This week for class I was asked to look at a few academic articles about how privacy online (or at least, assuming that you have privacy online) affects the way people act. I think right now we are at a place where the internet is still making a transition between being almost completely anonymous and having all of your actions linked to your public identity. The original internet was not as “social” as the internet is now; a lot of websites were not open to input from their readers except indirectly through emails to the webmasters or in very limit ways like guestbooks. This changed when things like forums and chatrooms got popular. In these places, talking about your real identity was totally optional; most people did not share their real name but instead communicated through anonymous usernames. Some of them even took this anonymity as a chance to act out different personas than the one they were stuck with in real life. In Sherry Turkle’s article “Cyberspace and Identity” from 1999 (JSTOR link, if you have access), she talks about this stage of the internet; the article is full of dated technology references, but it is useful as a time capsule. At this time, Turkle and a lot of other people assumed the internet would stay anonymous, and this directed the way she thought about the effects it would have on people psychologically.
Check out this long quote to see what I mean:
“These more positive identity effects follow from the fact that for some, cyberspace provides what Erik Erikson (1963) would have called a “psychosocial moratorium,” a central element in how he thought about identity development in adolescence. Although the term moratorium implies a “time out,” what Erikson had in mind was not withdrawal. On the contrary, the adolescent moratorium is a time of intense interaction with people and ideas. […] Erikson’s notion of the moratorium was not a “hold” on significant experiences but on their consequences. It is a time during which one’s actions are, in a certain sense, not counted as they will be later in life. They are not given as much weight, not given the force of full judgment. In this context, experimentation can become the norm rather than a brave departure. Relatively consequence-free experimentation facilitates the development of a “core self,” a personal sense of what gives life meaning that Erikson called ‘identity.'”
Turkle saw this kind of freedom from being judged as being potentially a good thing; people were more free to act out feelings and personas they repressed in real life, and this would give them experiences that would lead to better overall psychological health. This anonymous internet still exists, in communities like reddit and 4chan, on twitter, and in comment sections on popular websites. It is worth saying though that a lot of these places are sources of some of the worst the internet has. Freedom from judgment also means freedom from responsibility for what one says or does, and this is not always a good thing. People say horrible things from behind their usernames, spread hatred and in some bad cases even engage in criminal activities; there is an argument about whether they would do these things anyway, or whether they happen because they are given license by being anonymous.
In any case, for better or for worse the anonymous internet is getting smaller all the time. In Boyd & Ellison’s article “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” (again, link if you have access), they give a really pretty good history of social networks from the early internet days to the expansion to public of Facebook in 2006. The most interesting part of the article to me was this section about the early social network Friendster, which could have been the first social media giant but made some bad decisions and lost out. Their failing taught the others a lot of lessons, but one thing they had in common with Facebook was their dislike of anonymity:
“The initial design of Friendster restricted users from viewing proﬁles of people who were more than four degrees away (friends-of-friends-of-friends-of-friends). In order to view additional proﬁles, users began adding acquaintances and interesting-looking strangers to expand their reach. Some began massively collecting Friends, an activity that was implicitly encouraged through a ‘‘most popular’’ feature. The ultimate collectors were fake proﬁles representing iconic ﬁctional characters: celebrities, concepts, and other such entities. These ‘‘Fakesters’’ outraged the company, who banished fake proﬁles and eliminated the ‘‘most popular’’ feature. While few people actually created Fakesters, many more enjoyed surﬁng Fakesters for entertainment or using functional Fakesters (e.g., ‘‘Brown University’’) to ﬁnd people they knew. The active deletion of Fakesters (and genuine users who chose non-realistic photos) signaled to some that the company did not share users’ interests. Many early adopters left because of the combination of technical difﬁculties, social collisions, and a rupture of trust between users and the site.”
Friendster was one of the first sites that wanted its users to put their real life onto the internet. The reasons for this are obvious; their business was supposed to be helping people meet each other in real life by getting them started in a safe place on the internet. This was compromised by people posing as Mr. T (or Mr. Tea), so they tried to re-take control over an online community that was growing outside of that design; what they didn’t realize was that there were a lot of people who were used to socializing on the internet through forums and chatting who did not have interest in the “real life”/physical meeting of others. Facebook, unlike Friendster, does not care whether its users ever meet in real life, but it also wants its users to be associated with their real names because its business is based on selling information about these users to advertisers. Advertisers are a lot more interested in buying when they know that it is “real” people on the site, and not anonymous masses. When it’s your name on your profile, if you don’t write true things you will be called out by people you really know, unlike in anonymous environments when you can basically say or be whoever you want. This ensures that the data Facebook is selling is accurate. When Facebook started cracking down on fake accounts and forcing people to use their full names on the site, they waited until their site was established as a social necessity for a lot of people. They also had the advantage of having a userbase that was much more used to having its personal information published online than in 2002 when Friendster was going to war against its own users.
This “public internet” is spreading; Google still allows usernames, but it is linking emails to search histories to video views on Youtube and eventually even to map data. If they ever make the switch to insisting on real names, a big part of the internet anonymity will be gone. It also means that the psychological changes Turkle expected from the juggling of multiple identities online will not come to pass; instead, the one merged internet/real life personality means that real life has become more like social media in some ways. In her follow-up article, Turkle still sees the internet as a place where people can test out and control their identity, but people do not come back into their real life fully:
“Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.”
People, says Turkle, now prefer that more controlled world, almost as a replacement for the messiness of real life, and this is even more true now that the anonymous internet, which is at least as messy as real life, is shrinking. This is what happens when people can be held to account for their public internet life.
Check back later for some thoughts on how this might apply to music!