Vol. 22, No. 5,514 - The American Reporter - September 7, 2016

by Andrew Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
Cambridge, Mass.
December 30, 2009
Andy Oram Reports: Being Online - Introduction

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Editor's Note:: In 1998, as we were completing our fourth year of publication, American Reporter Webmaster Andy Oram, based in Cambridge, Mass., an editor at O'Reilly Media and member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), began a series of extraordinary year-end reports on issues associatyed with the Internet's growing global influence.

Eleven years later, his body of annual reports comprises a uniquely perceptive view of the Internet and the World Wide Web. This year, he studies the very notion of identity in our time and how it has been fundamentally altered and expanded by the rise of social networking, targeted advertising and other Web-based experiences.

Over the next two months, in this Introduction and an exclusive seven-part, 9,000-word series for The American Reporter, he offers his findings. We believe it is likely to become a foundational document in our understanding of the Net's impact on human identity in the Age of the Internet.

A cautionary note: These articles and the views expressed in them are Andy Oram's own, and do not represent those of O'Reilly Media or the CPSR.

To be or not to be, that is the question."

Hamlet's famous utterance plays a trick on theater-goers, a mind game of the same type he inflicted constantly on his family and his court. While diverting his audience's attention with a seemingly simple choice between being and non-being, Hamlet of all people would know very well how these extremes bracket infinite gradations.

Being Online: Identity & The Internet


American Reporter Webmaster Andy Oram

  The Introduction and seven parts of this article cover:

  • Introduction: identities multiply on the Internet
  • 1. Your identity in real life: what people know
  • 2. Your identity online: getting down to basics
  • 3. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you
  • 4. What you say about yourself, or selves
  • 5. Forged identities and non-identities
  • 6. Group identities and social network identities
  • 7. Conclusion: identity narratives

    The installments appear here in order of publication, beginning with the Introduction.

Our fascination with Hamlet is precisely his instinct for presenting a different self to almost everyone he met. Scholars have been arguing for 400 years about Hamlet's moral compass, whether his feigned insanity masked a true mental illness, whether the suffering and death he inflicted on those around him was a deliberate strategy, what psychological complexes fueled his cruel excoriation of Ophelia, and other dilemmas that come down to questions about his identity.

We can appreciate, therefore, why actors up to the present day have to memorize Hamlet's "Speak the speech" passage. As a thespian, Hamlet outshone all his Players.

We can bring this critical perspective on identity into our own 21st-Century lives as we populate social networks and join online forums. When people ask who we are, questions multiply far beyond the capacity of a binary "to be" digit.

No matter how candidly we flesh out our digital representations online, they remain skin-deep. They can never reflect how we are known to our families, neighbors, and workmates. Even if we stole a vision from science fiction and preserved a complete scan of our brains, the resulting representations would not be able to demonstrate the dexterity we've built by playing basketball every Saturday, or show the struggles we have to control Tourette's syndrome.

I don't believe anybody has tied down the meaning of online presence, and I don't presume to do so here. But we may find better resolutions to some of the everyday dilemmas we face by exploring, over the course of this article, facets of self that have been discovered and debated in the age of computers.

Before widespread participation in Web 2.0-style forums, the question of online identity was framed as an issue of privacy under assault by large institutions. Only governments and major corporations could install and program the mainframe computers that stored the digital evidence of our identities. Within that framework, starting in the 1970s, European countries that were still shadowed by the history of Nazi round-ups started to limit the sharing of personal information gathered during commerce and other transactions.

But at the same time that these laws, enshrined in a 1995 Data Protection Directive and further extended to transactions that the EU carries out with other countries, set a standard for the regulation of commercial data collection, these same European governments have also, ironically, unleashed surveillance in response to the terror that hit them during this decade. Internet providers are required to retain information about the connections made by their customers for periods of time ranging from six months to many years. London has led the world in putting up more than one million surveillance cameras - which helped to identify the 2005 Underground bombings - and yet, according to the BBC, has fewer cameras per capita than many other cities.

To faceless spies and intrepid marketers, our identity is defined by the Website we just visited about surveillance cameras, the tube of spermicidal jelly we bought on vacation in Florida, or other odds and ends that allow them to differentiate us from other people with similar ordinary profiles. The result may be a knock on the door from Interpol or just a targeted ad for romantic getaways.

But in the age of social networks and Web 2.0, we become the agents of our own undoing. And therefore, discussions about identity must be fashioned with subtler clay. At every juncture - morning, noon and night - we redefine our own identities.

Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile private or public? Should we reveal that we're gay? (Data-crawling programs can make a pretty good guess about it even if we don't.) Should we boast on Twitter that we applied for a grant? Should we talk about the ravages of chronic Crohn's disease? This article will lead its readers, hopefully, to a fruitful way of thinking about these choices.

Next, what about the elements of our identity that are controlled less by us than by other random individuals? Should we ask that freshman to take down the photo he posted where we lay passed out at a party? Should we respond to the blogger who mangled the facts during a blustering attack on our latest political activity?

And the ultimate arbiter of identity: what turns up when people search for us? Yes, our selves are all in the hands of Google (and for the most wretched of all - the famous - Wikipedia). Admitting its hegemony over identity, Google now lets us store our own profiles to be served up when people search for us. They also reveal (at least some of) how they're tracking us at a service called Dashboard. As we'll see, social networking allows us more control over the image we present - at the cost of entering discussions that are not of our choosing.

This article was stimulated by the enormous growth in social networking over the past 12 months. Truly, it is the Internet phenomenon of the year and deserves an end-of-the-year profile. In a recent 19-month period, Facebook rose from 75 million to 300 million members, and Twitter has gone from perhaps 1.3 million users (depending on how you count them) to an estimated 18 million.

Not only have the sites dedicated to social networking swollen voluminously, but their techniques have been watched carefully by others. Analysts advise corporations that, to maintain their customer bases, it's not enough to offer a good product, not enough to market it adeptly and back it up with good service, not enough even to invite comments and customer reviews on popular Websites - no, the corporation must build community. They have to entice customers to socialize and come to feel that they're part of a common mission - a mission centered on the corporation.

Increasingly, the forward march of social networking can be seen on-site for others services and organizations. It inspires things as trivial as visitor pictures and profiles, or as complex as mechanisms for encouraging visitors to sign up more recruits, mark other members of the site as friends, form affinity groups, post content, and compete for points that harbor some promise of future value.

Although I'd like to drop in to buy a cup of coffee or a shirt without social networking, many of the ground-breaking techniques for building community turn into gimmicks when reduced too crassly to attention-getting techniques, I think this trend is beneficial. People are more effective when they know each other better. And the basis for knowing each other will be found in personal and group identity.

Next: Hour By Hour, Your Life Unfolds On The Internet

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