subject to processing by the System, which valorizes user’s activities (acting identity) and certain components of their profile (calculated identity).

Self-representation at the heart of the identity device

18Unlike face-to-face conversations, online conversations place users in a communications device at the centre of which they are alone, faced with a world into which they are introducing themselves. Faced with this physically limited space within the edges of the screen, inhabited by multiple representations of people, users are naturally led to interpret their position as an overarching one. From there, they observe humans and communicate with their representations, as if they were standing alone in front of a digitally bounded multitude. This spatial layout functions as a figure of space, providing the identity process with a framework that appears to be highly conducive to the development of a gratifying self.

Centration and decentration

19While a long scientific tradition exists around the concept of identity in philosophy, sociology, and semiotics, the representation of identity in interactive devices has been studied little in its dynamic of the subjective construction of meaning. Daniel Peraya and Jean-Pierre Meunier (Peraya and Meunier 1999) have outlined a socio-cognitive semiotics approach to CMC, in which the construction of meaning can be analysed through Piaget’s concepts of centration and decentration. According to Piaget, the decentration process is at the origin of children’s cognitive development, and according to Peraya, it is at the origin of learning specific to CMC. Annabelle Klein has developed a pedagogical and therapeutic use of the representation of identity on personal pages as a part of writing workshops (Klein, 1996, 1999, 2001).

20My contribution has been to expand the concept of decentration—defined by Klein as textual markers of addressing another person [3],—to all signs (textual, iconic, and auditory) that represent the inter-actor in self-representation (friends, shared media). It has also been to extend the field of research to video games and Web 2.0 tools. In this broadened interpretation, the dynamics of centration-decentration emerges from the user’s interaction with the signs that refer to a human or object-based alterity, such as “friends”, shared media, or even the objects possessed. A fortiori, the presence of quantified data (number of page visits, number of friends) constantly places users in a position of facing their reflection in the mirror of local cultural values, leading them to question, for example, the reasons for the growth or decrease in “friend requests”. These quantified evaluations, which we will return to later when discussing calculated identity, can be destructive among adolescents, during an intense period of identity construction.

21After an overview of the global dynamics of Self-representation, I specify its agencing mechanisms, identifying, in the first place, the point at which it is anchored to the system, through which the technical representation shifts an image of the self; and in the second place, the agencing of related elements. For example, to use French sociologist Jean-Claude Kauffman’s amusing metaphor, which compares identity to “candyfloss; […] that ‘sticky substance’ that manages to pick up everything and twist everything around it” (Kaufmann 2004: 64), I identify the central axis of the identity device and then examine the strands.

The “autonymous ligator”, a shifter of self-image

22Taking up the theories of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Lakoff, 1980), the Self-representation diagram (cf. Figures 1 and 2) is once again based on the concept of shifting meaning [4]. These authors’ work on cognitive metaphors shows that humans develop by interacting with objects and symbols in the world. “Metaphors have entailments through which they highlight and make coherent certain aspects of our experience. A given metaphor may be the only way to highlight and coherently organize exactly those aspects of our experience. Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).

23Considering that schemes for the interpretation of the Subject change through interaction with the “real” environment mediated by the “virtual”, the perception of the subject would be augmented and shaped in the “real-virtual” by computerized self-presentation schemes. In this respect, the representation of identity pertains primarily to the cultural and cognitive empowerment of CMC devices, because users interact through the intermediary of their profile.

24The approach applied to the phenomenon of the construction of the subject’s identity thus requires the localization of a system for shifting meaning in the technical self-representation device. “The term conceptual metaphor […]: attributes belonging to a certain domain, which we will call source-domain, will be transported into another domain, called the target-domain, with the goal of being able to conceptualize this target-domain, as metaphorical understanding is conceptual by nature” (Diller 1991: 210).

25In a conceptual metaphor, a source-domain shifts a target-domain: in the present case, the interaction with the sign that represents the person shifts a construction of meaning into an image of the Self or of the Other. In CMC, the avatar or user’s image, associated with the name that users have chosen to denote themselves (autonym), plays this role of ligator (cf. Figure 1). Concretely, users act in 3-D worlds through their intermediary in the form of an avatar, and in message board spaces, are perceived through their intermediary in the form of a photograph [5], with both of these representations appearing below or above the user’s autonym most of the time. This dyad acts like a shifting system that stimulates an interpretation of the graphic signs representing a person.

