Web 're-defining' human identity says chief scientist

Screengrab from Aion Online role-playing games help people shrug off preconceptions and find their true identities, says the report

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Social networks such as Facebook and on-line gaming are changing people's view of who they are and their place in the world, according to a report for the government's chief scientist.

The report, published by Prof Sir John Beddington, says that traditional ideas of identity will be less meaningful.

One consequence could be communities becoming less cohesive.

This change could be harnessed to bring positive changes or if ignored could fuel social exclusion, says the study.

"This can be a positive force, exemplified by the solidarity seen in the London 2012 Olympics or a destructive force, for example the 2011 riots," says the report.

"Due to the development of smart phones, social networks and the trend towards (greater) connectivity disparate groups can be more easily mobilised where their interests temporarily coincide."

"For example," it says, "a 'flash mob' can be mobilised between people who have not previously met".

The report, entitled "Future Identities," says that near continuous access to the internet, termed "hyper-connectivity", will drive profound changes to society over the next 10 years.


Prof Beddington commissioned the study as part of the Government Office for Science's Foresight programme - the influential Foresight reports look ahead to highlight emerging trends in science and technology with a view to informing policies across government departments.

Start Quote

The internet can allow many people to realise their identities more fully”

End Quote Foresight report

"The most dynamic trend (in determining identity) is hyper-connectivity," Prof Beddington told BBC News.

"The collection and use of data by government and the private sector, the balancing of individual rights and liberties against privacy and security and the issue of how to tackle social exclusion, will be affected by these trends," he said. "I hope the evidence in today's report will contribute to the policy making process."

This latest report on identity undertook 20 separate reviews in which leading UK and international experts assessed research in computer science, criminology and social sciences.

It states that the changing nature of identities will have substantial implications for what is meant by communities and by social integration. The study shows that traditional elements that shape a person's identity, such as their religion, ethnicity, job and age are less important than they once were.

Instead, particularly among younger people, their view of themselves is shaped increasingly by on-line interactions of social networks and on online role playing games.

The study found that far from creating superficial or fantasy identities that some critics suggest, in many cases it allowed people to escape the preconceptions of those immediately around them and find their "true" identity. This is especially true of disabled people who told researchers that online gaming enabled them to socialise on an equal footing with others.

London riots Social networks also helped people organise during riots in 2011

"The internet can allow many people to realise their identities more fully, " the authors write. "Some people who have been shy or lonely or feel less attractive discover they can socialise more successfully and express themselves more freely online".

The report points out that in 2011, 60% of internet users were members of a social network site, a huge surge in usage, up 43% from 2007. Consequently, it says that there may greater political activism using these networks as was seen in the revolution in Tunisia and the mobilisation of dissent in Egypt and Libya.

There will also be a blurring of work and social identities as photos and details of people's personal lives become increasingly public on social networking sites. The report cites a hypothetical example of how a young person was denied promotion because her employer found drunken photos of her from her university days.

The report says that as the distinction between online and real world identities diminishes criminals are likely to try and exploit the many new forms of interlinked data relating people's identities and from social media and professional and financial websites in order to steal identities.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Interesting. I wonder how many people are totally honest about themselves in their online identity. Perhaps as many as are honest in the non-virtual world. There are clear potential dangers in any case, which it would be wise to be aware of. The old advice of 'don't talk to strangers' still has its place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Cofucius (21st century) he say " Lie, lie, lie when online"

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Some say that the invention of the bicycle was more important as it helped to reduce the numbers of village idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    "One consequence could be communities becoming less cohesive."

    Geographically based communities have been weakening for decades, if not centuries. Increasing ease of travel has meant a less insular perspective on things. Internet has continued the trend. Communities are not being weakened, they are changing and are just as likely to be based round common interest groups now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    On-line identies basically seem to mean that appearances are not important, and as many people react to others based on their visual impression rather than the personality of the person that could well be true. However whilst that is fine for a pure on-line realtionship I'm not sure how many would last if people were to meet. And some can a fake identity possibly for bad reasons

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    It's all about identification, as a zen buddhist would say.

    Social networking encourages identification with false personality (i.e. what is artificial) as opposed to physical being. Therefore, social networking is a definite barrier to self-awareness. The danger is that children embrace this false self from the start of education . They learn to lie to themselves.

    I am a computer scientist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Ten years after man informs us thing have changed? or are going to change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    One other thing the web is fostering is the ease with which this kind of drivel can be disseminated.

    The main way that identity is affected is that huge numbers hide behind fake identities on the web - some for the worst of reasons.

    I think that summarises it, at far less cost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Life is extinct on other planets because their scientists were more advanced than ours.

    We cant stop man becoming the tools of the their tools....Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    "The report says... criminals are likely to try and exploit the many new forms of interlinked data relating people's identities and from social media and professional and financial websites in order to steal identities."

    Criminals, politicians, businesses, they all want a piece of you. If you register your date of birth with a social media site you're asking for trouble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    This report addresses a real problem for the politicians. There is now nowhere for them to hide behind crowd pleasing rhetoric, bribing the electorate with it's own money, fudging figures, fiddling expenses etc etc.
    The web is a great force for the formation of opinion and in recent cases the mobilisation of forces to bring down governments, dictators and despots. It's a changing world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Welcome my son. Welcome, to the machine.

    Where have you been? It's alright, we know where you've been.

    What did you dream? It's alright, we told you what to dream.

    Roger Waters c1975

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I think social networking sites can be very addictive (I'm retired and certainly find myself 'checking in' more frequently than I'd like to admit to friends/family). I agree 'Christopher Evans' point about social networking sites helping the more socially inept...however equally, it's easy to make social faux pas as print is not accompanied by, for example, intonation or facial expression!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    @14 "we shouldn't place all our faith in technology"

    I'm all for technology, but no your right we shouldn't.
    An example from last weekend, I installed Skype to replace MSN, it automatically strips out my Facbook contacts and ads them all to Skype. I didn't give it my FB account details and I didn't give it permission to do this. I HATE being forced to merge my entire life online!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    More importantly, social network users who are keen for everyone to know every nuance of their very ordinary lives, and plaster it all over their pages, are playing into the hands of those who are controlling them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Web 're-defining' human identity ? Really ?

    I wonder if someone came up with the same cobblers when the post office was formed or when we all got a phone in our homes ?

    And the worst if it, this report is from The Government's Chief Scientist - I'm pleased to see my taxes pay for this drivel then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The biggest issue for me is the erosion of what constitutes authority. Web 2 means that now everyone is an authority on everything. The Internet is the equivalent of "bloke down the pub says... so it must be true". If you don't have a strong ability to make your own reasoned judgement when looking for information then you are in trouble. How many 10-15 year olds have that ability?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    It is not changing any more than the the introduction of the telegram did, or the new papers before that - then change again when the universal postal service came in.....

    ....change came again with the radio was invented.....

    ...and again when TV came along.....

    ...human history is one long change since we invented farming & settled down roughly 50,000 years ago.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Facebook and twitter are not for me. My face is so ugly that it would crack a computer screen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Trouble is that we have to live in the real world to survive.


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