Impression Management on the Internet


   Managing your own impression on the Internet is like navigating white water with two-by-fours for oars. Your impression management toolkit is strangely devoid of the tools most familiar to you, and new ones appear that you may not know how to use. In a text-based environment, you can't project your high status the way you could in visual mode - with impeccable grooming or a gold watch. Your commanding voice is silenced. Your contagious smile and raised eyebrow are invisible. Unless you bring up your own graphical Web site and direct others to it, the main tool you have to manage the impression others form about you is the QWERTY keyboard. Compared to cosmetics, clothing, hair styles, and all the other accoutrements that swallow our paychecks, the keyboard can be an unfamiliar and awkward impression-making device. Nevertheless, the drive to manage our impressions in any social setting is strong, and Internet users are extraordinarily creative.

   Erving Goffman, the father of impression management theory, believed that everyone uses tactics to present themselves in whatever light they think appropriate for the context. Your motives are key. You might want to be liked by your choose for yourself becomes part of how you manage your impression. In the Internet's synchronous chat rooms, MUDs, and metaworlds, for example, participants choose their nicknames - or nicks - with great care and come to think they "own" that name, at least in that corner of cyberspace. Each time you type a line and contribute it to the conversation, your nick appears in brackets, so it becomes an attribute linked to every utterance you make.

   For more than a year, Haya Bechar-Israeli at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem studied nicknames chosen by the regular visitors to #NICE-CAFE, #IRCbar, #Truthdare, and #30plus, all on Internet Relay Chat.22 He probed their reasons for selecting a particular nick, and gradually developed a taxonomy of nickname types. The largest group (45%) chose nicknames that related to themselves in some way (, , , ), and another 8% just used their real names. Only 6% chose nicks that referred to figures in fairytales, films, or literature. Even in the anonymous IRC world, at least half the people were creating self-presentations that were not too far afield from their true identities, or at least their idealized selves.

   Bechar-Israeli also found that people rarely change their nicks, even though it is very easy to do. They establish an online persona and work on the self-presentation of that identity rather than jumping from online skin to skin. Reactions to a nickname "thief" are strong and immediate. Online friends who noticed that someone had usurped Bechar-Israeli's nick while he was absent immediately informed him and pressured the thief to choose a different name. The thief complied. Pavel Curtis tells of a player called ZigZag on LambdaMOO who even complained to him when other players chose similar names such as ZigZag! or just Zig. People own little in the virtual world but they appear to treasure the property they do possess.