Going entirely by my own experience with social media, which is small, but not insignificant, one thing I’ve noticed is that for each “community” I belong to, I have a somewhat different persona. In one, I may be “The Voice of Reason,” but in another, I may be “The Clown.” Each “persona,” of course, is a natural part of me, but in normal life, these personas tend to be integrated into a whole personality that is both stuffy and playful.
In real life interactions, I may show more of the stuffy side of my personality to some social communities, and more of my playful side to others, when I’m in online communities, these roles become more defined and separate.
Nor do I t believe I am unique in this regard.
A particular teenage boy may be friendly and intelligent in one online community, but a raving troll in another. The same person may be extremely accommodating on one site, but completely bossy on another.
And Facebook is only one or a seemingly endless series of online communites. Virtually every online activity offers its own community in which members conform their personas to a particular norm. Facebook is special only in that its sole purpose is to provide a community. But on Bitstrips (a site for making comic strips), members can chat with each other, “friend” each other, and engage in group discussions — all while creating a comic strip. On snopes.com (the site dealing with urban legends), members can enter a forum in which they discuss the science behind the legends, track new urban legends, and engage in virtual food fights. Even newspapers, such as The Toronto Sun, The National Post, and the humble St. Catharines Standard, tend to have communities of regular readers who frequently comment on the day’s news stories, often getting into side discussions with fellow readers.
The ultimate online community would be the various role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and other MMOGs (Massively Multiple Online Games). These communities are legendary for their specialised languages, expressions, and even outfits. So well-known is this phenomenon that it is often parodied on TV and in movies: most recently, perhaps, when the MIT nerds on The Big Bang Theory dress up as comic-book or gaming heroes. Many gaming expressions have found their way into the general vocabulary, giving us such terms as “pwnd,” “newbie,” and “All your base are belong to us.” Some of its members even evolved their own alphabet: L337 (LEET).
All these examples point to the tendency of online communities to encourage a a simplification of members’ personalities in order to fit in properly. In effect, a fragmenting of personality.
Is this good? Is it bad? I’m pretty sure it would vary from case to case, but I’m sure there’s an overall effect to society and individuals as a whole, but whether it weighs more heavily on the positive or negative side I’d be reluctant to say without further study.