Figure 1

Model of Self-representation or declarative identity: the shifting system in centration-decentration (Georges, 2007: 404)

Figure 1

Model of Self-representation or declarative identity: the shifting system in centration-decentration (Georges, 2007: 404)

26The autonym is a name given to oneself. Yet it is usual to give one’s own name on Facebook. By doing so, Facebook creates an identifying tension that tends to confound real identity with virtual identity in an immediate continuity. In Figure 1 this tension could be represented by the approximation of the autonymous ligator dyad (to the right, at the centre of the identity device) to the “real” sphere of the Subject (to the left) through tension exerted by the autonym. This identifying tension proceeds, from the point of view of the Subject as well as from that of a peer perceiving him or her, according to a metonymic process of realism: as the name is real, individuals consider the representation to be more “real” than that of MySpace, for example. Certain “real” communities where the common practice is to name oneself with pseudonyms, thus prefer MySpace over Facebook, as the former does not encourage its users to present themselves under a name that they did not choose in reality.

27The central axis of the identity device (the autonymous ligator) has thus been identified. It operates like an analogical shifter (metaphor) between the representation of the self in thought and representation on the screen through the action of interacting through its mediation. We will now examine the set of signs that denote the user’s personality.

Self-consciousness and Self-representation

28The research of the founder of pragmatism, William James, develops a theory of Self-consciousness as being “fictitious” and perceptible in a “stream”. This pragmatism of the Self, through its concrete and applied dimension, can appear to perform an analogy with the system of self-representation in CMC, and thus anchor the creation of a model of Self-representation in continuity with the “non-digitally interfaced” identity model.

29In Principles of Psychology (1904), W. James distinguishes four components of the Self [6]:

  • The material Self is formed of the body, clothing, the family, the home, and the possessions of the Subject in decreasing order of intimacy. “The body is the innermost part of the material Self in each of us; and certain parts of the body seem more intimately ours than the rest. The clothes come next. The old saying that the human person is composed of three parts—soul, body and clothes—is more than a joke. […] Our father and mother, our wife and babes, are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. […] Our home comes next. […] An equally instinctive impulse drives us to collect property; and the collections thus made become, with different degrees of intimacy, parts of our empirical selves” (James, 1904: 292-293).
  • The social Self, composed of representations of the Subject by his or her peers. “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind” (ibid: 293).
  • The spiritual Self refers to the “psychic faculties or dispositions” of the Subject. “By the Spiritual Self, so far as it belongs to the Empirical Me, I mean a man’s inner or subjective being, his psychic faculties or dispositions, taken concretely” (ibid: 296).

30The semiotic agencing of Self-representation can draw partial inspiration from this typology. The following table offers an interpretation related to Figure 1. This typology, constructed through an analogy between the “real” Self and the represented “self”, allows us to identify the lines of continuity between reality and representation. The social Self and Pure Ego are not mentioned in Table 1; nonetheless, the social Self can be likened to a representation of the Other and the reflexive process of the Pure Ego to the reflexive process of considering the representation as a Self-representation. While they are not observable, they can be compared to the two dynamics of decentration (social Self) and centration (Pure Ego).

Table 1

From the Self to Self-representation: an analogical table

Table 1
Terminology of W. James Signs observed on the screen Terminology (cf. Figure 1) Self-representation The “Material self” (in decreasing order of intimacy) “Body” Avatar and name; gender, date of birth. Autonymous ligator (shifter) Qualifying “Family” Friends, Favourites Sociative “Home” User profile User profile “Possessions Collections: shared media (albums, videos), personal objects Possessive “Spiritual self” Centres of interest (news, pastimes, football), political or religious beliefs Qualifying

From the Self to Self-representation: an analogical table

31As a conclusion to this section, online identity can be represented by a shifter (the “autonymous ligator”: the avatar/photograph and the pseudonym) through which the cognitive dynamics of centration takes place, and around which signs agence with one another (sociative, possessive), triggering a decentration dynamic that weaves ties between the Subject and the community world.

32This system of Self-representation characterized by the user’s representation of him- or herself is encompassed by an extensive identity system empowerment by the local culture. The following section presents its agencing.

