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My friend, Janina, recently pondered who you are on the Internet.

Back in the old days, when you could actually write down the names of all the people on the Internet, people simply used their real names, in abbreviated form: ken, gls, dmr, rms, etc. After all, wasn’t the whole point of a world-wide telecommunications network to put people in touch with each other? And if everyone on the Internet was someone you knew or were going to know, it made sense to use real names. That way, you could be found.

Then, the Internet got a whole lot bigger and a whole lot stranger. People started using pseudonyms called handles or nicks, which provided some degree of anonymity. These became commonplace and became the norm. Especially when you consider that using your real name becomes impractical when there are hundreds of Davids or Muhammeds or Lees in the world.

As people joined the Internet, they still wanted to find each other. So social networks are all the rage now. LiveJournal, MySpace, and Facebook all exist so that you can find and track the people around you. With Facebook, you’re even forced to use your real name, to make it easier for people to connect. There is, however, a compromise to be made. Because you post information about yourself on-line, people you barely know can find out where you live, who you hang out with, and what you’re doing.

This is nothing new, though. We used to live this way, not so long ago, when most people lived in small, rural towns. After all, the neighbours talked! There would also be gossips who’d keep track of when you were coming or going, and with whom you went with. Nobody in their right mind would assume that they could keep bad behaviour under wraps, you always had to keep up your reputation. And when someone new moved into town, they were watched carefully until the rest of the townsfolk accepted them. This, of course, was a good thing.

This whole assumption that most people didn’t know about you came with the great migration to cities, kicked off by the industrial revolution. Now there were so many people flooding in that it was impossible to know everyone you met on the street. That brought a big social problem, because now you had to trust complete strangers. Imagine how stressful that must have been! No wonder the biggest problem in industrial London was the Gin Craze, a collective booze-up that lasted until a generation of people had figured out what city life was like.

Now we have to opposite problem: people having lived all their lives protected by anonymity having to come to terms with it being stripped away. If someone wants to find out about you, they can. Be it with Google or Facebook or Twitter, you have to accept that there are traces of you that anyone can see. And that’s got to be pretty stressful too.

So what can we do about it? Friends-locking posts and privacy settings come to mind, but at best these provide a false sense of security. Remember the controversy surrounding LJfind, when people’s friends-locked posts started showing up in public? And now, every few weeks, someone discovers that a Facebook application is leaking their data. But even if you’re really careful on websites, they are still software are written by programmers. As a programmer myself, I can assure you that we make mistakes, and those mistakes include a simple typo that resets your privacy settings. Oops!

If technology can’t help us, then what? The opposite approach is to be wary of the Internet. You can delete your Facebook account, avoid using GMail, and never use your real name on-line. Sadly, the network effect is working against you here, because other people aren’t doing the same. This year, quite a few people have joined Facebook because they weren’t getting invited to parties and stopped hearing from their friends! Social networks have brought social change, just because it’s so much easier to do the things you want to do, when you’re using Facebook.

OK, what if you just like to stay at home and invite friends over? Well, are you comfortable with party pictures appearing on Flickr? Or birthday wishes posted on Blogger? Well, you can ask your friends not to post anything about you on-line at all. But that doesn’t matter, because organisations are busy putting up their own records on-line. Like the Canadian Tax Court records, which include wonderful tidbits about income, marital status, and other information that’s become public record.

Going down this route is getting more and more unproductive. It seems like these days, if you want to stay truly anonymous, you have to build yourself a shack in the wilderness and isolate yourself from the world. But still, someone can impersonate you on-line with a fake profile, if you’re not watching out for that. So you still have to create your own profile from your wilderness retreat, just to keep the identity thieves at bay.

Remember those rural towns I wrote about? Well, they lived life in a way that we’re going to have to go back to. No longer can you assume that you can say whatever you want or do whatever you want and be lost in a crowd. You’re going to be aware of every camera pointed your way and every blog-post with your name in it. Basically, you can’t just assume your reputation, you have to manage it.

Your public image is going to be one of the most important bits of you in the future. Potential employers and potential friends are bound to do a little reference checking with Google. What if the police start using the Internet for investigations? Or schools for background checks? And your on-line presence is so very difficult to eliminate. People used to call it keeping up appearances, nowadays we’d refer to it as personal branding.

Now I’m not saying that we all have to become full-time professional bloggers. But what you can do, nay should do, is maintain a profile on the Internet that reflects who you want to be seen as. Reserve an account for yourself on the big social networks, put up information that’s relevant and appropriate, and do periodic Google searches on yourself to make sure you’re not being misrepresented.

