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Virtual extension

Future Tense: I, Myself and E-Myself

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The Internet has revolutionized the manner in which people interact. Once regarded as merely a convenient platform for the collection and dissemination of information, the Internet is increasingly used for intensely personal and creative purposes. Web 2.0 applications supporting Web-based social networking through blogs, wikis and folksonomies have proven potent in changing users' perception and use of the Internet.

Using the Internet has thus acquired a new and more personal dimension. People increasingly rely on it to provide them with societal and communal structures that were hitherto the remit of their families and work-groups. Internet users may either own their own Web space or use facilities provided by an online host, increasingly personalizing these virtual properties. While residing in their virtual places, users socialize, share ideas, and attempt to personalize their virtual property.

The search for a suitable online residence entails significant costs in terms of time and effort that are commensurate with the anticipated gain. The process of settling down in a virtual place includes searching for communities (or services), creating new online IDs, managing profiles judiciously, and adapting to new environments. Settling-in increases users' switching costs and this locks the users into a virtual place.6 The more time and effort a user spends on a specific place, the greater the cost and the disincentive of switching to another place. A primary goal of Web 2.0 application providers is to retain membership in their communities. Understanding the psychological dynamics of online behaviors is an essential part of identifying and retaining membership in online communities.

Although it is useful to understand the psychological underpinning of online users, the adoption of psychological theories and instances should be performed with caution and with due regard to applicability. Many Web developers start with the premise that an individual's perceptions, thoughts and online behaviors are similar to their personality in the real world. However, if this premise itself is wrong - that is, if an individual becomes a different person when online, then our theories along with our business strategies may require modification. It is our position that study of the development of the virtual personality is vital because human beings perceive, think, and behave differently when they are online.

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Virtual Ego and Online Persona

The ego is central to one's conscious self. An individual's conscious thoughts and behaviors are determined and controlled by the individual's ego. The Persona originally referred to a mask worn by an actor, signifying a role given to that actor.5 Jung5 states that "Persona is a compromise between an individual and society as to what a man should appear to be." Jacobi4 interprets Jung's definition of Persona as being "the form of an individual's general psychic attitude towards the outer world." That is, Persona is one's personality as presented to others.

An individual's identity in the face-to-face world (what we shall hereafter refer to as offline identity) has elements of both ego and Persona, as illustrated in Figure 1. The Persona actually mediates between an individual ego and other people. Indeed, other people only know the identity of the individual through the Persona.

Understanding an online identity using the traditional concepts of ego and Persona presents difficulties. First, an offline identity is derived from bodily-self-awareness and its corresponding ego is developed from birth throughout one's life. In contrast, an online identity is based on an 'alterego' (such as an Avatar or a virtual ID). If we assume that there exists an underlying ego for the online identity, its inception corresponds to the creation of its corresponding online Persona and subsequently develops through the use of that online identity. Furthermore, whereas the Persona in the face-to-face world is dependent on both ego and environment, the online Persona is arguably more dependent on an individual's online ego and less on environment. For example, some individuals may not develop a Persona for an online community if they feel that their real identity will not be recognized. Finally, the intensity of self-awareness of one's online identity can vary from trivial to very strong, while the individual's selfawareness of his or her offline identity is very strong in most cases. When an individual contemplates his Avatar, for example, his alter-egoic feeling for the Avatar could range from no feelings at all to strong feelings.

We posit that an Internet user's virtual ego is a special case of and distinguishable from his or her real ego. A virtual ego would exist primarily online and would not manifest itself in the face-to-face world. Next, we report the results of a study to determine if a large group of Internet users' virtual egos appear distinct from their (real) egos.

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Validation of Virtual Ego

While the real ego develops from birth onwards, it is hypothesized that the development of the virtual ego begins with the creation of an online identity and functions only online. That is, the patterns of development and functioning of the virtual ego may be differentiated from those of the real ego. The greater the developmental and functional gap between the real ego and the virtual ego, the more plausible the existence of the virtual ego.

Although the developmental stages of the ego appear akin to psychological development stages, they are not associated with chronological age. That is, two adults of the same age can show very different ego developmental stages. The ego development score (EDS) was designed by Cassel1 and distributed through ETS ( The EDS provides an overall diagnosis of the degree to which people function in personal, social, and educational life areas and how they perceive themselves in relation to certain personality attributes.1 Table 1 presents an overview of the six developmental stages measured by the EDS. The scale was validated in a variety of settings including high school students, college students, and adults.