Digital identity under the cultural empowerment of the Web 2.0

33Cultural empowerment can be defined as the empowerment of the device on representation in thought. The identity device conveys symbolic values. Figures 1 and 2 show how the device structures the graphic representation of identity. The process of semiotization of a graphic representation into a self-image implies the habituation, within streams of activity, of this structure conveying symbolic values. By interacting with the device, the subject is informed in the structure predetermined by the interface. To sum it all up, cultural empowerment consists of the rules of the social game presented implicitly by the structuring of digital identity. In interactive devices, this empowerment is situated: it is dependent both on the structuring of the identity of the device itself and on its updating by the community of users to which the Subject belongs (“local” culture). “Digital identity is […] a coproduction where the strategies of platforms and the tactics of users meet” (Cardon 2008: 97).

34In order to evaluate the cultural empowerment of CMC software on the representation of identity, it is necessary to analyse, in addition to Self-representation, the agencing of an information “overlay” composed of notifications of the user’s activities and numerical data which are plentiful in Web 2.0 software. These data were not included in the analysis of Self-representation because they are not directly input by the user; rather, they are displayed by the System and thus demonstrate an increasing degree of cultural empowerment. This information overlay can be compared to a smart mirror that accentuates certain facial features based on what is judged to be locally suitable.

35In Figure 2 presented in the previous section, the central axis of Self-representation (located in the autonymous ligator, represented by a black circle) and its peripheral elements are denoted by “declarative identity” [7]. The second and third geometric ellipses contain, respectively, “acting identity” [8] (notifications of the user’s activities), and “calculated identity” [9] (signs resulting from the quantification of information).

  • “Declarative identity” (or Self-representation) is composed of data input directly by the user, particularly during the process of signing up for the service (example: name, centres of interest, friends);
  • “Acting identity” [10] is composed of messages inventoried by the System concerning the user’s activities (example: “x and y are now friends”);
  • “Calculated identity” is composed of numbers, which are the products of calculations of the System, and which are scattered across the user’s profile (such as number of friends, number of groups).

Figure 2

Self-representation and digital identity

Figure 2

Self-representation and digital identity

36The arrows pointing to the representation of identity indicate the pervasiveness of local cultural empowerment. They point to calculated and acting identity, but the action of cultural empowerment goes deeper, crossing the entirety of the representation with a decreasing degree of influence. As such, the information overlay, composed of acting identity and calculated identity, determines the general adequacy of the Subject in a given society and provides a numerical evaluation of it.

37Each dimension of digital identity can contain the same referents. For example, for the referent “friend”, the mention “180 friends” pertains to calculated identity (number of friends); the representations of friends (cf. “autonymous ligator” dyad for a peer) pertain to declarative identity (and to Self-representation); the message “x is now friends with y” pertains to acting identity. These three dimensions of digital identity correspond to three points of view on the same information. For example, the life-cycle of a piece of information on a profile page starts with an acting notification (the action took place), and then is simultaneously the subject of storage in the declarative zone and is counted numerically.

38In the following discussion of the three categories of digital identity, I use Facebook as the main example, given that I provide a quantitative analysis of it in the following section, although this classification applies to all types of software.

Figure 3

Facebook: zones of declarative, acting, and calculated identity

Figure 3

Facebook: zones of declarative, acting, and calculated identity

Declarative identity (Self-representation)

39Data concerning declarative identity are particular in that they are input by users. We presented them in the previous section.

Acting identity

40Acting identity is composed of messages that inventory the user’s activities at the initiative of the System. It is related to the two other dimensions of digital identity. Therefore, the notified events on Facebook’s mini-feed can be consecutive to the modification of declarative identity: for example, “X updated his profile” means that the user modified his photograph or personal information. Notified events can trigger a change in calculated identity: for example, “x and y are now friends” means that the “number of friends” increased by one unit.

41On Facebook, this functionality appears in the “mini-feed” of the public profile with respect to the activities of the profile’s owner (cf. Figure 3). The private portion contains a compilation of the activities of all of the “friends” of the owner of the account. To summarize, at the top of each page is a small icon that tells the subject the number of users who have requested him as a friend, who have invited him to join a group, or have invited him to use an application. The compiled feed of the activities of “friends” makes their social activities online visible (“x sent a gift to y”, “x was tagged by y”, or “x was recommended by y” on LinkedIn). By doing so, they suggest relationships between users, whether these are pure coincidence (“S., C., S., and V changed their profile”) or real, with this judgement being the task of the interpreting subject: does “M., V., and T. turned into vampires” mean that they are playing together? By compiling the activities of communities of “friends”, these notifications encourage users to interpret their behaviour according to rules that depend entirely on the Subject.