Maybe some day, in the future, we’ll all be more understanding about youthful indiscretions on-line. But for now, your first impression will be your Google ranking, so you’d best make the most of it.


( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
21st Dec, 2008 21:39 (UTC)
Well said. I agree, discomfort and all. I miss relative anonymity, but sadly, there's not much to be done about it.
22nd Dec, 2008 00:43 (UTC)
Aw… relative anonymity isn’t that good anyway. For one thing, it makes people lonely, even when they’re surrounded by other people.
21st Dec, 2008 22:29 (UTC)
That is a fantastic essay, and full of truth.
22nd Dec, 2008 00:16 (UTC)
Amen, I'm afraid.
22nd Dec, 2008 00:44 (UTC)
(no subject) - dcoombs - 22nd Dec, 2008 00:50 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sfllaw - 22nd Dec, 2008 00:52 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dcoombs - 22nd Dec, 2008 00:54 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sfllaw - 22nd Dec, 2008 00:59 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dcoombs - 22nd Dec, 2008 01:26 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sfllaw - 22nd Dec, 2008 05:12 (UTC) - Expand
22nd Dec, 2008 01:05 (UTC)
How to be anonymous on the Internet
To really be anonymous you need to do more than use a wrong name.
You can still be identified, this is mainly an issue for bloggers saying stuff their government does not want to hear.

I'm also a blogger and I recently downloaded Cloakfish (from http://www.cloakfish.com). I can now post anonymous when I want, it hides my IP by using several proxies in one row and encrypts the text I send.

Just thought this might fit here.
nice blog
22nd Dec, 2008 05:15 (UTC)
Re: How to be anonymous on the Internet
Technology is absolutely not the answer here. I didn’t even discuss it because it’s not even close to the solution.
22nd Dec, 2008 01:07 (UTC)
You reminded me of an oldie, but a goodie:

22nd Dec, 2008 05:13 (UTC)
Yes, ha ha!

Oh man, do I have some embarrassing Usenet postings myself.
22nd Dec, 2008 03:29 (UTC)
Well said. Still, as dcoombs said, it's a lot of work.
22nd Dec, 2008 05:16 (UTC)
It’s as much work as you want it to be, I suppose.

I presume that one day, it’ll be automatic to be aware of what your on-line persona does, much like it’s automatic now to lock your door when you leave the house.
(no subject) - dcoombs - 22nd Dec, 2008 06:07 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sfllaw - 22nd Dec, 2008 06:28 (UTC) - Expand
22nd Dec, 2008 16:25 (UTC)
very nice...
Very nice post, simon...
One thing i like is that people might potentially start owning up for their actions again, something that is lost whenever citizens think nobody cares and nobody's watching anymore.
And whether it's because they want others to see or recognize it or it's because they feel it'll encourage others to do the same, it seems like people are more inclined to do good when it's seen, and when they can see the effects. All villagers will help a fellow to rebuild their house after a fire, and they'll all know everyone who helped, and they'll all see the good that comes out of it - the family that has a roof again. Donating to Centraide is just as Good, but you have no idea what happens with the money, you don't know who is helped, and people won't be more inclined to help you in the future if you were to need it. But we're seeing the village effect come back now, i think.
Of course, that's what akoha is all about, isn't it :)
Overall, though, as many in the media keep pounding this idea that the net is disconnecting people from the real world, i find it's quite the opposite. Isn't it now a lot easier to schedule a bunch of friends for a few beers???
22nd Dec, 2008 19:44 (UTC)
"But what you can do, nay should do, is maintain a profile on the Internet that reflects who you want to be seen as. Reserve an account for yourself on the big social networks, put up information that’s relevant and appropriate, and do periodic Google searches on yourself to make sure you’re not being misrepresented."

Yeah, that's pretty much what I've done on Facebook and a few other places. I suppose I may want to claim a twitter, too. But LJ is my favorite haunt because it encourages real content. :)

"We used to live this way, not so long ago, when most people lived in small, rural towns."

