Where Everybody Knows Your Name

One of the most famous images of online life is the New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon, published in 1993, was hugely influential in fixing an image in the public imagination of the Internet as a place where anonymity reigned. It did not take long for that humorous view of anonymity to take on a darker cast, as parents began to fear that Internet predators would use this invisibility to lure their children in the guise of twelve-year-old girls. It’s instructive, though, to realize just how long ago this cartoon was published, and how much the Internet has changed since then.

The Internet described in the cartoon was considerably different from the one we know today: it was an online world composed entirely of text and accessed almost exclusively by government employees, academics and university students. 1993 marked the launch of Mosaic, the first graphic Web browser; it was also the year that America Online began to offer relatively cheap and easy Internet access, marking the beginning of the Internet as a mass phenomenon. Today’s Internet, and its place in our lives, is fundamentally different from what it was when that cartoon was published, and yet it remains one of the touchstones of our understanding of online life. In fact, though, the past decade has seen near-constant conflict over how we represent ourselves online – and the age of online anonymity may in fact now be over.

It’s certainly true that anonymity was the rule in early online environments: discussion groups such as Usenet, early social networks like the WELL and local bulletin board systems all took a casual attitude towards identity that made it possible for users to present themselves as whoever they said they were. Another possible contributing factor is the large number of early Internet users who were involved in role-playing of various kinds and were accustomed to presenting an altered or tailored identity in public. This was a fundamental aspect of Internet culture in 1993, and the flood of casual Internet users who began to arrive in that year largely adopted it – at least at first. This had a number of effects: for some it led to an increased confidence and an ability to participate in discussions from which they would otherwise be excluded, while it gave others license to bait and insult others – an activity that came to be known as “trolling.” (Though those who engage in trolling are referred to as “trolls,” the term did not actually originate from an association with mythical monsters but from the act of trailing a fishing line behind a boat: the purpose of trolling is not specifically to wound but to see what kind of reaction the troll can provoke in others.) As more and more of people’s lives moved online, trolling increasingly gave way to a more focused, targeted and intentionally hurtful behaviour – cyberbullying – and soon the news was full of stories of children being victimized by anonymous bullies.

However, just as most of the people posing as twelve-year-old girls turned out to be undercover police officers, the relationship between anonymity and bullying is more complicated than it at first appeared. A 2008 study, “Extending the School Grounds? – Bullying Experiences in Cyberspace,” showed that roughly two-thirds of bullying victims knew the identity of the perpetrators – or at least were fairly certain that they did – and was one of several studies to show that online and offline bullying often go hand-in-hand. It’s worth noting that the purpose of this study was to test existing assumptions about cyberbullying, including its association with anonymity. It may be that the belief in a connection between bullying and anonymity wasn’t necessarily wrong – but that the nature of the Internet itself has changed

Consider Facebook, the site most emblematic of the differences between the Internet of the 90s and today’s online world. While it’s certainly possible to create a false Facebook profile, for most of its users that would entirely defeat the purpose of using it. This is particularly true of young people, who generally re-create their offline social webs on the site. Under these circumstances, false profiles might be used only if they are an “open secret,” and thus not genuinely anonymous. (One can imagine youth doing this in order to socialize with their friends but not their parents, for instance.) Moreover, it is impossible to be genuinely anonymous on Facebook: a profile must have some identity, even if it is a fictional one. During the years of predator panics Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke of his site’s open approach to identity as an improvement over the anonymity previously associated with the Internet, and while the jury may be out on that there’s no question that it has driven a seismic shift in our attitudes towards online identity. Even the comment threads of blogs, newspapers and magazines, one of the last redoubts of Usenet-style trolling, are moving away from allowing casual or anonymous identities and requiring those who leave comments to establish permanent logins or even audition for the right to make posts without direct oversight from moderators.

That’s not to say, that everyone online today is who they claim to be. What’s happened instead is that anonymity has, to a large extent, been replaced by pseudonymity – the assumption of false and, in some cases, multiple identities. While many of the problems associated with anonymity (such as the loss of inhibition and personal responsibility thought to enable cyberbullying) may also occur when users take on pseudonymous identities, there are some important differences between the two. The most important is that anonymity is, by definition, a disposable identity, to be used once and then discarded at little or no cost; pseudonymous identities, on the other hand, demand investments to be effective. Twitter, for instance, is infested with celebrity impersonators, but it nevertheless depends on its users having a stable and consistent identity with which to win followers. To be real on Twitter is less important than to be entertaining, but you must be consistently entertaining – a Twitter account is, essentially, a brand that must be developed and maintained just as much as a true personal identity.

One example of this is “sock puppetry,” the creation of false identities to lend apparent support to your position. This may be done in a more or less impersonal way, as when authors create fictitious personas to praise their own books on Amazon, or it may be more involved: for example, the cartoonist Scott Adams (“Dilbert”) was recently discovered to have created a false identity, “PlannedChaos,” with which to defend himself in a discussion on the Web site Metafilter. Other contributors’ reactions gave PlannedChaos’s opinions little weight, though; while Adams had successfully hidden his true identity, the new one he created had no particular credibility.

As we develop our online identities by building their credibility and developing peer networks around them, they become more valuable to us and we are less willing to risk them. Vendor and purchaser rating systems at online commerce sites such as eBay help to tie people to consistent identities: it’s always possible to abandon an identity that has attracted negative feedback, but that means starting over with an identity with no track record, itself a red flag.

This holds true even in environments where there is no expectation of presenting the “real” you. We are unlikely to use our real names when we play World of Warcraft, but the more we “level up” – both in terms of advancing our character in the game and developing his alliances and interpersonal connections – the more we have invested in him and the more he begins to be as real and valuable as our “true” identity. This may not mean an end to cyberbullying – for it those communities where anonymity is still the norm, such as 4chan, Formspring, and Xbox Live, that bullying is most strongly associated – but it does mean that bullying, and other negative behaviours once associated with anonymity, now nearly always take place in a context where there is something for the perpetrators to lose.

The fact is that we are less anonymous online than ever – indeed in many ways it is now harder to be anonymous online than off . While we might encounter a half-dozen video cameras or passcard readers in any given day, everything we do online is tracked, recorded and keyed to our IP address and our endlessly developing user profile, so that even the content we encounter is tailored to us. Nor is maintaining multiple identities something unique to the Internet: we are all different people, to greater and lesser degrees, in different contexts, whether it is with different groups of friends, with parents or workmates. Young people, in particular those who are members of visible minority groups, often engage in what’s called “code switching” – moving between different dialects and social norms depending on context, such as when addressing peers, parents or teachers. The Internet, though, allows us to separate those identities more easily than we can offline, and most of the data that is gathered about us is held by the corporations whose sites we visit, not by the people in our social networks. As pseudonymity, rather than anonymity, becomes more and more the rule, we may find it essential to teach young people to manage all of their online identities wisely and ethically.

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