The establishment of identity in virtual communities

Judith Donath, MIT Media Lab

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University November 10, 1995


When you first meet someone, a multitude of details - many gleaned subconsciously - go into creating your impression of the new acquaintance. The same is true when you meet someone online, except that there are far fewer details to observe and the resulting impression is quite sketchy. With more and more of our social interactions occuring online, the question of how to make this virtual impression more vibrant and meaningful becomes increasingly important.

I will begin this talk by examining how identity is established online today in Usenet news and Web home pages. In these technologically constrained environments, some very interesting ways of establishing (or hiding) one's personal identity have evolved. And, for the designer, it is the constraints which are most interesting - which ones have had the most impact on the resulting culture? And which are the most important to remove? I will then discuss designs for more sociable interfaces, focussing on the design and implementation of the recent Media Lab/ Art Technology Group project: A Day in the Life of Cyberspace.


Judith Donath is a doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab. Her research focusses on the social side of computing - on the online communities and virtual identities and computer-mediated collaborations that have emerged with the convergence of computing and communication. Prior to entering the doctoral program she taught interface design, produced multimedia applications and designed educational software.


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