Yeah, I've had similar thoughts, too. Modern city life and old internet life have been, historically, aberrations. But I think nowadays the internet is becoming both worlds. On the one hand, everybody can find out just about everything about you, and reputation becomes very important. On the other hand, you're constantly exposed to every insane sociopath in the world who can afford an internet connection, as well as less malicious people who are still erratic and unpredictable online, so a degree of paranoia and caution, that would not be out of place in Washington DC after dark, is appropriate.
22nd Dec, 2008 19:53 (UTC)
I think my favorite (most amusing) take on the subject is still the G.I.F.T.. Which I figured I'd link to just in case you haven't stumbled on it. :)
22nd Dec, 2008 22:20 (UTC)
Fundamental differences
I think the fundamental difference between the days of old in the village and today is the ability to research, and specifically, research anonymously. In the village, it was known who knew what, and who was asking about what. That actually made up part of the gossip. Young Jean's asking about Johnny a lot these days.

Contrast that with today. Google, blogs, twitter, these are all anonymous to view. Ok, your IP is typically tracked, but it's easy for the average civilian to hide their ip (tor) and hard for the average civilian to turn an IP into a real identity and name.

In days gone by one had to be careful of who and how one researched others. Now, with minimal effort, one can easily seek out a vast amount of information on individuals.

I don't think this is a return to days of old at all. I think this is a new frontier, an entirely new social experience.

Personally, I consider everything I ever write to be "possibly public". That is, at some point, it may become public. From private text messages to private notes on contacts in my phone. I won't commit something to writing unless I'm willing to accept that it may become publicly available at some point in the future, potentially after my death for example, or if I were investigated for a crime, or if my devices were stolen, misplaced or snooped upon.
23rd Dec, 2008 00:54 (UTC)
Re: Fundamental differences
I have to agree with you. I also consider anything written could possibly become public and have for a long time.

When I lived in a small (population ~750) village, I found that most of the snooping and gossip was because people care about people. There may have been some that was malicious, but I didn't hear it.
Re: Fundamental differences - sfllaw - 5th Jan, 2009 06:50 (UTC) - Expand
Re: Fundamental differences - sfllaw - 5th Jan, 2009 06:49 (UTC) - Expand
23rd Dec, 2008 00:55 (UTC)
Nice remindr Simon. I already had Google Alerts for my biz name, but I put one for my last name. Sometimes it is very handy to have a unique last name ;)
(Deleted comment)
5th Jan, 2009 06:51 (UTC)
I’m afraid that ClamID doesn’t help very much with control. There are services that will combine your social networks together, like Power.com, but I’m unsure if they’ll be viable.
24th Dec, 2008 05:28 (UTC)
I'm with chmac on this- it's not the same as village living. I've done that, and worked in small social cells (think of your office as an example). The village telephone system (a cute term for the local gossip network, or neighbourhood watch, general store, knitting circle, etc...) is no different from the water cooler. I don't think it's the same in the current state of the internet. Here's my bullet pointed summary, because I like them:

The record (history, narrative, image, etc) exists nearly permanently, and in some cases is very, very difficult to erase. In the VTS, the only permanency is the memory of the individuals currently in the human network.

The record is usually direct. It often originates from the event that caused it. In the VTS, these records of people are regularly an interpretation of an interpretation (see: Trench Telephone).

While records relating to an individual can be misinterpreted or misrepresented (it's text or images, after all), people wishing to find things can very easily return to the source. In the VTS, the source may not be in the village anymore, or may not want to talk to an investigating party.

The last thing that sticks out for me is who is doing the searching- if we assume everyone, then it's no longer a "looking out the front window because you care" issue, and becomes much more complex.

You're right about technology not being the solution, though. I find an interesting comparison between social networking and "instant-find" technology and weapons. We can't un-invent guns or bombs, just as we can't un-invent Facebook or the internet. The issue, then, becomes one of regulation, social adaptation and mentality. I think you've hit on that a little, and a few other commentators have (the NYT had an editorial on this recently). While most of us are decrying this whole thing as an invasion of privacy, etc... very little of our actual privacy is being invaded if we're not being foolish about how we manage ourselves online. It's no different from the real world, except for the size of the potential audience.
5th Jan, 2009 06:58 (UTC)
I’m certain that regulation won’t keep up until society figures out what to do. It will merely reflect what we, as a whole, deem to be socially acceptable. Sure, there’ll be groups who want to regulate social networks to preserve the existing way of life, but that never works out in the long run.

It’s going to be interesting to see how we deal with this huge public record of our activities and how easily our personal details can be discovered. We definitely know that it sparks a lot more creativity and collaboration, simply because we can now find like-minded people and organize ourselves into useful groups.

I expect that the mainstream commentators are going to give up in a couple of years, as everyone else realizes how useful the Internet is at increasing collaboration and exposing the uglier side of life. How we react to this, by developing better mental filters, or demanding more social justice, or something completely unexpected will probably be amazing.
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )