The Difference Between a College Student’s DIGITAL and ONLINE Identity (And Why We’re Getting it Wrong)

As you probably know at this point, my research involves college students and how they construct a sense of self in digital and social media spaces.  In conducting this research, I’ve encountered the term “digital identity” frequently.  I’ve used it, and some of my doctoral student colleague friends have written about it (including Paul Eaton, Josie Ahlquist, and Ed Cabellon).  What I haven’t often found is a clear consensus on what “digital identity” means in a student affairs or college student educator context.  As I’ve furthered my own research, being perfectly clear on this concept (at least how I am employing it) has become vitally important.  I believe the term “digital identity” is being used too loosely and without a nuanced understanding of its meaning.  In attempt to rectify this, I wanted to “think out loud” hoping it will help me clarify it.  (And by all means, please add your voice in the comments below!)

The dictionary is as good a starting place as any.  Since this is the 21st century, let’s go to Wikipedia.  If one searches “Internet Identity” you will be presented with the following:

Internet identity

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Internet identity (disambiguation))

Internet identity may refer to:

The entry refers us to two posts, “online identity” and “digital identity,” as distinct concepts but ones that could possible be “merged.”  The concepts, as written are clearly distinct, but certainly related.  Let’s dig into “digital identity” since it’s the term I hear most frequently used in my student affairs circles:

Digital identity

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Digital identity is the data that uniquely describes a person or a thing and contains information about the subject’s relationships.[1] The social identity that an internet user establishes through digital identities in cyberspace is referred to as online identity.

A critical problem in cyberspace is knowing with whom one is interacting. Currently there are no ways to precisely determine the identity of a person in digital space. Even though there are attributes associated to a person’s digital identity, these attributes or even identities can be changed, masked or dumped and new ones created.

Digital identity is about the DATA.  When one does a Google search for a name, such as Paul Gordon Brown, the results are one slice of this digital identity data.  It’s also mixed in with other’s digital identity data (hence why I’ve chosen to go by my less common full name).  Erik Qualman refers to this as our “digital stamp.”  It includes the information we put out into cyberspace through our posts (our “digital footprint”) and the information others post about us (our “digital shadow”).  To this I would add our “digital trail” which would include the information collected about our actions (such as when you buy something for a baby shower on Amazon which results in your receiving emails, ads and suggestions for other baby items).

418sYLFpdpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If we are talking about “digital identity development” under this definition, then it would likely be similar to concepts of “personal branding” and “online reputation management.”  It is how to represent your self online.  It is taking control of what others see and find about you online.  It is not psychological development, although one’s developmental level may influence one’s understanding of it.  It is about taking control of (the the extent that’s possible) or influencing the data that’s out there about you.  It is learning how to do this.  In this case the word “development” may be misleading since it makes one think of development in a psychological sense.  Perhaps “digital identity understanding” or “digital identity savviness” are more appropriate.

HEC-hand-raise-stamp-backgroundWhen I speak to audiences, particularly student audiences, this is typically my topic.  It’s about understanding what’s “out there” about you online and how to work with and influence it.  There is another aspect to my work, which is my research.  My research involves something different.  This leads us to the second definition:

Online identity

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Internet identity (also called IID), or internet persona is a social identity that an Internet user establishes in online communities and websites. It can also be considered as an actively constructed presentation of oneself. Although some people prefer to use their real names online, some Internet users prefer to be anonymous, identifying themselves by means of pseudonyms, which reveal varying amounts of personally identifiable information. An online identity may even be determined by a user’s relationship to a certain social group they are a part of online. Some can even be deceptive about their identity.

The concept of the self, and how this is influenced by emerging technologies, are a subject of research in fields such as educationpsychology and sociology. The online disinhibition effect is a notable example, referring to a concept of unwise and uninhibited behavior on the Internet, arising as a result of anonymity and audience gratification.[3]

Online identity takes on a psychological dimension.  You could have multiple online identities: your avatar on World of Warcraft, your Instagram persona, and your Facebook self.  This is different than digital identity described above.  It’s not about the data, it’s about the persona and the self.  Both are important, but there is a conceptual distinction between the two.  Oversimplifying it, digital identity is much more “practical” and online identity is much more “theoretical.”

College student educators need to understand both of these concepts.  There is a lot more discussion about digital identity, than online identity, however.  If educators are truly to engage students, they need to understand how to help them navigate digital spaces behaviorally, but also concern themselves with how students develop online and/or in hybrid online/offline spaces.  This is what my research entails,  I want to know how college students, with multiple online identities, or selves, “hold it all together.”  Many traditional theories of college student development all the way back to Erikson posit that development’s ultimate goal is to create a single coherent bounded sense of self.  Should this be the goal?  What happens when technology enables the creation of multiple selves?

