Identity drift

by Stephen Tall on July 19, 2007

An interesting post by Phil Hendren at his Dizzy Thinks blog, arguing ‘No one should be obligated to expose their identity’. It’s well worth reading, no matter that I am going to take it to task.

Let’s demolish immediately the ‘aunt sally’ Phil implies: there are no proposals of which I know to force either bloggers, or those who comment on their blogs, to expose their identities. Tim OReilly’s doubtless well-intentioned, but seriously flawed suggestion that there should be a voluntary code of conduct observed by bloggers disappeared as swiftly as it was dreamt up. The internet is, and I’ve no doubt shall remain, an anarchic haven for free expression – which is what makes it such a twistedly genius invention.

The substantial point Phil makes is more interesting, even philosophical:

the Internet [sic] biggest strength is its cathartic nature for people to explore parts of themselves that would otherwise go uncharted. For example, the strength and belief I have in my own political views came as a result of arguing online from positions that I fundamentally did not agree with. If the Internet is to be a free network it’s fundamental that people – if they choose – be able to run websites, post comments, or whatever in a totally anonymous manner.

Let me state once again to avoid any risk of being misinterpreted: it is of course right that anybody can write what they want on the Internet using as many different identities as they wish.

The real question is this: why would they want to?

Clearly there are those who blog anonymously owing to the nature of their sites: if their identities were revealed it might cause them either personal or professional embarrassment. I think we can all understand that clearly defined rationale.

But Phil suggests more psychological factors are at play with those who indulge in schizoid identities:

Being anonymous online, or posting under a pseudonym allows users to explore parts of their personality and character that might otherwise leave hidden. They may be someone who has internal rage and seeks outlet in WRITING IN CAPITAL LETTERS. They could be a male who wants to be a female and wants to role play that life out. Second Life is the alter-ego born into graphics, it is a window into the psyche of the masses in some respect, because the avatar presented to you is what that person wants to be, and rarely what they actually are.

I’ve no doubt he’s right, at least to an extent. Though I suspect the vast majority of those who switch between different alter-egos do so not to live out their alternate universes, but because they’re feeling bored, silly or vindictive and want to distance themselves from such juvenilia. To fake your identity in such circumstances is not, as Phil claims, “cathartic” – it is an abdication of responsibility for your own actions.

Now if an anonymous posting is simply a rude joke you’d rather your boss or mum didn’t happen upon – well, fair enough, I guess. But if it’s unpleasantly maligning people you don’t know and are unlikely ever to meet – see the comments threads passim on Guido Fawkes’ blog – it no longer strikes me as the healthy catharsis in which Phil believes.

And, no, I don’t want to ban it. I just don’t like it. It is, quite simply, bad manners.

Why, anyway, do folk feel that the only way they can express different emotions is to adopt different personas? I don’t dispute Phil that some undoubtedly do – but is it really such a good thing that the only way someone feels able to express anger in a public forum is to fake a persona and SHOUT WITH CAPS LOCK ON? Is it not possible – even healthier – for an individual to be comfortable expressing a range of emotions in their own voice?

Finally, let’s remember the other half of the equation – a group Phil doesn’t consider: the readers. Any writer who posts their thoughts on the internet is, presumably, wanting others to read their utterings (otherwise they might as well just keep a diary). And they are of course entirely within their rights, as Phil points out, to adopt whatever persona they choose. The reader does not, in any sense, have any rights.

But the interpretation that Phil places upon writing as an alter ego appears depressingly reductive – its only point seems to be a selfish one: to make the writer feel better. My definition of writing is broader. Yes, I write it because I enjoy it – but I also write because I want to communicate to other people in an honest way.

Otherwise, what’s the point?