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Culture, Theory

Identity and the Internet

This morning I came across a strikingly interesting article over at The Guardian concerning the intersection of social science, anonymity and the internet. The focus of the article itself is on the way that anonymous, instantaneous communication creates a culture of groupthink which validates and places even the most extreme of views within an echo-chamber, which is a point that I have been mulling over for quite some time. Tim Adams’ “How the internet created an age of rage” is a catchy title that both reinforces the “shock-value” proposition of the internet as well as explores the reasons why even such a fairly tame article needs such a tag line to get read.

The overarching theme of the article is as such:

One effect of “deindividuation” is a polarisation within groups in which like-minded people typically end up in more extreme positions because they gain credibility by exaggerating loosely held prejudices…This has the effect of shifting norms: extremism becomes acceptable. As Lanier argues: “I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasises crowd aggregation… will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?” The utopian tendency is to believe that social media pluralises and diversifies opinion; most of the evidence suggests that it is just as likely, when combined with anonymity, to reinforce groupthink and extremism.

I was playing World of Warcraft when Blizzard decided to unveil their great REAL ID initiative. For those not in the know, the REAL ID was a means for players to be able to communicate and keep in contact with other players by employing one’s real name. The benefit, from the developer’s side, was the idea that you could always keep your friends’ contact information regardless of if they changed their character’s name or transferred to another server. It was a good idea in theory, and I can certainly tell you stories of people I met while playing the game and then lost track of years later between time-off and character changes. I have spent countless hours with some of these individuals, to the point where I was, at one time, spending 2-6 hours five or six days a week with these people in our virtual world.

The issue with REAL ID was the use of one’s own name. That’s understandable.

But what the article doesn’t address is the fact that two-decades into the widespread use of the internet, our identities are far more complex than they used to be. Instead of focusing on the use of one’s birth name, my mind immediately went to my own online handles and the histories behind them. And yes, there’s history. I haven’t done a lick of scientific work to try to prove this next point, so I’ll stay theoretical, but I wonder at the commonality of individuals who create their internet-names and then stick with them for years and years. The pseudonym that I employ for the vast majority of my time on the internet is, with small variation, pretty much the same everywhere I go. Ironically enough, this blog is one of the few places that I do not use my usual handle.

The point is that we’re seeing more and more individuals, especially those who have been “on the internet” for their almost-entire lives, voluntarily creating a “paper trail” of their identity. Google my handle and you’ll find tons of stuff about my internet-self, including a history which tells a story.

The second piece of this is that I am involved, to varying degrees, with a number of places on the internet which house rather sane, polite dialogue while maintaining an anonymous structure. Certain active members on various blogs and message board communities have acquired a reputation (good or bad) which has an effect on their ability to interact. Of these sites, the Penny Arcade Forums are probably the best example of a anonymous but civil community that I’m involved with. They achieve this goal by, as is pointed out in different contexts in the article, moderating the communication via strict rules of civility and decency. We have members who are saints, and we have members who are well-known for their balance-beam approach to following the rules.

It seems to me that there is an untested hypothesis that needs some closer scrutiny: To what extent do individuals feel the need and desire to create a “static-named” persona for communication and interaction on the internet? While we tend to devolve into groupthink and mob mentality when there are no rules, what happens when individuals become invested in communities online which prize and encourage not “unmasking” but simply by consistency of identification? I suspect there’s something there, as even “trolls” tend to gravitate toward an ego-lifting “identity”. There’s a middle ground somewhere, and using one’s “real name” isn’t the be-all-end-all. In the end, I’m left to consider if our own need for affirmation which can lead to extreme groupthink also formulates itself into a constant identity when one becomes invested in a particular community.
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