One of the principal factors making personal identities complex today is the participation in online communities. For many people in developed economies, this is likely to be of substantial importance in their lives, with extensive time spent online, using computers or mobile devices, communicating with others. The mode of communication depends on individual preferences but also on the device used, the purpose of the message, and its length. Our group memberships and group roles will be determining factors as well. It is quite likely that an individual will belong to multiple real-life (RL) groups, each of which may be represented online through a particular service, website, or communication tool. For example, a university student may use telephone calls and email with her parents, text messaging and Facebook with her friends, text messaging and university-supplied services with classmates, email with professors, and letters to her grandparents. That last communication option may be questionable, as electronic communication becomes ubiquitous regardless of age.
With each of these relationships, the student is likely to use different communication tools or services, but also somewhat different language in terms of tone, grammar and vocabulary, being more informal and playful with friends, family, or classmates, while using more formal language with professors. The ability and appropriateness of mixing languages informally also vary with the context and individual. It is common today, to see code-switching in informal exchanges among friends. In India, it is common practice to use English script to converse in the local language online, as is using hybrid languages, e.g. Kiddi sohni wind blowndi hai? [Punjabi - How beautifully the wind is blowing]. The word 'blow' is combined with the Punjabi 'di' to make it a Punjabi-English hybrid word connoting 'blowing' (A. Malik, personal communication, August 1, 2017. In China, Pinyin is widely used in digital communications and many shorthand expressions have been invented such as 88 (pinyin: bābā) representing "bye bye" (English).
If the student is thinking about future employment, she may have a LinkedIn account, a popular service for jobseekers and employers. Her profile and interactions through LinkedIn will highlight her professional side, namely her academic preparation, work history, significant achievements, etc. In contrast, her Facebook profile and interactions will emphasize her personal interests and circle of friends/family and will likely include a rich exchange of photos and videos. In the process, she is constructing different identities corresponding with the different contexts.
For both Facebook and LinkedIn, there is likely to be a RL connection, that is, the student will be using her real name and authentic aspects of her personal life and history. If she also participates in an online dating service, that is likely to be the case as well. That might not be true, however, in other online communities in which she participates. She may, for example, be a regular player in multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft. In that environment she may have created a game persona as well as an avatar, perhaps representing her RL identity, or perhaps an imagined or desired self. This could be the case in a virtual worlds environment such as Second Life or in fantasy-related online environments. The identities assumed are likely to have an impact on the communication style and language use. They might also have a determining effect on social interactions within the online environment, determining with whom she associates and how she presents herself in terms of values and behaviors.
Having to write oneself into being means that on many forums, one can start from scratch, and write into being the kind of being one wants to be. Here we of course encounter differences between anonymous and nonymous sites for identity construction for instance a social network site such as Facebook is a nonymous site; users present themselves there, in many if not most cases, with their real name, with a picture of themselves attached to that name to further authenticate their ‘real’ identity. On anonymous sites we perhaps see more room for manoeuvring and identity play – we are for instance able to present ourselves with a self-invented user name.
Varis, Wang & Du, 2011, p. 268)
One of the situations in which the subject position is likely to be quite different from the normal RL self is in participation in online communities in a second language. To what extent this is the case will depend in part on the mode of communication–whether written or audio/video–and on the level of language proficiency. In any case, there are likely to be restrictions in possible topics of conversation, depending on the context, cultural sensitivity, and available vocabulary. The likely linguistic handicaps and cultural differences may change how she presents herself, possibly leading to some tentativeness or timidity in areas such as suggesting topic changes or asserting opinions.
The opportunities afforded by the Internet for language learning and personal development have been a subject of considerable interest in applied linguistics in recent years. There have been a number of studies, for example, on language and culture learning through students' participation in online exchanges, often as part of class-to-class activities (Belz & Thorne, 2006). There is growing interest in activities which occur outside of institutional settings, as that is increasingly the case for many young people today. Eva Lam (2004), for example, studied the experiences of several immigrant youth participating in online discussion forums and in creating webpages on Japanese anime, to provide out of class language learning opportunities. These experiences were particularly valued by the students, as in school they were stigmatized as immigrants and poor language learners.Another study focused on the writing of "fanfiction" – original works of fiction based on popular media such as television, movies, or books. Rebecca Black (2006) describes the complex language and cultural situation of one young woman of Japanese descent ("Nanako") whose family settled in Canada. She became a successful fanfiction writer in English (see sidebar). The multilingual and multicultural dimensions of her experience with writing fanfiction is representative of many online Internet activities today. In this way, a second language enables more than just linguistic competence, as Ema Ushioda comments:
A foreign language is not simply something to add to our repertoire of skills, but a personalized tool that enables us to expand and express our identity or sense of self in new and interesting ways and with new kinds of people; to participate in a more diverse range of contexts and communities and so broaden our experiences and horizons; and to access and share new and alternative sources of information, entertainment or material that we need, value or enjoy. (2011, p. 204).
Proficiency in a second language is not just an added skill. By broadening the range of activities in which we engage and the people with whom we interact, a new personal identity is created.
Active Fandom: Writing, re-mixing and learning
[Her] identity was negotiated, not only through English, but also through Nanako’s pan-Asian linguistic and cultural knowledge and affiliations. Additionally, for Nanako’s writing on Fanfiction.net she draws on a range of pop cultural resources from different countries, such as Japanese animation, music from the United Kingdom, and novels and motion pictures from the United States, to assist her in composing in English...these dialogic resources shifted over time as Nanako’s facility with English as well as her comfort level in the online community increased...Nanako’s participation in this online space helped her to develop confidence and motivation for continued writing and language learning in English; however, it also provided her with a sense of pride and a renewed emphasis on her linguistic background and ethnic identity as an Asian.