Calculated identity

42Contrary to declarative identity and like acting identity, calculated identity is not provided by the subject; however, as opposed to acting identity, it is the product of a quantified interpretation. Calculated identity is composed of quantitative or qualitative variables (based on numerical configurations) produced by a calculation by the System. Quantitative variables are expressed in numbers: friend count, score, ranking. Qualitative variables designate, for example, the mention “user unavailable” configured in MSN after 15 seconds of inactivity on the keyboard, as well as the binary mention of presence (user “online”/“offline” on MySpace or Facebook).

43These variables, whether they belong to one type or the other, are interpreted qualitatively. On the Facebook or MySpace of a user that has 1200 friends, the subject will say that this number is too high to be real and that the user probably accepts friends whom he does not know; on an MMORPG, a level 9 character is considered a “newbie”; on MSN, an “unavailable” user can be interpreted, depending on the regularity of the occurrence observed, either as having configured her profile to “unavailable” by default, while in reality she is available (for those close to her), or, for example, as being away at breakfast or a meeting. These elements, which I have called “marker of presence” in another publication (Georges, 2007: 288), qualify the presence of the user and are the subject of subjective processing that depends on the complicity of protagonists. Therefore, their interpretation is refined across the ties that are established between people.

44This interpretation, which has become subjective through the user’s habit of frequenting the local community, must not lead us to forget that it quantifies certain elements of identity. The mention of a number attracts the user’s attention to the element to which it refers, a fortiori when some of these numbers are displayed on the page. Some sites use these numbers to generate rankings on the homepage (“the most visited”, “the most popular”, “the latest login”), but even in the absence of an explicit ranking, these numbers encourage a self-centred comparison (“I have more friends than y but fewer than z”). The quantification of the user’s presence, activity, and reputation through calculated identity is a reflection in the mirror of local culture, involving an implicit form of social and interpersonal game. Affective values such as friendship are “rationalized” (Cardon, 2008: 130) according to the ratio of the System.

Application: qualitative study of the cultural empowerment of Facebook

45In the section entitled “Identity and difference”, I presented the components of identity and difference in CMC devices. What happens when the user does not provide any declarative field? Do users have a digital identity? What is the dominant aspect of identity in the Web 2.0? Web 2.0 software mixes different families of software: users thus federate, on a single platform, the different tools that a few years earlier were found in specialized applications. Facebook likewise pertains to a mix of categories: as a social media website, and in addition to functionalities such as sharing photo albums and videos, it integrates the possibility of installing applications: meetings, grading, games, mp3 player, etc. Facebook is therefore a field of study that lends itself particularly well to the study of self-representation, because this software’s overall proposal is to federate all online activities and facets of daily life.

46The quantitative approach to digital identity, the method of which is presented below, can become a valuable tool in studying user behaviours. This approach can enable quantitative processing of qualitative information without the use of questionnaires or interviews. I presented an application of this in another article (Georges, 2008), only the results of which I report on here. In the present article I am more interested in the analysis of the structuring of representation and the identification of dynamics of cultural empowerment from a general semiotics perspective than I am in the analysis of behaviour. Therefore, the presentation of the graphs of declarative, acting, and calculated identities in this article has the purpose of supporting the applied dimension of the theories of self-representation and digital identity presented here.

Data collection

47Sixty-one personal profiles were analysed in the context of participatory observation (Georges, 2008), in which individuals were considered as documents (Pailler, 2005). Therefore, this research does not aim to produce results representative of Facebook users as a whole, but on the contrary affirms that these results are relative to my own network of relations, which is essentially composed of young researchers and artists. As I emphasize in the introduction to this section, this quantitative study is intended to illustrate the theoretical system, to present a qualitative method, and to demonstrate by example that identity can be analysed quantitatively by processing the data resulting from the observation of profiles, without resorting to questionnaires. It does not claim nor aim to possess the mass quantitative dimension of a mass quantitative study.

