As I frequently talk about in my keynotes, one of the fundamental changes in consumer behavior today is an erosion of the boundaries between offline and online activity. For millions of people, the distinction is irrelevant. They cross back-and-forth numerous times every day – and many exist simultaneously in both realms as they navigate the physical world while immersed in their phones.
One consequence of this profound shift is that we need to be vigilant about the impression we make in both domains. Identity management is a fundamental social concern in our social and professional lives – both in the physical world and in the online world. It’s a priority no matter whether we network in an office building or at a virtual trade show, or flirt in a bar or on Facebook.
As consumers effortlessly travel back and forth between their physical and digital environments, this movement creates tremendous new business opportunities – just as a busy highway generates demand for rest areas!
Already we see a cottage industry emerging as consultants offer to customize Facebook profiles and help people generate a photo or avatar to represent their online identity. That’s one example of what happens when we travel into our online reality, but what happens when we make the return trip back to the real world?
Researchers are just starting to investigate how our experiences in online formats stay with us when we return to our corporeal selves. We know that when we assume an avatar identity, we transfer many of the interaction norms we use in the physical world. Just as in real life, male avatars in Second Life leave more space between them when they talk to other males than when these users talk to virtual females, and they are less likely to maintain eye contact than are females.
Work on so-called “Proteus effects” demonstrates that the social feedback experimental subjects receive when they assume a virtual identity (such as being accepted or rejected by avatars of the opposite sex) lingers when they later interact with people in the real world. Rejection hurts, whether you receive it in an online format or as your physical self.
On a more optimistic note, the early evidence that our virtual encounters shape our “real world” self-concepts present some promising therapeutic and marketing implications: Consider for example the potential to elevate the self-esteem of the thousands of disabled people who currently patronize virtual worlds like Second Life gathering spots, where they can easily talk, flirt, and even dance. Or, think about the virtual branding experiences we accumulate during the course of our cyberjourneys; their lasting impact provides yet another reason to take emerging practices like advergaming very seriously.
In addition, the fantasy identities people create online sometimes travel back with them: Witness the growing global phenomenon of cosplay, where participants congregate at restaurants, clubs and conventions in full regalia as their avatars or other favorite characters from comic books and movies. We can expect this activity to influence fashion trends, licensing deals and perhaps the entertainment industry as social gamers and moviegoers increasingly import media characters into their daily lives.
As these applications proliferate (and they will), the outmoded distinction between a real world and a virtual one will disappear. This process will bring us back full-circle to the task of identity management, regardless of whether the self we project is made of atoms or pixels.