Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between

To be or not to be: that is the question.

Hamlet’s famous utterance plays a trick on theater-goers, a mind
game of the same type he inflicted constantly on his family and his
court. While diverting his audience’s attention with a
seemingly simple choice between being and non-being, Hamlet of all
people would know very well how these extremes bracket infinite

Our fascination with Hamlet is precisely his instinct for presenting a
different self to almost everyone he met. Scholars have been arguing
for four hundred years about Hamlet’s moral compass, whether his
feigned insanity masked a true mental illness, whether the suffering
and death he inflicted on those around him was a deliberate strategy,
what psychological complexes fueled his cruel excoriation of Ophelia,
and other dilemmas that come down to questions about his identity.

We can appreciate, therefore, why actors up to the present day have to
memorize Hamlet’s “Speak the speech” passage. As a thespian, Hamlet
outshown all the Players.

We can bring this critical perspective on identity into our own
21st-century lives as we populate social networks and join online
forums. When people ask who we are, questions multiply far beyond the
capacity of a binary “to be” digit.

No matter how candidly we flesh out our digital representations
online, they remain skin-deep. They can never reflect how we are known
to our families, neighbors, and workmates. Even if we stole a vision
from science fiction and preserved a complete scan of our brains, the
resulting representations would not be able to demonstrate the
dexterity we’ve built by playing basketball every Saturday, or show
the struggles we have to control Tourette’s syndrome.

I don’t believe anybody has tied down the meaning of online presence,
and I don’t presume to do so here. But we may find better resolutions
to some of the everyday dilemmas we face by exploring, over the course
of this article, facets of self that have been discovered and debated
in the age of computers.

Before widespread participation in Web 2.0-style forums, the question
of online identity was framed as an issue of privacy under assault by
large institutions. Only governments and major corporations could
install and program the mainframe computers that stored the digital
evidence of our identities. Within that framework, starting in the
1970s, European countries that were still shadowed by the history of
Nazi round-ups started to limit the sharing of personal information
gathered during commerce and other transactions.

But at the same time that these laws, enshrined in a 1995 Data
Protection Directive and further extended to transactions that the EU
carries out with other countries, set a standard for the regulation of
commercial data collection, these same European governments have also,
ironically, unleashed surveillance in response to the terror that hit
them during this decade. Internet providers are required to retain
information about the connections made by their customers for periods
of time ranging from six months to many years. London has led the
world in putting up more than one million surveillance cameras–which
helped to identify the 2005 Underground bombings–and yet, according
to the BBC,

has fewer cameras per capita than many other cities

To faceless spies and intrepid marketers, our identity is defined by
the web site we just visited about surveillance cameras, the tube of
spermicidal jelly we bought on vacation in Florida, or other odds and
ends that allow them to differentiate us from other people with
similar ordinary profiles. The result may be a knock on the door from
Interpol or just a targeted ad for romantic getaways.

But in the age of social networks and Web 2.0, we become the agents of
our own undoing. And therefore, discussions about identity must be
fashioned with a subtler clay. At every juncture–morning, noon and
night–we redefine our own identities.

Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile
private or public? Should we reveal that we’re gay? (Data-crawling
programs can make a pretty good guess about it even if we don’t.)
Should we boast on Twitter that we applied for a grant? Should we talk
about the ravages of chronic Crohn’s disease? This article will lead
its readers, hopefully, to a fruitful way of thinking about these

Next, what about the elements of our identity that are controlled less
by us than by other random individuals? Should we ask that freshman to
take down the photo he posted where we lay passed out at a party?
Should we respond to the blogger who mangled the facts during a
blustering attack on our latest political activity?

And the ultimate arbiter of identity: what turns up when people search
for us? Yes, our selves are all in the hands of Google (and for the
most wretched of all–the famous–Wikipedia). Admitting its
hegemony over identity, Google now lets us store our own


to be served up when people search for us.
They also reveal (at least some of) how they’re tracking us at a
service called

As we’ll see, social networking allows us more control over the image
we present–at the cost of entering discussions that are not of our

Truly, social networking is the Internet phenomenon of the year and deserves an end-of-the-year profile (this post is the first in a series of eight). In a recent 19-month period, Facebook rose from 75 million to 300 million members, and Twitter has gone from perhaps 1.3 million users (depending on how you count them) to an estimated 18 million.

Not only have the sites dedicated to social networking swollen
voluminously, but their techniques have been watched carefully by
others. Analysts advise corporations that, to maintain their customer
bases, it’s not enough to offer a good product, not enough to market
it adeptly and back it up with good service, not enough even to invite
comments and customer reviews on popular web sites–no, the
corporation must build community. They have to entice
customers to socialize and come to feel that they’re part of a common
mission–a mission centered on the corporation.

Increasingly, the forward march of social networking can be seen on
sites for other services and organizations. It inspires things as
trivial as visitor pictures and profiles, or as complex as mechanisms
for encouraging visitors to sign up more recruits, mark other members
of the site as friends, form affinity groups, post content, and
compete for points that harbor some promise of future value.

Although I’d like to drop in to buy a cup of coffee or a shirt without
social networking, and many of the ground-breaking techniques for
building community turn into gimmicks when reduced too crassly to
attention-getting techniques, I think this trend is beneficial. People
are more effective when they know each other better. And the basis for
knowing each other will be found in personal and group identity.

Before the end of the year, I’ll post eight related entries that add up to a treatise titled “Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between:”

  1. Introduction (this page)

  2. Your identity in real life: what people know

  3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

  4. Your identity to advertisers: it’s not all about you

  5. What you say about yourself, or selves

  6. Forged identities and non-identities

  7. Group identities and social network identities

  8. Conclusion: identity narratives

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