Presentation of radar charts of digital identity

48In his study of the design of visibility, Dominique Cardon defines the models of visibility practised by users (Cardon, 2008: 120-123). In particular, he distinguishes the “display all view all” profile and the “show hide” profile [11] (id. 124, Map 3). Considering these “profiles” as declarative behaviours through the lens of the Digital Identity model presented above, user profiles were categorized into two groups: “hyper-visible” (corresponding to the “display all view all” profile in Cardon’s work) and “hidden” users (corresponding to the “show hide” profile in Cardon’s work), based on their declarative behaviour. “Hidden” users did not fill out any declarative field, or only filled out one. “Hyper-visible” users filled out all declarative fields. This division into two groups by opposite declarative behaviours has the purpose of facilitating analysis of the impact of declarative identity on overall digital identity.

49Figure 4 is a synoptic illustration of the representation of hyper-visible and hidden user profiles in the form of radar charts. “Hyper-visible and hidden population” charts (line 1) represent the criteria provided by “hyper-visible” profiles as a continuous thick line, and the criteria provided by “hidden” profiles as dotted thick lines. Below these graphs, to allow one to visualize the profile of these two populations, two series of individual graphs are presented as an example, the first of which presents the digital identity of a “hidden” user (line 2), and the second of which presents that of a “hyper-visible” user (line 3).

Figure 4

Collective and individual radar charts for declarative, acting, and calculated identity. “Total population” (line 1): average frequency of hyper-visible users (continuous thick line) and hidden users (thick dotted line); identity graphs of a hidden user (line 2) and of a hyper-visible user (line 3)

Figure 4

Collective and individual radar charts for declarative, acting, and calculated identity. “Total population” (line 1): average frequency of hyper-visible users (continuous thick line) and hidden users (thick dotted line); identity graphs of a hidden user (line 2) and of a hyper-visible user (line 3)

50The graphs are constructed in the following way: each axis represents a different criterion (detailed in the legend in Figure 4). The value on each axis corresponds to the user’s score (or the average score of the “hyper-visible” or “hidden” group) for this criterion, divided by the average score of the total population studied for this same criterion. The result is expressed as a percentage. The average score of the population is estimated by using the average for declarative and acting identity and by using the median for calculated identity (in order to offset the effects of the large dispersal of numerical values for certain users). For the declarative identity of the two users cited as an example, the score is 0 if a criterion is not provided 1 if it is provided.

51The usefulness of this standardization is to be able to directly compare the features of the user (or the group) with the average features of the overall population. For example, a value of 50% for one criterion will indicate a score that is twice as low (or which is provided half as often) for this user compared with the average score of the total population for the same criterion. A value greater than 100% indicates that in this criterion, the user has a score that is greater than the average score of the total population. In this way, these graphs allow one to easily visualize the identity profile of a user or a population, by comparing them to the average for the total population, for each of these criteria. The polygons outlined in thick grey lines give the average score of the total population for each of these criteria. By definition, they have a value of 100%. The central polygons shaded in black correspond to a score of 0 for a criterion: this corresponds to the autonymous ligator. In fact, as noted above (cf. Representing oneself in order to exist), this “sine qua non” information manifests the user’s presence. These two criteria, provided by the entirety of the population, constitute the linchpin of the identity device as a whole.

Rate of presence (frequentation index)

52“Rate of presence” (Table 2) is the result of variables appearing in the mini-feed: it is equivalent to the number of different days on which the user logged in for the last 10 events mentioned in his or her mini-feed (example: the user logged in on three different days, Monday 3rd, Friday 16th, and Saturday 17th), divided by the total number of days to accomplish these last ten events (for example, from Monday 3rd to Saturday 17th spans a period of fifteen days). The rate of presence is therefore between 0 and 1. Numbers approaching 1 indicate strong presence; those approaching 0 indicate weak presence.

Table 2

Rate of presence over the past ten events in the mini-feed

Total population0.49
Hyper-visible population0.62
Hidden population0.38

Rate of presence over the past ten events in the mini-feed

53This indicator allows us to complete the reading of an “acting” graph by taking into account the frequency of actions. Concretely, the activities of the user as listed in their profile mini-feed (limited by default to the ten last messages) could have been carried out over three days (active user) or over three months (inactive user).

