Online personal identities will be a key theme of my virtual ethnography. I’m curious about the names, avatars and biographies we choose to have online, particularly for people using social media to engage with others on the topic of mental distress in a personal and/or professional capacity.
Qian and Scott (2007) explore the affordances and risks of blogging in relation to the subjective self. Their research suggests that sharing personal thoughts and experiences in the virtual public domain carries risks, with possible real-life costs, and as a result anonymous identities and pseudonyms are common place. The mental health literature clearly shows that online anonymity for highly stigmatised conditions is one of the primary benefits identified by people who have lived experience. Schrank et al have identified that people use the internet for health-related information as it affords anonymity and egalitarianism (2012). In addition to anonymity, Powell & Clarke (2006 & 2007) also found that people using the internet for mental health information value its possibilities for providing privacy, convenience and accessibility.
I have found quite a bit of research literature related to people using the web in relation to their personal experience of mental health difficulties but far less about people who are working within statutory services (however, there are quite a few blog posts on the subject). This is still a tricky area for many, with much of the professional guidance focusing on avoiding negative consequences and less on the potential benefits. I have chosen to use my real name and avatar. It didn’t really occur for me to do otherwise at the time. It does mean I have to regularly exercise self-restraint, but that’s not that different to my offline life, where I make judgements all the time about what I share with whom both personally and professionally (I even occasionally get it right…). I’ve spoken to many different people who all have their own lines in the sand about how they present themselves online. Some never tweet after a glass of wine and others never share anything in relation to their personal lives. I personally prefer a mix of professional and personal (just like I do at work and at home) but for others this can be really annoying. For some, the potential consequences of a negative reaction from an unsupportive employer, is too great for people to risk sharing their real life identity.
So online anonymity affords freedom of expression without identification and minimises the possibility of unwanted repercussions. But does it compromise trust or believability? Does it make any difference to if/how you engage with someone if they are using an anonymous avatar? And if you are using an anonymous identity online, do you worry about consequences of others finding out your real identity?
Powell, J. & Clarke, A. (2007) Investigating Internet Use by Mental Health Service Users: Interview Study MEDINFO 2007 K. Kuhn et al. (Eds) IOS Press
Powell J. & Clarke, A. (2006) Information in mental health: qualitative study of mental health service users Journal compilation Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Qian, H. & Scott, C. (2007) Anonymity and Self-Disclosure on Weblogs Available at: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol12/issue4/qian.html
Schrank, B. Sibitz, I. Under, A. & Amering, M. (2010) How Patients with Schizophrenia use the Internet: Qualitative Study Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3057320/