The question of whether we have different personas online and offline is one that many members of the younger generations do not ask. To them the whole idea of people playing different roles in different situations is offensive. Behaving differently according to the context we are in smells like hypocrisy to them. In our research, the default answer provided by youngsters on the question who they are is: “myself”.
There is something unclear though about the idea that we are always “ourselves”. It does not automatically provide for an explanation as to why our observable behavior in different situations is different. And, it does not clarify why people who share a deep connection online do not automatically share this deep connection offline.
In earlier writings, we hypothesized that maybe we are always “ourselves” but that the concept of our “self” is nothing like it used to be. For people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Anthony Giddens, our self was a lifelong project. Our self was a core biographical narrative about our identity that excluded other narratives about us. The narrative did change over time, but slowly, as an adaptation to profound new experiences.
Our current self probably is almost undefined, without a default narrative linked to it. Our self rather seems an assumption of continuity of an “I” (a version of Ricoeur’s ipséité) through a series of subjective experiences of reality over time. This “I” has no defined stable characteristics (Ricoer’s mêmeté). Nick Chater takes this one step further and tells us that the way we make sense of the world (Ricoeur’s identité narrative) cannot fall back on an inner life because there is none. Our mind is flat.
Our nondescript self fluidly adapts itself to new situations, like a shapeshifter. According to Zygmunt Bauman, it is the speed with which the external situations change that forces us to this adaptation. According to him, there is no time anymore to reflect and make sense of the reality that surrounds us. We merely adapt to survive.
The only continuity that we indulge in, according to Nick Chater, is the fact that we respond to new situations by taking responses to similar situations in the past as a point of reference. These previous responses are not so much repeated as creatively interpreted in the here and now. The continuity of our identity is like a mash-up in which we permanently remix our behavioral responses.
Let’s now return to the question of whether we have different personas online and offline. If our mind is flat this means that we cannot link our different personas to anything within us since our inner world is void. So we have to look outside of us, to the settings to which we react. Maybe the settings online and offline are so dissimilar that we fall back to different sets of earlier responses when we encounter them. This would explain that while our audience might be identical online and offline our behavior is different.