54For example, a very active user can obtain a rate of presence equal to one day, during which he carried out ten actions, divided by this same period, that is, a rate of presence equal to 1. A user who is very rarely active can obtain a rate of presence equal to 10 days, during which she carried out ten actions (one action per day when she signed on), over a period of 60 days, giving a rate of presence equal to 0.17 (rounded). This number, which does not form part of calculated identity as transmitted by the interface, but rather which is the product of my own calculation, allows us to quantify the user’s recent presence. To obtain a more representative rate of presence, it would be necessary to establish a summary of a larger number of actions in the calculation of the rate of presence and the axes of acting identity.

Declarative identity is not distinctive

55The declarative identity of the “hidden” user (Figure 4, line 3) demonstrates the absence of declarative information. On the other hand, the graphs of acting and calculated identity of this user demonstrate that the activities counted and the numbers listed are not zero for any of the criteria. This simple observation answers our first question: on Facebook, the representation of identity is predominantly acting and calculated: even if a user does not provide any declarative field, the System produces a distinctive representation [12].

The users that declare the most information are the most present

56Table 2 shows that those users who do not provide any field, log in less often than those who provide all the information required. The rate of presence is greater than the average among hyper-visible users, while it is half among hidden users. The ten actions mentioned in the “mini-feed” of the user profile of the “hyper-visible” population were carried out on average over 10.4 days (with a median of nine days); among the “hidden” population, they were carried out on average over 30 days (with a median of 24 days). The degree of presence is therefore closely related to declarative behaviour.

Identity strategies

57Hyper-visible and hidden users have the same number of friends on average (cf. graph of the total population: calculated identity, criteria A). Nonetheless, the two populations of hyper-visible and hidden profiles demonstrate very different identity strategies for the same result. Hyper-visible profiles have a community life that is more intense than that of hidden users: they frequently participate in groups, create groups, and post comments. The “hidden” population rarely participates in groups and very rarely posts comments. The fact that “friend requests” appear more frequently in the mini-feed of “hidden” profiles (cf. graph of the total population: acting identity, criteria B) seems to indicate that friend requests are the major activity of these users (around 50% of their activity compared to 20% among the hyper-visible population). This does not however mean that hyper-visible users accept friend requests less often, but rather that their mini-feed contains information on other activities (example: “created group z”). The two populations studied could present two different identity strategies, one based on private interpersonal communication (hidden users) and the other based on collective and visible communication (hyper-visible users).

58As a conclusion to this analysis, digital identity on Facebook is determined less by declarative identity than by acting and calculated identity, which equally highlight hidden users and hyper-visible users: on Facebook, declarative identity is not distinctive like it was on the Web 1.0. The absence of declarative information is therefore not an obstacle to socialization or to recognition by others, that is, to the identity phenomena: “hidden” users have as many friends as “hyper-visible” users, but they maintain few public ties with them (as their private messages are not visible). Hyper-visible users, on the contrary, have an intense community life that is transmitted through participation in groups and through sending group messages. This opposition between the two populations is the result of their frequency of use of the software: the more a user signs on, most likely the less he or she worries about the consequences of revealing him- or herself.


59In reality, the body immediately grants existence to the person, allowing him or her to be visible to others and thus to construct his or her identity through differentiation. On the screen, the person must take on existence: if he or she does not act and does not leave traces of him- or herself, he or she is invisible to another. This need to take on existence by leaving traces is a radical change in the paradigm of identity.

60From the birth of the Internet up until the latest applications, the system of signs representing the user has changed. Declarative identity (age, gender, city, bio, interests, etc.), through which the subject personally decides how to represent him- or herself, is less dominant, while signs of his or her activity are proliferating. Today, users are no longer conscious that they are using devices; they have interiorized this system of self-representation. Devices seem to be “like real life” because they interface users’ lives. This is a long-term process of social and cognitive acculturation.

61The structural analogy between the Self and Self-representation, presented in this article, consolidates not only the feeling of reality but also the empowerment of the interface on identity. The concept of the digital hexis designates this natural contiguity between the physical body and the virtual body. The corporeal hexis[13] (Détrez, 2002) is the body as it is informed by action and as it informs action through habit; the digital hexis is self-representation as it is informed by the computerized device and as it is informed on the screen. The Subject sets his or her representation within a continuum of action. Because the body is shaped by habit or repetitive practices, the interfaced body is the object of a reformulation. The body duplicates itself in a representation, and centres of interest are informed in shared media.

62Multiplying indexes of immediacy, dating websites, blogs, or online magazines sort information in reverse chronological order [14], participating in the cultural overvaluation of recent activity in the presentation of the self. The designers and producers of software effectively have no interest in creating applications that are not digitized. To make their investment profitable, they sell user information databases or display ads that are paid based on the number of visits. Like video game developers, which seek to create addictive games, the companies creating CNC software therefore have no interest in not stimulating mass consumption of their products. Facebook stimulates compulsive behaviour: it consists in showing oneself incessantly in order to continue to exist and maintain one’s social network. Hence, in the Web 2.0, a user who wishes to exist on the Web must comply with this imperative: he or she must produce activities continuously. This urgency to communicate involves an immediacy between the Self of the Subject and the Self of the representation. The evolution of online identity foreshadows a change in the behaviour of users through the effect of focusing on the immediate moment. This will most likely always consist in shaping the present moment, without wasting time examining the past, and by contemplating the future within the limits of immediate action. However, if we consider that the construction of an identity requires one to grant time to reflection on oneself without continuously interacting with an external object, then the ability of these devices to stimulate a solid construction of the self seems questionable.


  • [1]
    On the abstract observation of the person and the outline sketch of the self in computer-mediated communication, see also my analysis in (Georges, 2007: 39-42).
  • [2]
    Author’s note (2018): The notion of System refers to the material agencing produced by a combination between the model of conception as it is conceived of by the designers, as it is developed by developers, as it is computed by the algorithm, as it is technically interpreted by users devices, and as it is understood by the user in context.
  • [3]
    “This movement of the relationship with the self, of dialogue with the self through others, is evidenced through explicit marks of address to the other (‘What do you think about it?’, ‘Do you agree with me?’, ‘Leave a comment for me’, or even ‘Sign my guest book to leave evidence that you were here.’)” (Klein, 1999)
  • [4]
    I use the term “shifting” in reference to the rhetorical analysis of metaphors. On the application of conceptual metaphors to interactivity and their relations with the metaphors in rhetoric, cf. Georges, 2005.
  • [5]
    More specifically, ligators form a complex system. They can take on the form of a cursor in a situation of co-presence (cf. Georges, 2007: 57-59, 147-161). Their function can be partially delegated to presence disjuncts (cf. below: qualitative variables in calculated identity). (Cf. Georges, 2007: 286-289)
  • [6]
    Regarding self-consciousness according to William James and its application to CMC, see also Georges, 2007: 193-197.
  • [7]
    Here, the term identity is used rather than Self-representation in order to bring the focus back to the homogeneity of the three-part whole that makes up digital identity.
  • [8]
    Cf. Figure 2: (2) acting identity.
  • [9]
    Cf. Figure 2: (3) calculated identity.
  • [10]
    D. Cardon uses the expression “acting identity” to complement those of “civil identity”, “narrative identity”, and “projected identity” to demonstrate “the explosion of identity dynamics and to identify the communicational pathways of users based on their profile” (Cardon, 2008: 125). (my translation)
  • [11]
    “[‘Display all view all’ users or ‘hide oneself view oneself’ users] turn out to be the most realistic possible and to convey, in their digital identity, the features that describe them the best in their real, social or professional life. On the other hand, […] [‘show hide’ users or ‘view oneself hidden’ users] are free to take more liberty, by playing down certain traits of their ordinary social identity and by pointing to or projecting other traits with a particularly accentuated coloration” (Cardon, 2008: 124). (our translation)
  • [12]
    As a result, the personal data management techniques used by teenagers do not have an impact on their identification. These techniques address their need to not be physically located immediately, but the abundance of acting information that characterizes them is such that it is doubtful whether a stranger will be incapable of finding traces of them.
  • [13]
    “Corporeal hexis is […] particularly meaningful because it produces the incorporation of the habitus; it operates beyond consciousness and discourse through the place occupied within the physical space. […] While the theory of corporeal hexis explains […] how social usages can become incorporated to the point of no longer being conscious, it does not place the body on the register of possessing but rather on the register of being: the body is no longer dissociated from the man; it is him; it represents him in his entirety during each movement, as a social being” (Détrez, 1998:163-165). (our translation)
  • [14]
    For example: “latest article published”, “last members signed on”, “most recent blog created”.


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Fanny Georges
Translated by 
Elizabeth Libbrecht
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