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 257.

    255. Arcid
    I don't think it is lazy. The same research principles apply to the Internet as to offline research as you still have to look for the info and verify your sources.
    253. JohnGammon
    What details are posted on FB or Twitter compared to the details that government official has lost? I doubt if FB have such details as NI numbers or tax info.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    All this hyper-connectivity and this about the only subject we can comment on? How sad with all this communication around, we are not allowed to express ourselves freely! Others must withdraw to fantasy games where they may freely slay people at will. I find Facebook truly awful, social networking? Social Isolation more like. I'll stick with emails thanks and meeting people in the real world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    #244 "people too lazy to exercise their minds beyond the click of a search button"

    While it is lazy I have to admit. But I'm interested in physics but I simply haven't found the time to derive particle physics from first principles, so I've cheated and looked up the bits I'm interested in.

    Don't even get me started on millitary history

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Also, while I'm here, I should point out that actually the internet and social networking may be an indirect cause of "friendzoning"

    If you have 10 minutes to spare, looking up "the science of the friend zone" will find you video by vsauce that sums it up nicely.

    Regaurdless, I love the internet for all it's worth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Wonder why we're so sanguine about giving our details to some faceless internet firm invented by the likes of Ivy League geeks, and yet horrified if some government minister leaves a disk with our details on a bus? Are we going to be quite so keen on Facebook, Twitter etc when they're taken over by a firm allied to the Murdochs or Amazon? There's a backlash already over photo sharing sites.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    "people too lazy to exercise their minds beyond the click of a search button""people too lazy to exercise their minds beyond the click of a search button"

    What an idiotic comment. The Internet has enabled me to search out more music than ever before. This has enabled me to seek out people who share my interests rather than my own circle of friends whose tastes are quite limited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    I reminded my youngest teenage daughter that, whilst playing as a small child, she had imaginary friends. Now, they're all on Facebook. She gets it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Only a level 90 half elf fury wicked witch of the west coast? Im a level 95 iksar necromancer, level 95 kerran brigand, 95 freeblood beastlord and a 95 dark elf wizard, stop slacking :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    "Exactly so. There IS only one dave smith."

    One of my Facebook friends is called "Another Dave Smith".

    He must be a fraud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    I am surprise we need a report to state our identity is changing with the use of the communication tool of the modern age i do use them bat none will come close to a face to face conversation and see the change of expression depending of the subject or the light up of their face if they like what you say electronic media is fine human to human contact is priceless

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    @244 "people too lazy to exercise their minds beyond the click of a search button"

    See this little statement is made time and time again and it always fails when someone like me compares the internet as an alternative to TV. Which is more lazy and more antisocial? 4 hours watching TV? or 4 hours browsing the web and commicating with people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    It's shame that the government will try to change this. They've seen what the power of the internet is when it unites a whole nation, witnessing it in the arab revolutions, and to some extent, the london riots.

    It kind of scares them to know we have that much power. That's why they tried (or unfortunatley succeded in some cases) to bring in internet censorship controlls such as ACTA, and SOPA

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    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.

    Exactly so. There IS only one dave smith.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    One word that springs to mind about social media, and whole digital landscape is EXCESS.

    There's too much energy being expended providing too much content for people too lazy to exercise their minds beyond the click of a search button, and too impressionable to distinguish good from bad.

    Here's the paradox: when it runs our lives, technology corrodes the imagination and limits our choices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    The internet keeps our minds busy.
    The refined sugar in foods keeps our bodies busy.
    The drama in Hollywood movies keeps our hearts busy.

    Anything, anything at all ... apart from experiencing reality directly.

    You are a fool if you take these proxies as the reality you are entitled too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    I met my now wife when I joined a small, online poetry and writing community. If we had met face to face we most likely would have barely spoken to each other due to our apparent differences. Underneath however, we are somewhat perfect for each other; we have now been happily married for 2 years and we have just bought our first house. Internet communication bypasses many negative social pressures

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    I'm a level 90 Half-Elf Fury. Sounds so much better than 'civil servant', doesn't it??

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    I need sponsoring for a report i'm doing, on the presence of grass in UK lawns, or will i be treading on the scientific communities next work load?

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    My name is Azgraznizput Despoiler of Worlds (or Merry depending on which game I'm playing).

    Only the feeble adopt a physical form, muahahaha...

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    Reading through these comments all I think is...

    "the 90s called, they want their argument back"


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