The identity factor in online interaction, especially that which bleeds into offline relationships like my project proposes, has been the core of a pertinent question that I have been asking since I began my fieldwork interviews with bloggers. How can the Web be used to enrich the social fabric of geographic locales when one of its richest qualities, its ability to afford participants privacy through anonymity/pseudonymity, would be precisely the same quality that could disrupt relationships between people in the offline realm?
A List Apart features this new article, “Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters” by John M. Grohol, that I chanced upon through scanning my RSS feeds, and Grohol offers an insightful account of the pros and cons of anonymity versus transparent membership in online communities.
Many internet users have a number of different identities they use online, to allow them to explore different aspects of their persona, interests or hobbies. But pseudonymity is also the key to membership systems as well, as it allows members of the community to learn to identify other members they like or dislike based upon their behaviors and personality. Pseudononymous systems strike a balance between people’s needs to obscure their identities online, while still allowing them to build reputations in those usernames. These systems have been shown to work very well for an online community.
People build reputations in their usernames, and so their reputation becomes something they value and want to protect. Members who have an investment in something within your community are far less likely to blow that investment through inappropriate, negative behavior.
Grohol mentions that even under an alias, individuals are still able to convey themselves in a unique manner while still maintaining some sort of distance between their selves and what they say online, and that despite their self-masking with a fake name, people are able to get in tune with an individual’s point of view and/or personality (provided that fraud is at a minimum).
One interesting thing that more than one of my interviewees brought up on the subject of identity, which I’ll simply paraphrase here, echoes Grohol’s statements on pseudonymity. I’ll use the example of me, for sake of simplicity. Basically, the point was made that no matter whether I express myself in an online community on behalf of either “littlemisskool” — my nickname for virtually all web communities/social software apps of which I’m a member — or my real name, Debbie Shing, it doesn’t really matter so long as my communication remains relatively transparent, cohesive and reliable over a period of time.
I concede, it does sound a little like the “if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck” argument, but let’s face it, at the end of the day, online communities are still the sum of all parts, which consists of people, screens and networks, and even with webcams attached to every single computer, the issue of verifying one’s identity is a moot point. How do I know the Girl Guide standing outside my supermarket selling me cookies is in fact a Girl Guide?
Before I start pontificating, let me bring up the fact that there are always Web protocols that can be adopted, as well as certain membership guidelines, that can safely assure to a reasonable level beyond doubt that this post on Tim Horton’s stock going public by “DonutFreak2006″ was written by the same “DonutFreak2006″ who previously blogged about Krispy Kreme.
When you establish a relationship with members, you’re more likely to get valuable, useful information and responsible behavior from them. They’re invested in the service precisely because they are members. And membership, as American Express has been extolling for decades, has its privileges. If there’s little difference between a website’s “member” and a random visitor to the site (e.g., they can both do a lot of the exact same things), then most users have little incentive to become a member (or “registered user” in web-speak).
Ibid. See above for full citation.
There seems to be a warmer approach to online communities today than there used to be. I believe that people are more prone these days to expressing themselves online as openly as they would communicating to someone offline, and there is less fear of retribution as technologies reduce the entry barriers to and social conflicts of interest within communications software. It remains to be said though, that what you consume online should more than likely be read critically and judged with a grain of salt, and that what you produce online will often be looked at critically as well, if not cynically. Luckily, on the upside, most online folk, as in offline space, are friendly.
To continue with my example, there are plenty of people out there (or at least a handful, I hope) who continually read my personal blog and do not know me as anything other than “littlemisskool”; however, writing under a pseudonym, and using pseudonyms to represent people in my life does not deny the reader any richness from my original story except for the real names of those that I mention. Likewise, there are countless members of group blogs, and writers of individual blogs, whose entries I am always eager to read, yet frankly have no interest in knowing “who they really are” — I trust their writings enough to believe that their blogging is an accurate portrayal of their personality, regardless of persona(e).
It is this notion of (mutual) trust that I think must be amplified in the public before the online-offline communicative mesh becomes ideally effective. Surely, with identity theft, scammers and intrusion of privacy on the other end of the online communication spectrum, it sounds rather dreamy and overly optimistic to expect or want full social inclusion in my idea of the neighbourhood/civic Web portals, but I think there are still many stops along the road, many of which include changes to online technology as well as to popular perceptions of online interaction.
Edit: For anyone who’s interested, I also made a little general comment on Grohol’s article, directly on the site.