Recently I’ve been researching online identity a great deal as part of my Master’s Dissertation – I’m studying mobile phone film making, but more specifically how mobile film and video is heavily tied to social media nowadays. In the early days of the internet, it seemed to be pretty much typical to have an anonymous identity according to the studies I have read.
Many early studies of internet culture revolved around MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons) – role playing games which were in many ways precursors to the culture of MMORPG games (such as World of Warcraft) where an anonymous name and persona were a critical part of the game, you had to create your character and embody them completely. (Online role play using email, chat rooms or forums is still very much a thing, in fact it was pretty much my entry into online culture as a teenager.) Likewise, in many of the transcriptions of use-net groups (mass email groups for various topics) that i have seen in works on online culture in the 1990s, people almost inevitably have anonymous names.
However, in this day and age of the internet, many social media platforms do have an increasing focus on real life identities. I’m already written about how Google+ and YouTube are keen for users to provide their real names, in an attempt to prevent trolling and harassment. Meanwhile, social media sites such as Facebook led the way in expecting people to use real identities to communicate with friends – causing the online and offline worlds are becoming increasingly entwined, and not always under the privacy protections the such platforms can provide. Indeed, it’s now beneficial for me to have a recognisable online presence for the apparently inevitable ‘when your prospective employers decide to Google you‘.
Not to mention, it ensures that when someone Googles you (other search engines are available) the you that the person finds really is ‘you’. This actually happened to me over the summer and at the time I didn’t record it. Someone registered a twitter account as @clareisonline_ (as opposed to mine – @clareisonline) using my profile blurb and picture, and used it to spam people for a short while before being deleted. If I didn’t have a very active account of my own, carefully linked with a number of other social media accounts personally branded with the same/similar profile picture and blurb, it’s possible this could have been mistaken for the real me. The friend who searched my twitter handle and found this was certainly confused.
But back to the point of this blog, with the need for clear digital identity, the push of the social media giants and the increased media furor around trolling and bullying I wonder if there will there ever be a time where it is frowned upon to use a anonymous persona? After all, if there is ever a majority of online users who’s online and offline identities are pretty much the same, wouldn’t it make the anonymous minority look suspicious?
Personally, I hope this doesn’t happen, especially in those parts of the internet where people want to be open about certain things without their entire social network knowing (the role of internet self-help and peer support groups has been extremely well researched) but it is an intriguing thought, as internet social media becomes more carefully moderated and policed.
Note: That sounded like I disagree with careful moderating on social media. I don’t, I have seen plenty of cases of harassment on Facebook/Twitter where the companies pretty much washed their hands of things when they should have intervened. But there needs to be a balance between ensuring security of open identities whilst respecting the privacy of others. We tend to forget that internet culture is still so new, the ground rules aren’t laid down and with the constant changes in technology they might never be laid down completely in stone. We can’t really predict anything about the future of digital culture, but it is important to try and understand it as much as possible, especially remembering that every account on every site is a person who needs protecting.
Apart from the spambots, of course.