Online identity – calling in the tab

Imagine walking backwards down a path, you can see where you’ve been, you can see where you are now but you can’t see where you’re going.

Keith Johnstone[1]

And this is how we experience life is it not? Now more than ever we can see further down that path and we can see more clearly where we are now. We no longer hear of that tsunami a week later, an hour later or even after a few minutes. Now we can share the horrific experience with the people on the ground in the present moment.

We have a relationship with these events that thanks to the internet no longer feels historical. It’s not that they did not impact us before, rather now we feel them more closely. It’s analogous to the difference between sight and smell; if we see something it could be lightyears away (such as a star) or it could be right in front of us (like our fancy Apple laptops) but in order to smell something it must be in our immediate vicinity, and knowing this a priori, our behaviour changes. We are smelling the world now rather than merely seeing it, the internet has given us this sense of smell, this feeling of closeness. These events matter to us in a way we have never known before.

Isn’t it about time we stopped saying “in the real world” when talking about offline activity? I don’t know what planet you go to when online but I feel very much at home. When we say “in the real world” we are kidding ourselves in to thinking that what goes on online isn’t real. Try telling that to someone who lost their job because of something they wrote on Facebook or Twitter.

For a while now facial recognition software on Facebook has been standard[2][3][4] and stylometry, a technology that, for example, can identify us based on our style of writing,[5][6] is following close behind. Now I don’t wish to scare monger but most probably Facebook has your legal identity which forms a large part of its value proposition to the markets. That’s right Zuckerberg did “what the CIA failed to do in 60 years”[7] just by saying “look the other way!” You went online to connect with your friends but you forgot that all the while you were running up a tab.

Our identity is tied to a balance sheet such as when the police say “we need to identify a man in connection to…”. In order to hold someone to account we must first have their identity. It’s as if the internet while in its infancy allowed us to hold multiple balance sheets, masquerading among different people and groups under pseudonyms. Each one had a different history, level of trust and reputation; much the way it is offline. But with the internet, like no other species, we have transcended space and time.

While every life form invents its world with its own sense of space and time, human culture further extends the variability.

 Pierre Lévy[8]

Hear that? Space and time are for the birds, literally. We laugh in the face of geographic boundaries. When offline where we go depends on things like how close we are, how able bodied along with pesky economic factors like whether we can afford that airline ticket. However in an online environment the only thing that stops us from going anywhere is how much we care; on the web we are guided by our passions and interests.[9]

What’s that? Really, you don’t think people are interested in you and won’t bother looking you up? Oh please. Try switching roles for a moment. What if you needed to meet someone new in order to fill an important role in your life? Let’s assume for a moment your network of friends doesn’t accomodate every possible need you will ever have. If we really want to get to know someone we don’t ask them what they think, that will just cover us in spin with lashings of self deception. No, if we want anything resembling the truth we ask the people around them,[10] it’s the best way of speeding up that never ending journey we call “getting to know someone”.

Pseudonyms don’t prevent identification, they simply slow the process down. If someone cares enough they will find the truth eventually. Conversely if someone doesn’t want to hear the truth then they will believe what they want to believe.

If it can be said that man collectively shrinks back more and more from the Truth, it can also be said that on all sides the Truth is closing in more and more upon man. It might also be said that, in order to receive a touch of It, which in the past required a lifetime of effort, all that is asked of him now is not to shrink back. And yet how difficult that is!

Martin Lings[12]

Truth is repetition[11] and more and more I am coming to think that the enemy of the radical transparency movement isn’t privacy, it’s change.

To be continued…

Further reading & criticisms of the views in this post

Dana Boyd Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power & Facebook and “radical transparency” (a rant)

Paul Bernal gives a wonderful analogy of these issues in his post Privacy… and the Phantom Tollbooth!

Wikipedia Radical transparency versus accountability

Christopher Poole speaking out against Zuckerberg’s assertion that anonymity is cowardice: “Anonymity is authenticity. It allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, raw way.” 4chan Founder Christopher Poole’s SXSW Speech


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Keith Johnstone, paraphrasing as I can’t locate source. He was speaking on the subject of acting and improvisation
  2. Search Engine Watch How to Disable Facebook Facial Recognition 8 Jun 2011
  3. PC World Is Facebook Sharing Your Face With the Cops? 1 Feb 2012
  4. EPIC Calls for Moratorium on Facial Recognition Technology 31 Jan 2012
  5. Wikipedia Stylometry
  6. University of Arizona Authorship Analysis see full paper A Stylometric Approach to identity-level identification and similarity detection in cyberspace
  7. Forbes Profile of Mark Zuckerberg
  8. Pierre Lévy Becoming virtual: reality in the Digital Age 1998
  9. ibid
  10. Wikipedia Looking glass self
  11. Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions via E.F. Schumacher Small is Beautiful p. 249
  12. Søren Kierkegaard “Truth as subjectivity” Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments link to Daniel Johnson 2003
  • Sam Ambreen

    Agreed. Site coming along nicely