Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Your User Name, Handle, SN, @you, or -- gasp! -- real name

I've been thinking a lot lately about user identity and the history of the internet. This started when, on Facebook, I was having a "who the f are you?" moment.

You know the moment I'm talking about.  A tiny square photo pops up in your news stream -- so n so has changed their profile picture -- except the picture is (a) too small (b) a cartoon or (c) of their dog and the name that goes with the picture is no help in figuring out who the f is this person that I friended once upon a time?  Usually, this is when I realize that said "friend" has gotten married and changed her last name.  If said "friend" really was a friend, she'd throw us all a bone and keep her profile as First Name (Maiden Name) Married Name instead of just posting her legal name up there.

But this most recent who the f are you? moment was different.  My friend had not gotten married.  She'd just changed her facebook profile from her first and last name to her first and middle name and changed her picture to a cartoon character.  Now I don't know if you know all of your friends' middle names, but for me, this move pretty much secured her anonymity ... until I poked around in her profile a bit and figured out who she was by pairing what was there with what I legitimately knew of my real life friend.  But I doubt she was hiding from me. But she did manage to remove the ability of a new casual acquaintance to find her easily on facebook.

I'm intrigued by this move to recapture anonymity.

Okay, I don't believe anonymity is possible on the internet anymore. If someone really wants to find you and puts resources into it (time, money, McGee from NCIS), they will find you.  Yes, I "lock" my facebook profile, but really I feel like that's much the same as locking my car door; it's a deterrent, but if someone wants to get inside, they'll find a way. I do not rage about this or against this, I just see it as the way it is.  Speaking of which, I should be getting a background check any day now for the new job I'm starting -- hello, background check company!  (Because really, if they don't end up here, then they haven't even Googled me.)

But all that aside, I'm amused and intrigued. There's been a movement over the past five years to identify yourself truthfully on the internet, particularly if you're attempting to reach out and contact people or do business with those people. There's plenty of harping on authors who think they can build a platform using a handle and publishing under a different name -- no one will be able to put the two together!

When I started this blog in 2006, I did so under the name "SpeakCoffee" because that's what you did. The internet was still a scary place where smart people did not give out their real name. Now we give out our real names all the time and we call it branding.

When I first got in the internet in 1998, no one and I mean no one, logged in using their real name.  No one set up an email address using their real name (unless work assigned you one).  Everyone out there was joecool19987 or missgiggles3789 or shopgirl or NY152.  Then there was a push toward "having a professional email address" which I guess moved over into having a "professional" online persona.  Then began the slow realization that one should behave on the internet as one behaves in real life.

Actually, no, that realization is still arriving.  Before the "behave as you do in real life" notion started (and it's almost, but not quite taken hold yet), there was the notion that you should be PC, polite, and therefore not yourself on the internet. Which I believe is an extremist reaction to the kind of cruelty and stupidity that was born from people thinking they were completely anonymous.  There's a reason why hangmen and Klan members wear masks: anonymity makes us think it's okay to do things that are not okay.

Today, I'm less afraid of cyber stalkers (the great 90s fear) and more afraid of offending someone online -- because while real life conversational gaffs can be forgotten, the internet is forever.

That's a phrase I first heard on the Taleist, and it stuck with me because it really sums it all up:  "The internet is forever."  Not that long ago, the net was an capricious thing.  Now you see it, now it's gone.  Websites could come and go with the click of a mouse.  Links and content, gone.  Now Big Brother is watching.  *ahem, Google*  There are archival bots and crawlers, most benign some not, trolling the internet and archiving all the data they find.  Just because you take it down, doesn't mean it's gone.  And if it's still out there, then it's harder to be forgotten.

Sure, you can "lock" things, but the truth is that if you don't know how to pick locks, how can you trust your own security?

So the advice is to consider everything you publish online to be delivered to every living soul (and a few dead ones).

Coincidentally, Allison posted something recently on this topic while I was starting to think about the history of how we view our online identity.  (And for the record, I started writing this post because I wanted to marvel at the fact that in less than 15 years, we'd gone from wanting to be totally anonymous to wanting to be totally personal on the net. And on occasion, too personal.)

Allison got into the notion of being real vs. being a "professional." The lists of dos and don'ts Allison refers to are arbitrary, and she calls the list makers out on that. I'm going to hold with the idea that the uber-PC, be super-polite, be a professional attitude is still an extremist response to the major jerkyness of many individuals who thought they could use the "anonymity" of the internet to be mean, cruel, stupid, and vicious. Of course, being "unprofessional" reflects badly on the jerks in their real lives because the "anonymity of the internet" has become less like the hangman's mask, and more like a tulle veil.

Earlier in this post, I brought up the notion of behaving on the internet as you would in real life -- and I think that is the place we need to move toward. Not a list of sanitized rules, and not a Lord of the Flies free-for-all. Just a simple question: Would you do this in real life? Would you say these things in real life? Would you pose for everyone the way you're posing in that photo?

If the answer is yes, then rock on.

If not, then there's a bigger psychological question that needs to be asked: Why do you feel the need to adopt multiple personas/personalities? and can you find a safer way of doing so if that's what you need?

The photo at the top of the post is not mine.  (Photo credit: abooth202 from flickr.)  Apparently you can get a mug printed with all of your twitter friends icons on it.  Seems kinda sweet.  And kind of pointless in real life as icons keep changing, but on a coffee blog with a post about internet identity it totally rocks! 

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