Virtual Deviance


Wherever there are constraints on personal expression, there will always be spaces, virtual or otherwise, that allow people to feel secure in expressing their identities and validated in their opposition of oppressive structures. Virtual deviance encapsulates how deviant subculturists express themselves through online media – how they interact with each other, how they game, and how they present their deviant identities through anonymous and non-anonymous means. Although the differences between “real” and “virtual” space are often exaggerated, virtual space does allow for a degree of freedom and security that is hard to match in more corporeal spaces. There are many important aspects of virtual deviance to be addressed, including the false dichotomy of real versus virtual identities and spaces. While corporeal spaces might feel more “real,” physically,  virtual spaces allow one to reflect oneself and interact with each others much easier in an increasingly globalized world. This virtual space not only allows people to express their true selves – or parts of themselves that they may not be able to express outside of the internet – but also allows them to explore their own identities.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous navigator of a given virtual space is a “geek,” which carries  a variety of connotations, both positive and negative. How mainstream society sees these “geeks,” is often less important than how geeks use virtual space to express themselves and engage in both the critique of hierarchical structures and the construction of their own hierarchy. This virtual world reflects the deviance hierarchies and tests of authenticity, with the idea of what the good geek should look like or how to perform in the online space being at the forefront of many virtual space’s unspoken ideologies. There are also the variations of how one can navigate the virtual world, based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, and age. Virtual space reflects deviant cultures and gives them a place to reflect and commune with each other, and allows sociologists to look in on one aspect on these often hidden communities. The “functional units” of virtual deviance are these communities, or subcultures, and while they often operate independently with their own hierarchies and conceptions of self, they are still subject to the sociological forces that shape any other community. How these subcultures operate virtual deviance in the formation of their own identity is a necessary key that can help us understand how society as a whole responds to these large-scale sociological trends.

Corporeal versus Digital: Real versus Unreal Spaces

World Of Warcraft cosplayers posing in their characters' oufits
World Of Warcraft cosplayers often go to cosplay conventions in real life as a way to connect with other peers in the same community

Social researchers, especially subculture sociologists, have been studying the material environment surrounding us and especially the meanings people attach to it. Space in the corporeal world comprises of both abstract and asocial aspects of the material environment: direction, shape, distance, size, and volume (Gieryn 2000). These places serve as the overarching structure that shapes interactions and influences its inhabitants (Kidder 2011). In other words, how people engage with the given material condition and physical spaces can give different meaning to those spaces.  For subculturists, places can play an important role as the embodiment of subcultural ideals as well as the sites of resistance against authorities. So, a specific location or place can hold contrasting values for different subcultures as it does for mainstream, dominant cultures.  Furthermore, places can be closely linked with subcultural identities and often shape subculturists’ practice. For example, bike messengers literally engage with congested urban spaces as a kind of challenging background which makes their delivery work become an exciting adventure. Similarly, traceurs – parkour enthusiasts – directly interact with concrete urban spaces in a manner that transforms its original utilitarian purposes to other purposes.

However, an emphasis on places in the corporeal world would often neglect the more abstract aspect of space: spaces in the virtual world. Subculture scenes are not always local, which means they are not limited to a specific geographical area and require face-to-face interaction. For trans-local scenes that expand across the globe, the ties that connect participants of a subculture would be the values, ideals, styles, and practices (Kruse 1993). Virtual space then serves as a convenient means by which subculturalists communicate, contribute, and engage in subcultural scenes. Part of the virtual world, Internet, and digital space in general, provides both medium and resources for subculturalists (Williams 2003). So, digital space adds another layer to the corporeal world and, thus, creates opportunities for subcultures to become more globalized.

When evaluating the relationship between corporeal and digital world, it is necessary to avoid forming a dichotomy between the two spaces. That is, digital world and corporeal world should not be considered as parallel and separate. The argument of overlap of corporeal and digital spaces will be a critic against this argument of dualism. One limitation of a digital-corporeal dualism theory is that it does not account for the interaction between the two worlds as in fact, they do operate in tandem with each other and construct each other respectively. Digital space is just as real as corporeal world because it similarly involves real people interacting with each other. Tutorial videos for skateboard tricks on Youtube would be an example of the overlapping of the two worlds/spaces: a potential skater subculturists will learn from the virtual experience provided by the tutorial video to start practicing skateboarding tricks in corporeal world and slowly engage in the skater subculture itself.

Digital space actually enmeshes and enhances the corporeal world we are living in as it provides more freedom for subculturists to reach out to a wider community and form friendships (Haenfler 2013).  However, at the same time, digital space has certain constraints. The freedom and accessibility it provides also makes the space vulnerable to surveillance and control from authority and marketers. Furthermore, the anonymous identity that people can adopt digitally makes it easier to promote “flaming, and trolling, potentially policing creativity and boosting a scene’s exclusivity” (Haenfler 2013: 125).

The Virtual Self

image showing 17 different avatars - different genders, races, ethnicity, clothing, hairstyles, and ages are depicted in these example avatars.
Different online avatars depicting human-like attributes.

In the early days of internet research, scholars suggested that the anonymity of the web would encourage people to not be their real selves – however, when surveyed only 15% of internet users stated that they pretended to be someone else (Bartsch, 2015).  The idea of ‘different selves’ dates back to Carl Jung’s theories of the self. George Herbert Mead (1934) wrote about the idea of different selves as well – where we deploy versions of ourselves depending on the appropriate situations and the organized social groups we are placed within. The concept of a virtual self builds on this foundation of self-construction with many theorists researching whether there is the ‘true’ or ‘actual’ self when someone is online (Belk, 2013). For some, it’s analogous with the “strangers on the train” idea – where one discloses personal details to other folks around them because of the lower risk of that impacting their friends or family; however, these kinds of self-disclosures are well known to actually bring about closer friendships, leading to communities online. Theorists actually draw a difference between the ‘true self’ and the ‘actual self’, as tied back to 1950’s psychology – the true self is who you feel you truly are, while your actual self is how you express yourself to those around you.

Virtual deviance theorists believe that your true self is significantly more likely to be present in online conversations than in face-to-face conversations because of the almost guaranteed anonymity provided – case studies have actually proven this (Bargh 2002).  In addition, the virtual world allows for the involvement of lower levels of consciousness to be expressed in one’s personality; inner thoughts, perspectives, and awareness of the world around oneself are more ingrained in online personas than in the physical world, so the role of private thoughts embeds closeness to online relationships once more (Koles 2012).

Photo showing six people from Second Life sitting around a table, one dressed in a costume. They look relaxed.
Online radio hour in Second Life with users hanging out and listening to music both in game and out of game – crossing over the false dichotomy.

A virtual self is also a constructed idea – for some communities such as Second Life, there is the idea of folks that are online, versus those that are in the community. Second Life considers this the noob versus the Resident (Abdullah 2014). With these distinctions comes questions of authenticity often seen within subcultures reflected within these virtually deviant communities. In addition, there are distinguishing details of your sense of “self” when you are online – for some, this behavior online is a performance, while for others it is just an exchange of your behavior given situations. For instance, what one curates on one’s LinkedIn profile or even one’s Facebook page can be quite different from how one behaves in conversation on the web. With a static profile describing oneself, one acts as a curator – while in conversation, one reacts to a situation in the same way one does in real life (Hogan, 2010). Oftentimes behavior at a networking event versus at the bar with friends is quite different – and with the virtual selves, the same situation is reflected.

In addition, research has shown that the idea of a virtual self has allowed for individuals to fight back against mainstream constructions of identity and stereotypes. By expressing one’s true selves online, oftentimes that seeps back into one’s identity in the physical world – oftentimes resulting in performances that go against the social circumstances they are in (Kukshinov, 2015). With respect to gender performance, often men are socialized to behave in a certain way due to toxic masculinity, but the web can allow them to break from that ideal in some communities. However, others often reinforce gender stereotypes as detailed below (Manago, 2013).  Overall, the presence of self on the internet reflects older sociological research such as Jung and Mead, but also has been updated to include the transitive sense of self and to increase authenticity and legitimacy across different self-presentations.


The Geek Hierarchy

Either within virtual or corporeal world, deviant subcultures are constantly constructing their own hierarchy. In 2002 on his now-defunct humor website “The Brunching Shuttlecocks,” Lore Sjöberg posted his take on the “geek hierarchy,” a flowchart laying out how a variety of geek stereotypes measured up to each other in terms of absolute “geekiness.” For the purposes of this particular exploration of subcultural theory, the label of “geek” is assumed to have connotations of social ineptitude and excessive enthusiasm for a specialized subject of activity. An important note, however, is that many people, particularly online communities, subvert this mainstream conception of geekiness and instead turn it into a desirable characteristic.  

Sjöberg's geek hierarchy from his now-defunct humor website "The Brunching Shuttlecocks"
Sjöberg’s geek hierarchy from his now-defunct humor website “The Brunching Shuttlecocks”

Different versions of the geek hierarchy exist throughout the internet, but the vast majority of them share similar patterns. Towards the top of the hierarchy are generally the paid professional creators of “geeky material,” such as science fiction/fantasy writers and artists; they have had their geekiness validated commercially. The vast majority of geeks fall in the top-middle areas of the hierarchy as passive consumers of said material. As you begin to look at the lower rungs of the geek hierarchy, one can see a shift away from passive consumerism to a more active translation and transformation of geek material. Live-Action Role Players (LARPers), Renaissance Faire geeks, furries, and fanfiction writers all occupy the lowest spots on the hierarchy and are seen as the least socially acceptable forms of geek expression. Like most good satire, Sjöberg’s flowchart has an element of truth, and many people familiar with early-2000s geekdom will find themselves amused with how accurately the flow chart mirrors their own preconceptions. These preconceptions exist because we have all, to some degree, internalized elements of this hierarchy. The idea that not all geeks are created equal existed long before Sjöberg put it into flowchart form, and it is an idea that rests on layer upon layer of intersectional policing.

Border policing within and between subcultures drives the “us against them” mentality that relegates certain geek activities to less favorable positions in the geek hierarchy. Gender, perhaps more than any other factor, drives this policing and the desire to situate one’s own geeky activities above that of another’s so that they can rest easy knowing that “at least I’m not that person.” It’s no coincidence then, that women disproportionately occupy the lower rungs of the geek hierarchy, as women make up the majority of fanfiction writers and other transformers of geek culture. Also frequently gendered is the degree of involvement in a given geek subculture, with obsessiveness and hysterical attachment being attributed to mainstream conceptions of femininity.

Online Intersectional Policing


When someone is online, they don’t have to talk about their race. A username doesn’t need to have a picture attached to it, and thus race can often go without being addressed. However, oftentimes this leads to the assumption that the internet is a white-only space, or that spaces not about race are assumed to be for white people only. This is understandable – hiding one’s race on the internet is a  reasonable response as the many folks on the internet are quite racist.  Reddit and other online communities such as YouTube are still racist and reflect bias towards people of color based on appearance and intelligence. Race-based stigma is prevalent within deviant cultures online in similar ways as seen in person – however in this space, it is easier for one to cover their racial identity than in person-to-person relationships.



Sociability is reflected within virtual communities and often reflected back through choices of avatar. Researchers have found that the more elaborate one’s avatar choice is, the higher success they had in their social encounters, implying a culture of supporting dedication; however, they also found that users (regardless of real life gender) were more emboldened to chat with users with male avatars when using a stereotypically attractive female avatar – suggesting a reflection of confidence similar to real life gender and body stereotypes (Banakou, 2010).

a scantily clad woman is on the beach with her hair covering her breasts
An example of an oversexualized avatar

Users most often genderbend online as a joke or a method for catfishing rather than as a legitimate form of identity play. In addition, women were more likely to present themselves as eager to please males, emotional, friendly, and good listeners while men were more likely to present themselves as dominant, aloof, assertive, and initiating identity (Bartsch, 2015). For those who do genderbend when online, often it is less about a deconstruction of gender norms and more about a calculated tactic of performance in the game; in fact, oftentime men playing as women on the internet reinforce the idea of gender with overly sexual or feminine depictions of women (Martey, 2011, 2014).  This plays against resistance as rather than fighting those stereotypes, one takes advantage of the “good” benefits of gender-based associations.

However, some aspects of sexualization on the web have led to a new kind of sexualized masculinity – where men can subvert the hegemonic masculine culture by constructing unconventional forms of sexual expression. This allows for new and more accepted forms of gender expression and sexuality (with respect to presentation and orientation) that before these social networking sites expressed these values were often dismissed (Manago, 2013). One potential issue raised regarding this is the idea of self-objectification on the web and reinforcing ideas of what a sexy body should look like through social media presence.

Finally, women’s bodies are sexualized and expected to look and behave in a certain way in online virtual spaces. For instance, there is the phrase “tits or gtfo” applied to women on the internet, demanding that women post pictures of their tits or get out; however, 4chan’s /b/ contests this – claiming that the “tits or gtfo” is because all those who identify as women on the internet are “attention whores” (and prove this point by posting photos of their tits or vulvas on the web). However, 4chan is the dumpster of the internet, but this behavior is seen across roleplaying games and almost all online communities with expectations of women’s behavior – even from girls.  When women break gender norms online, they are partaking in deviance.



Because of fear with youngsters on the internet, oftentimes Second Life and these immersive environments are painted as leading to some technological apocalypse where humans will lose themselves in the game and never know how to separate back to reality. However, in describing their true selves children 8-16 (or “tweens”) knew the difference between their personal lives and their online avatars – one, when asked about this difference responded back clearly with “I don’t have a bear head and my hair is a lot longer[…]”. In addition, children reflect similar values of adults when representing themselves online – their reasons for avatar choice were functional disguise, aligning with or against popular trends, pure aesthetics, or embodiment of their “real” selves (Kafai, 2010).

Image showing the penguins from club penguin with captions of
Club Penguin Protest after Trump’s 2016 Election

In addition, many areas of the internet that made for children such as, Club Penguin, or other areas of the web are often looked down upon or seen as a joke, rather than a legitimate form of community for children. However, these communities often allow for communication about current events, reflections on growing up, or on being a child on the internet. However, there are legitimate concerns with children on the internet – Dateline’s To Catch A Predator has done a good job of outlining this danger with pedophiles. However, there are also additional challenges with children on the internet and appropriate content. This ties into the moral panics of children on the internet. For example, has a chat board available for those over the age of 13 with parental consent. However, in summer of 2015 those filters went down (link contains NSFW image text) due to a physical server move, leading to the forums filling with inappropriate comments, pictures, and behaviors galore; as such, the internet trolls took advantage of this majority children space.



Disability is rarely considered when one talks about intersectionality of identity; however, with the anonymity of the virtual world, often times disability relates to how one chooses to present or allow others to perceive them. For some, the online world is a way to escape their disabilities in the real world – when they are in world they don’t need to be limited by their disabilities and can choose to not disclose them, or to not reflect those disabilities in their avatar or online personality. For others, their disability is an inherent part of them, and while the virtual world allows them to step beyond that first judgement of being solely a disabled person, rather than a unique person with a disability, they choose to reflect their disability in their avatar and behavior. This frees them from the stigma of being a disabled person. For some, this allows for advocacy in the virtual world that leads to advocacy and increased understanding in the “real world” (Bloustien, 2016). There are also communities for disabled gamers as well as online support groups, as well as blogs regarding how to “pass” as able-bodied or the difficulty of existing in a subculture focused on the able-bodied.


Related Subcultures

The kink community has a vibrant online community; folks meet partners online, find communities, or look for references through virtual means. The advent of the virtual community for the kink subculture has meant a blending of ideas and values across groups around the world.

The furries often find a lot of their community online – it’s a way to find out about “real” communities and to meet folks or to share interests.

The hacker community is found mostly online through IRC because of the technology-based community.

The bronies often are first online – on message boards, on Reddit, and YouTube. They create art and take part in the community both online and in the “real” world.

Millions of League of Legends players and the professional gamers they support seek to carve out a space for eSports as a legitimate pastime and career choice alongside other, more traditional sports.


Online Resources

MTV’s True Life Season 19: Episode 7, “I’m married to a stranger” details the experience of Shane and Liza who played World of Warcraft together for 10 years, and then met up in real life twice – – the second time to get married. The episode shows the family’s hesitance with Liza and worry for Shane, but also how much the two love each other through the years of getting to know each other. MTV checked in with them later on and the two are still married – Shane is moving to Detroit from Canada while Liza finishes her master’s degree.


The Establishment has posted several blog posts about the difference between the online and ‘real’ self – and how that dichotomy has blended or even sometimes reversed. “‘The Internet’ is, for the most part, just people. It is not only usernames. People are not simply what they tweet. And just because someone calls himself a redditor doesn’t mean he took part in a witch hunt.”

Second Life Documentary -This feature-length documentary follows a group of people whose lives are dramatically transformed by a virtual world — reshaping relationships, identities, and ultimately the very notion of reality.