EinstienQuoteThe distinction between these concepts is relatively clear, but I often find them muddied in discourse.  Despite this difference, out of practicality, I often still use the “digital identity” and “digital identity development” monikers when speaking about this to popular audiences.  In my research, however, I have moved away from this language and more towards an understanding of the “digital self.”  If college student educators aim to create transformative learning environments, they need to understand both of these concepts, particularly the latter.  This is my research agenda and where I think the field needs to go next.


Photo credit to: Vancouver Film School, and

11 thoughts on “The Difference Between a College Student’s DIGITAL and ONLINE Identity (And Why We’re Getting it Wrong)

  1. Paul – love this! I’m moving to take the step into the PHD world. These issues are exactly the direction I’m heading & have been pushing similar questions in the field (via NODAC). I’m curious of identity congruency (within online and offline environments), what online identity reflection looks like offline, and to what extent professional staff should mediate/engage college students online (say: starting at Orientation).

    Thanks for the motivation and inspiration!

    from Clemson.

    1. Thanks Chris! Orientation is a particularly interesting site for all of these issues. And an area that is ripe to leverage social media in a particularly useful way. Let me know if I can ever be of help on your PhD journey…

  2. Excellent thoughts shared in article and comments above (or below).
    Operating with a Character ethic, rather a Personality Ethic in life and on the Internet will assure most a solid position and reputation.
    The Online Identity is what I feel most important, and should carefully crafted.
    Not just for young people, but also a few old geezers entering the Social Digital age

    1. Fantastic post – thank you for mentioning my work. I like your term of a digital trail, this is indeed important, especially in our world of big data. cjbart2 has a fantastic comment on operating with a Character ethic is often your best approach both offline and online.

  3. Good thoughts. Too many to usefully address in one brief reply so I’d like to focus on one question you asked: “What happens when technology enables the creation of multiple selves?” I think there’s too much focus on technology here as we’ve been creating multiple identities or at least choosing to emphasize different parts of our identity forever. As has been the trend, technology is making this practice more accessible and more visible to a larger number of people but it’s not a new, digital practice but instead it’s a very old, human practice.

    Not related to the paragraph above but somewhat related to your post: I’ve always been fascinated by the term “identity theft” as it has become understood and used in the last several years. I don’t know how literal people take it to be and I don’t have an alternative term to propose. But as a literal phrase it’s extraordinarily interesting and a bit depressing to think that someone might actually believe that their “identity” could be forcibly taken from them by someone who merely copies down and uses some essential bits of information.

    1. Thanks Kevin. I greatly value your views and opinions on this. I also think you’re heading in some of the same directions I am with my thoughts, particularly when you say “technology is making this practice more accessible and more visible.” I think this has always been our reality, but technology is allowing it to surface more. It’s shedding light on something that perhaps has always been a “truth,” but wasn’t perhaps so “obvious.”

  4. Nice post as always, Paul. I think that in some ways, this is evidence of how new we all are to this (as a society, as a research field, and as a matter of practice) – interesting, b/c I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We’re still in the ‘learning to walk’ phase, I’d argue, when it comes to thinking about the ramifications of the larger technological intervention of the past few decades. That said, I think it’s extremely important that work is done to parse out the terms to allow for consensus and a shared vocabulary. Otherwise, we’re all just spinning our wheels at conferences and within other professional outlets.

    1. And I think that is maybe what leads to mine.. and other’s confusion about the topic. What are we really talking about? Are we speaking the same language? When we say “technology,” what does that mean? The tool? The opportunities it enables? The philosophic/life shift? So many implications.

  5. Paul –

    Thanks for writing this! It had never even occurred to me to think about the differences between the two terms. Admittedly I utilize “digital identity development” much more frequently. The distinction between data and self is particularly interesting as the research and topics that I’ve presented on revolves around that developmental piece — how is technology impacting students psyche or actions. Given the information in your post I’m looking/more interested in the online identity rather than the data. While I think you have to consider both because students (1) should know what is out there on the internet and how accessible everything they do is and (2) should understand how these different identities be it their Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn self can impact their overall development. In my work with students I can definitely see how they’re activities/postings/purpose for Social Media especially varies from platform to platform and is not consistent.

    Definitely though provoking – thanks!!

    1. Thanks Jake. I think both are important, but I think they sometimes get muddled when we talk about them. “Online identity” in particular has been given less emphasis, although I think this is changing. Lots of good exciting work to do.

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