‘The new freedom of expression brought by the Internet goes far beyond politics. People relate to each other in new ways, posing questions about how we should respond to people when all that we know about them is what we have learned through a medium that permits all kinds of anonymity and deception.” — Peter Singer
Does the internet really permit a much greater degree of anonymity and deception than the offline, face-to-face element of human communication or is this idea an illusion? The internet began the process of commercialization in 1988 and most sources agree it was commercialized in 1994.
People started going online and making up new identities for themselves. Presumably it was because the internet was anonymous. Nobody could see your face, physical shape, size, or hear your voice. The assumption is that people created new identities so they could be someone other than who they were under their real identities.
It seems a reasonable assumption; but then CB radio operators had been doing the same thing since 1945 and ham radio operators some 35 years or so earlier than that. My grandfather tinkered with ham and CB radio when I was a kid; he had a huge set up in his living room and would talk to people all night; nobody used their real names.
In the late 1990’s when I got my first computer I was instructed to come up with a profile name for the ISP; something other than my real name because that was somehow dangerous. It made sense; you could never be sure of who you were really talking to on the other side of an AOL Instant Message. So I became Kitsuzo.
It was short, unique, kind of mysterious and exotic and I have never seen another Kitsuzo on the internet since. When I joined an online message board and chat community in 1999 I used Kitsuzo as my member profile. This site was the first incarnation of social media; long before Facebook, Twitter, etc., there was Delphi.
To this day Delphi still exists and I still have that same profile. Over the years I have come to think about the whole concept of anonymity. As the years went by and I joined LiveJournal.com, I added a new online name, Kaifoxx. I no longer use it; when I deleted LJ, I deleted that identity as well. Then Facebook came along and it had a catch.
For the first few years you had to use your real name if you wanted to be on Facebook. Then LinkedIn came along and because it was business oriented it made no sense at all to use an alias. The whole point was, and still is, to brand yourself as a marketable commodity; a product or a service. By that I do mean your name, face, body, etc.
Facebook became a potential liability to anyone on LinkedIn; and Facebook started letting people use aliases after a while. By the time that happened most people had become accustomed to the idea of coming out from behind the anonymous aliases. Others were still not convinced and I have had several discussions over the years about Facebook.
Facebook is not anonymous; it collects information about you. It reports the information to the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, local law enforcement, Amazon, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, every other major and minor retailer, the political parties, the news media, the Russians, our Moms, and Cambridge Analytica.
So does your internet service provider, Microsoft, your insurance provider, your bank, your cable and/or phone providers, Siri, Alexa, your iPhone, your iPad, and your Android. If you sign a terms of service agreement, information about you is being collected and shared about you with someone. You are not, nor have you ever been, anonymous.
And in most cases, the companies do their best to protect your information; including the government agencies which have to comply with various laws when it comes to the kinds of information they can collect, when, where, how, and for what purpose. This is a whole other subject that moves away from my initial topic of discussion though.
I joined Delphi as Kitsuzo in April 1999. That is almost twenty years ago now. There was quite a bit of overlap as offline friends were also members and online members became offline friends. The same thing occurred with LiveJournal, and again with Facebook, always there was an overlap. Kitsuzo, Kaifoxx, Cherilyn.
People get to know you; you get to know other people, online, offline, ultimately who you are doesn’t really change all that much. You might think Kitsuzo is an anonymous identity, but after 19 years, the people in Delphi may as well know my real name. Since several of them are on my Facebook friends list, many of them do.
It would be news to people in LinkedIn but then again, maybe not; some of my professional network members are also members of Delphi. We just don’t admit it in public. Likewise in Delphi we don’t tend to discuss Facebook or LinkedIn because ZOMG don’t you know they are watching you and collecting information?
Which brings me back to the word anonymity. An individual standing apart from a crowd, regarded by that crowd, whose name is being passed around is no longer anonymous. The name being passed around does not matter. It is an identifier; nothing more. The name could be your real name, a nickname, a Delphi profile, a CB handle.
How the crowd that is regarding you, and only you, has come to give your presence meaning; THAT is what matters. Your name is more akin to a proxy element of who you are. You have a presence, to others that presence has a context, a meaning, an operational definition if you like. Your name is not you, but it designates you.
You could go and change your name to something completely different on all of your important documents, it won’t change YOU. It won’t change anything external or internal about who you are. It only changes what you call yourself and what other people call you, but your context, meaning, presence, that is whatever others perceive you to be.
But you take the same individual, and this time have them be part of that large crowd, part of a large mass of arms, legs, torso, heads, eyes and noses, what happens? They become far less distinguishable as an individual. That is anonymity in an offline context; nothing has changed, except that it became incredibly difficult to identify one person.
They become the needle in a haystack of fellow human beings. The same thing happens in an online context, only it is even more difficult to distinguish identifying features for one individual in an online environment. This is why it is so easy for some people to depersonalize or dehumanize other people on the internet.
Years ago someone I knew made a habit of referring to other people on the internet, people we both knew very well, as “pixel people” and I have since noted the term used in other places on the internet as well. That is dehumanization; it strips person-hood from very real people who exist somewhere else because they aren’t right in front of you.
Dehumanization is a concept that long predates the internet. It is a concept best known to the Military of various nations. It is a process that strips the elements of humanity from a group of people in order to make it easier to kill them. Dehumanization is very adaptable to the internet; possibly more so than it is in an offline context.
So is using one’s real name on the internet, the one on your birth certificate really any more dangerous than using an internet alias that has developed enough of a context, meaning, presence, and identity? In 1999 it would have been impossible short of assistance from a hacker or an ISP to match Kitsuzo to Cherilyn Formanek.
Yesterday it would not have been an easy task but it would have been easier than it would have been in 1999. Now bank records would be enough to match the two names, you wouldn’t need a hacker, the ISP, or the willing cooperation of any friends who would know. Today, they are matched courtesy of a searchable self report here in WordPress.
But I am still a needle in a haystack for the most part. I have to work hard to establish a brand under my real name, so I can establish myself as a marketable commodity; a product or a service. I have to create a written statement on WordPress and then publish it across WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn; and to most people, I am a nobody.
I am an anonymous name in pixels on a screen to 99.5 percent of the billions of people who could potentially read this blog post. Most people are not going to know who I am and even less are going to care. If I stopped writing and publishing tomorrow, only 12 people would likely notice. THAT is anonymity.
As for deception on the internet; sure people can be deceptive on the internet. They were also deceptive before the internet. Some people are sneaky and deceptive period; it doesn’t matter if a computer is involved or not. People are not even more adept at being sneaky and deceptive on a computer than they are off of one.
The only difference is that we can be more mentally lazy; more gullible, and more prone to blaming it on the internet when someone deceives us. Truth is when someone deceives us, usually we know it on some level, we just don’t want to admit it. So we make excuses for not being more suspicious; for failing to look closer.
People we know, love, and trust are often the ones who fool us most and best. And THAT my friends, has absolutely NOTHING to do with anonymity.