Dota: We, the community Documentary  – a documentary about the impressive growth of Dota community that is maintained through interaction between players virtually in online forums as well as during gameplay.

-A Dr.Phil episode about a video game addict explaining why he prefer the virtual world 


Scholarly Articles

Abdullah, Ashraf R. 2014. “An ethnographic sociolinguistic study of virtual identity in Second Life.”.

Banakou, Domna and Konstantinos Chorianopoulos. 2010. “The effects of avatars’ gender and appearance on social behavior in online 3D virtual worlds.” Journal For Virtual Worlds Research 2(5).

Bargh, John A., Katelyn Y. McKenna, and Grainne M. 2002. “Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the “true self” on the Internet.” Journal of social issues 58(1):33-48.

Bartsch, Miriam and Kaveri Subrahmanyam. 2015. “Technology and Self‐Presentation.” The Wiley Handbook of Psychology, Technology and Society 339.

Belk, Russell W. 2013. “Extended self in a digital world.” Journal of Consumer Research 40(3):477-500.

Biocca, Frank, C. H. a. J. K. B. 456-480. “Toward a more robust theory and measure of social presence: Review and suggested criteria.” 12(5):2003.

Bloustien, Geraldine, a. D. W. 2015. “Visualising disability and activism in Second Life.” Current Sociology.

Fox, Jesse, Dylan Arena, and Jeremy N. Bailenson. 2009. “Virtual reality: A survival guide for the social scientist.” Journal of Media Psychology 21(3):95-113.

Griffiths, Heather and Todd S. Frobish. 2013. “Virtual deviance: Swinging and swapping in an on-line network.” Deviant Behavior 34(11):875-894.

Hogan, Bernie. 2010. “The presentation of self in the age of social media: Distinguishing performances and exhibitions online.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society.

Kafai, Yasmin B., Deborah A. Fields, and Melissa S. 2010. “Your Second Selves Player-Designed Avatars.” Games and culture 5(1):23-42.

Koles, Bernadett and Peter Nagy. 2012. “Who is portrayed in Second Life: Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? The extent of congruence between real life and virtual identity.” Journal For Virtual Worlds Research 5.

Kukshinov, Eugene Y. 2015. “The Virtual Self and Possible Immersive Consequences of Uncharacteristic Self-Presentation in the Virtual Environment.” International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning (IJCBPL) 5(4):73-82.

Manago, Adriana M. 2013. “Negotiating a sexy masculinity on social networking sites.” Feminism & Psychology.

Martey, Rosa M. and Jennifer Stromer-Galley. 2007. “The digital dollhouse context and social norms in the Sims Online.” Games and Culture 2(4):314-334.

Martey, Rosa M. and Mia Consalvo. 2011. “Performing the looking-glass self: Avatar appearance and group identity in Second Life.” Popular Communication 9(3):165-180.

Martey, Rosa M., Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Jingsi Wu, and Mia Consalvo. 2014. “The strategic female: gender-switching and player behavior in online games.” Information, Communication & Society 17(3):286-300.

McCreery, Michael P. . S. K. K. P. G. S. a. R. B. 2012. “Defining the virtual self: Personality, behavior, and the psychology of embodiment.” Computers in Human Behavior 28(3):976-983.

McLeod, Poppy L. Y.-C. L. a. J. E. A. 2014. “When your Second Life comes knocking: Effects of personality on changes to real life from virtual world experiences.”Computers in Human Behavior 39:59-70.

Michikyan, Minas, J. D. a. K. S. 2014. “Can you guess who I am? Real, ideal, and false self-presentation on Facebook among emerging adults.” Emerging Adulthood.

Nagy, Peter, a. B. K. 2014. “The digital transformation of human identity Towards a conceptual model of virtual identity in virtual worlds.” Convergence: the international journal of research into new media technologies.

Petray, Theresa L. 2011. “Protest 2.0: online interactions and Aboriginal activists.” Media, Culture & Society 33(6):923-940.

Stalans, Loretta J. . a. M. A. F. 2016. “Understanding How the Internet Facilitates Crime and Deviance.” Victims & Offenders 11(4):501-508.

Page contributed by Toby Elizabeth Baratta, Quynh Nguyen, and Ryan Betters


The views and opinions expressed on individual web pages are strictly those of their authors and are not official statements of Grinnell College. Copyright Statement.