In this study, we adapted the Cassel's ego development scale to the context of on-line behaviors and environments. For each question in the original EDS such as "People usually think I am friendly," we created a modified Internet-specific counterpart that reads, "Peers in the online community usually think I am friendly." If the reported developmental stages of individuals' virtual egos are statistically different from the reported developmental stages of their real egos, the existence of virtual ego is more plausible.

It should be noted that the ego can not only be assessed for its developmental stage, but also for its strength. This is referred to as the strength of the ego function. Goldstein3 states that ego functions are means by which an individual adapts to the external world to survive. To further test the existence of the virtual ego, we measured the strengths of the virtual and the real ego functions by similarly adapting scales developed by ego-psychologists2 for real ego strength measurement. The strengths of real ego and virtual ego were subsequently compared to further validate the existence of the virtual ego.

A total of 359 undergraduate management students participated in this study, each completing four distinct tests. These tests consisted of both the original and the virtual ego development tests (15 survey questions each), as well the real ego function strength test and its virtual ego function strength counterpart (22 survey questions each). An overview of the results of comparison between developmental stages of real ego and virtual ego are presented in Figure 2 and Table 2.

Figure 2 and Table 2 illustrate that responses for the real and virtual ego stages are different. In Figure 2, the gradient of the line should have been "1" if the virtual egos of subjects were not different from the real egos.

The results reveal an interesting phenomenon. When the development stage of the real ego is high, the development stage of the virtual ego is lower and the difference is statistically significant. On the other hand, when the development stage of the real ego is low, the virtual ego is observed to be higher and thus more developed, which is likewise statistically significant. In other words, individuals with mature egos in real life have relatively less mature virtual egos vis-à-vis their online identities, while the individuals with immature egos in real life have more mature virtual egos with regards to their online identities. These results imply that the virtual ego may indeed be a distinct subset of the real ego and that there can be a disconnection between the developmental stage of the virtual ego and the developmental stage of the real ego. In essence, a person's real ego is not necessarily active when online.

Data gathered on strength of ego function likewise underscored the distinction between the real and the virtual egos. Comparing the paired set of ego function questions, the selfreported strength of the real ego was observed to be greater than that of the virtual ego, and this difference is statistically significant based on the t-test (t=6.45).

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The concepts of the virtual ego and the notion of an online Persona are overarching concepts providing a new rationale for understanding and explaining online behavior. The results of this exploratory study suggest that within a large user base, the sub-set of users whose behavior can be characterized as particularly autonomous and conscientious in real life may tend towards more immature and impulsive behaviors in online environments, while those whose behavior is observed as particularly immature in real life may transcend those tendencies to some degree online. Developing and maintaining a large user base is often the goal of online businesses and online communities. Ironically, these same enterprises may be destroyed by the malignant behaviors of only a few users. We are currently investigating how the immature online egos contribute to malicious and destructive behavior in online communities. In this context, the virtual ego and the online Persona provide a baseline for further studies to advance our understanding of the dynamics of Web-based social networks and to facilitate their growth and stability.

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1. Cassel, R.N. The ego development scale. Psychologists and Educators, Inc. Educational Testing Service, 1974.

2. Epstein, S. Ego Strength Scale. University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Educational Testing Service, 1983.

3. Goldstein, E.G. Ego Psychology and Social Work Practice. 2nd ed. The Free Press, 1995.

4. Jacobi, J. The psychology of CGJung. Yale University Press, 1973.

5. Jung, C.G. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, ed. H. Read, M. Fordham, and G. Adler. Vol. 7. 1953, Routledge & Kegan Pual, LTD, London.

6. Shapiro, C. and H.R. Varian, Information Rules. Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, 1999.

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Cheul Rhee ( is an assistant professor in the e-Business department in the School of Business Administration at Ajou University.

G. Lawrence Sanders ( is a professor in the Department of Management Science and Systems in the School of Management at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Natalie C. Simpson ( is an associate professor in the Department of Operations Management and Strategy and an academic director of a digital access education in the School of Business at State University of New York at Buffalo, NY.

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F1Figure 1. Roadmap of the Virtual Ego and the Online Persona

F2Figure 2. Mean Scores for Virtual Ego Development Stage within each Real Ego Development Stage Represented in Study Group (n = 359).

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T1Table 1. Descriptive interpretation of real ego development for college students

T2Table 2. Real Ego Versus Virtual Ego Development Stages in Study

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