Written by Julia Engel
The digital extended self and its implication for corporate brand identity
While we live in a highly digitalised world since quite some time now, I wonder why so many companies still struggle with the integration of “online and offline” channels in distribution and communication. Why do I assume that they are struggling? Because, as a Master’s student in marketing and consumption, this is exactly what University urges us to solve in the future. You find it in job descriptions and in journal articles.
I do realise that for me, as a ‘digital native’, the use of technology must certainly be easier than for other generations. However, it seems even for ‘older’ people zigzagging around different offline and online channels has become second nature Of course for some more than for others, but even my parents - in their mid-50s - share pictures with their friends on WhatsApp, leave semi-appropriate comments on my Facebook wall and check their E-mails first thing in the morning. Following this line of thought, I wondered why it seems impossible for companies to ease into an integrated use of offline and online channels, considering they are employing those ‘ziggzagging’, email-checking, semi-appropriate-message-leaving people.
Since its first publication in 1988, Belk’s theory of ‘The Extended Self’ has often been used to explain how objects and relationships can become part of our personal identity (Sheth & Solomon, 2014). Recently this theory was extended to the digital environment, in which online profiles and avatars have become like a second skin that we are naturally moving around in (Belk, 2013; 2014). While academia and companies have used ‘The Extended Self’ en masse to study human behaviour and consumption, I propose that its basic principles apply to the nature and identity of companies as well. In order to prove this I first need to explore how the concept of the “extended self” works in a digital age.
Click here to download: Identity 2.0 (Extended Version)
As a person, we constantly express ourselves with the help of external objects, such as clothes, cars, pictures, smart phones, tablets, laptops but also digital possessions (Belk, 2014). By the use or simply the possession of objects, they can become part of our identity in form of a perceived extension of ourselves (Belk, 2014). The importance of certain objects can be routed in their “displaced meaning”, thus being associated with certain characteristics or lifestyle outside of the person’s environment. Think of the iPhone. Does it really offer better functionality than any other smartphone? Owning an iPhone is a status symbol, which reflects wealth and a modern lifestyle, even thought this might not be true in reality. The obsessive use of objects, which nowadays is often observed in relation to digital devices, can even lead to a prosthetic nature, where people cannot picture their life without it (Sheth & Solomon, 2014). Even though I feel like I can perfectly continue my life without my currently broken smartphone I was surprised when I realised how much it “thinks” for me. Without the constant automatic features and push notifications, I actually got stressed, constantly wondering: “What profiles do I have to check?”, “Where could people have left me a message?”, “Which updates are necessary?”. To my surprise, I did not realise how unconsciously use these features throughout the day. Especially the need of nurturing my online avatars and profiles has become way harder without my phone thinking for me. This part (of me) that I was relying on, was suddenly gone.
Downloading Identity 2.0 (Extended Version)
With the rise of the internet and social media, the expression of identity through the digital objects reached a new level. Not only can we express our identity with digital pictures, messages, voice notes, social media profiles or game avatars, but also we can do so with the absence of our body (Belk, 2014). Hereby technological devices enable us to be “effectively present when our bodies are not”, as the digital object “stands for the person, acts for the person and IS the person” (Belk 2014). As there is little to no verification of our identity online, the internet - much as other new technologies before it - has a mysterious, magical, maybe even spiritual aspect when representing individuals (Belk, 2014). When I first heard that people were afraid or sceptical about “bodiless voices” speaking to them through the telephone, I could hardly relate. Now I understand their feelings, when I see what is possible with the new technology of holograms.
With the absence of our body “in cyberspace [we are free] to be whomever we wish” (Belk 2014). Every single one of us has various online self-representations, which are more or less accurate to our embodied identity. Hereby, “there is more transfer from the real into the virtual world than in reverse” (Yee, 2013 as cited in Belk 2014). While our imagination is usually unable to create a digital identity that is too different of our physical identity (Belk, 2013), it becomes easier to associate ourselves with attributes and objects that have a displayed meanings. Studies have shown that e.g. avatars, which are older, taller, stronger have an effect on our ‘real embodied personality’, as we feel wiser, more powerful, etc.
Through the internet, our re-embodiment selves have a greater reach but in return, they are harder to grasp (Belk, 2014). “What really matters is the psychological identification with these representations and their impact on our consciousness” (Streuer, 1992 as cited in Belk, 2014). In order to become completely integrated in the digital environment and our present relationships, we must gain a ‘state of flow’ when changing between different digital profiles and avatars (Belk, 2014). Just as we learn to extend our bodies with e.g. a pair of skis or a bike, we must develop the ability to feel embodied with our digital profile or avatar in order for it to become part of our extended self (Belk, 2014). Then the ”lines are blurred between what is an extension of the user, what is owned by the user, and what the user is doing versus what the avatar is doing… Today’s Gen Z (and younger) consumer does not make the distinction between being “online” and “offline” (Sheth & Solomon, 2014).
Installing Identity 2.0 (Extended Version)
In conclusion, we will only be able to have an integrated identity that we can alter between the real world and our digital environment with ease. If we can identify ourselves with each disembodiment, it does not matter that they have a certain role and represent a certain aspect of our identity, e.g. linkedin for career, whatsapp for texting, tumblr to blog etc., as long as all digital re-embodiments are coherent with our current identity. Even though the re-embodiment may differ to some extend from the body and may include objects with a displaced meaning, the identity must be somewhat authentic. With these requirements given, individuals are able to be “present” in one form or another at all times. With this knowledge about how individuals implement the ‘extended self’ and create an integrated identity within the offline and online world, we will see how it applies for companies and their identities. Continue reading…