June 5, 2021•1,853 words
When we arrive late to a meeting where people expect us to say something, most of us listen for a while before trying to contribute. Eventually, we may realize that the meeting has progressed far beyond what we are able or willing to understand fully. And yet there's a need to come together, so what do we say? Some people can be the first to speak out by disregarding what they don't know and focusing on the obvious potential solutions. By doing so, they can derail the rest of the meeting, specially if more people keep arriving late. This is an allegory for the state of the internet right now as affected by politicians and corporate media. They've arrived late to the party and never cared to understand what it was about in the first place. In a way, that's fine because they were dragged into this by a massive smartphone adoption, also filled with people who would very much prefer to ignore the challenges presented by this new technology.
One of the main challenges is nothing new, it has only been accelerated by tech that keeps advancing faster than ever in human History. It's the challenge of losing context, having no common reference of space or time. You can pick up a book and read it anytime and anywhere, you can delve into the text within a context that can never be predicted by its author. You can exchange letters with someone and you never know for sure when they will arrive or how many times they will be read or in what circumstances. You also can't be 100% certain who wrote that text or who is actually going to read it. The internet offers very much the same issue but literally without giving us the time to think about it. And the speed and frequency of our communication also affects the quality of the content itself, which means that the message becomes more dependent of a context that lacks our usual frames of reference. We don't know who is really on the other side. We're not there when the content came about. The written word, illustrations, photographs, audio recordings, video, network computing, live streams, it's always the same challenge coming at us faster and faster.
Up to a certain scale of interaction, the content can stand on its own without much context. But many people would not go to that internet, the one where only ideas matter and you can be anyone or anything all at once. That's too dorky, that can't be real, people seem to instinctively stay away from these abstract domains. So the obvious solution, the one that people arriving late to the internet keep reaching for, is to get as much personal data as possible associated with your internet presence. And that is a possible answer to a lack of context in our digital content. We have no idea where or when a piece of content came about but we can try to label it with something close to a real name, a real photo, etc. Again, this is not a new strategy, books have been plastered with photos of their authors for decades, but the tactics have now evolved to leverage the reach and immediacy of these new networks. You may not want to have anything to do with computers, but photos of your newborn grandson are being posted there right now, so of course you're going to open that black box and take a good look inside.
Other approaches to providing additional context don't scale just as well as putting people in well-marked boxes with their names on them. For example, some digital platforms try to grow their user base out of some local context, like university campuses, busy street corners or meet-ups for all kinds of hobbies. In those cases, terms of service don't usually require so much personal data to identify users. People already choose to share just enough information about themselves so they can be identified in local meet-ups if they want to. Or it may be that the purpose of those platforms is to indeed provide an anonymous venue for an already well-defined community. It can make sense so that people feel more comfortable pointing out things that need to be fixed in their city or campus. But this usually requires considerable work moderating content and it only has a kind of supplemental value, it works in parallel with your analogue life. This does not generate the kind of scale where the app already comes pre-installed on your phone. Bigger networks tend to get bigger while smaller networks eventually get smaller.
The context provided by having everyone pinned down to one identity is self-evident in its value. You are there because everyone in your life is also there. Your boss, your family, your childhood friends, all the contacts on your phone. All the boundaries in your life can become blurry in a context with no space or time, only people as they perceive you across every facet of your life. Of course, this happens in gradients across the world and depends on how people exercise their individual freedoms. In some countries, indeed you are forced to use the internet as an identified citizen subject to social monitoring. In others, you may have some freedom but perhaps you can only access the internet through some corporate gateway where you're a clearly identified consumer. But in many countries, you have a choice of different ways to get connected and you can use the internet as a free citizen. You don't have to limit yourself to a single identity that matches what's written on your passport. So there can be a lot of nuance in how many online personas you build and how they are attached to unique identifiers like your phone number, a photo of your face, your age, name or place of work. You can enjoy going surfing or spending time with your kids without being fitted into just being "surfer girl" or "stay-at-home dad". As Erving Goffman has explained in his book "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life", "identity is not a singular thing; identity is a role people play that shifts as audience and other contextual factors shift. The 'self' people present is never a full representation of who someone is, nor is it a fixed identity that cannot shift as other factors shift. After all, most people would act one way on a Friday night out with friends and another way on a Sunday dinner with family."
But even when we can have all the freedom and privacy in the world, if we leave those advantages on the table, governments and cooperations like to push those away from us, since propaganda and advertising don't work so well on moving targets. And besides, the opportunity to turn every screen into a public diary or a shop window is too attractive for them not to explore whether it's possible. It's up to us citizens to realise the power of the internet as a tool that we can also forge for ourselves and not just within the parameters set by those who are in the best position to manipulate everyone else. It's like when companies tell us we are saving money when we are spending money on their products. Thinking for ourselves is irreplaceable. If we don't, somebody else will try to do the thinking for us.
But let's instead put convenience above all else and see what the price tag is. If we completely sacrifice anonymity for the sake of providing some familiar context to our digital networks, what do we have to lose? The thing is, once we establish this premise, there are problems that materialise down the line and we find ourselves constrained in our ability to solve them. For example, once we establish that your face is part of permanent records in social networks the minute that you're born, once that anchor becomes so heavy, problems like cyber-bullying and general mental health become much more serious than they should be. Once you're locked in to being always online and always with the same identity that's so tied up to how you see yourself, you are much more vulnerable to attacks that can ambush that persona. Once your online presence determines your ability to get a job and that identity is all you have, you may think twice before voicing political opinions. Once we allow platforms to prioritise daily content that has as much personal data as possible (vlogs, stories, IRL drama, etc.), all content creators are pressured to expose their intimate lives to please ad-driven algorithms. All these cases of context collapse, a term proposed by Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd (2011), should not be mistaken for an increase in authenticity. It's simply a tendency to smash any possible context that you have together in an attempt to make it feel more real.
Indeed, if you just let go, it all clicks together as you slide into your pre-designated and clearly labeled consumer role. And although the rule of convenience can fold very well into growing addiction, going down what seems to be the easy road can feel much more comfortable. In an article by Emily van der Nagel and Jordan Frith entitled "Anonymity, pseudonymity, and the agency of online identity" (2015), they agree that "certainly, there is room for negativity and antisocial behaviour in spaces that allow people to interact without showing their faces or 'real' names." Furthermore, "understanding anonymity as the cause of such deviant behaviour is an attractive prospect, as this also identifies a simple solution to combatting incivility online: get rid of anonymity." However, "to take away, or even stigmatise, anonymous communication by moving towards a 'real name' Internet is to shut off important avenues for productive identity play, self-exploration, and behaviour contextualisation online." Therefore, "while safety concerns about anonymity are real, it is also true that real names can make people feel less safe and can inhibit behaviours they engage in online." We should keep arguing that "practices of anonymity and pseudonymity may be complex, but they add texture to being social on the Internet. The option of not using real names online allows people to control what they reveal about themselves and who they reveal it to."
The value of pseudonymity in the internet is part of how we lay claim to it as a public space. It matches how we see other people walking down the street and they see us. It's part of a continuum of anonymity in which we can have all kinds of satisfying interactions without exposing ourselves more than what we feel better serves that particular context. It's more real than 'real' names and it can enable true authenticity. So we should not let these hasty solutions monopolize our meetings and stop the conversation for the future of the internet, one in which every identity needs to have a voice.