Privacy, Anonymity, and Identity Part IV: The New You

When I went away to the Navy, I took the opportunity most of us take when we leave home; I changed myself. We all did. In boot camp, the first thing they did was really clamp down on fighting. You would think that might temper everything, but without the threat of real violence, we all re-invented ourselves into the guy who totally would fight if only there weren’t any rules about it.

Most of us have not only reinvented ourselves over time, we have different identities we use in different context. People with children have a parent mode that takes over when they are around their kids. I get a bit more authoritative and professional when in front of an audience. If I’m driving a car, I may suddenly feel I can tell my passengers to behave, or to buckle their seatbelts. If someone else is driving, I might find myself listening to their instructions.

We all change depending on who we are with. If someone followed us around from one group to another, telling each group what we’d said in front of others, we’d be upset.

Some people change more than others. I’ve always been fascinated by the case of Paul Arthur Crafton, who used at least 34 separate identities to teach at seven different colleges on a variety of subjects. He also answered personal ads and performed other activities using his many different identities. He taught for 27 years before everything came apart.

Most of us just keep parts of our lives a bit separate, and this is generally considered healthy.

Going Online

For many people, going online was like going away to school. New friends, new rules, a chance to reinvent ourselves without the scrutiny of others who could tell us who we’d always been. People built Geocities pages expressing what they liked, or went on MySpace and talked on and on about personal things with strangers.

Twitter came along with its apparent anonymity, and Facebook started as a closed world that only fellow college students could enter. We participated according to the rules of the new environment, often believing that we were invisible to family members, or others who might disapprove. But sometimes these closed communities opened up and became popular. The things we’d posted to a small group were suddenly visible to a much larger public.

I know a lot of people who set up online identities that behaved differently than their real-life counterparts. Some were more sexually confident and forward, many were politically aggressive. Whether using pseudonyms in forums or complete avatars in Second Life, people were experimenting and often enjoying alternate versions of themselves.

I’ve created and run blogs under somewhat altered identities. One told somewhat fictionalized tales about the dating world of my friends in DC. Everyone knew I was writing it, but the personality of the blog was still recognizably different than my own.

To some people, anonymity is just an extreme pseudonym. They create an anonymous self that acts differently than they would in real life. It isn’t just that they are doing things they’ve been afraid to in real life, it is that the “anonymous” personality is a different identity, following different rules.

Privacy and Identity

What confuses many people in the privacy world is that we keep publishing information about ourselves online. We post, Tweet, and update at a dizzying pace, then worry about whether all this stuff we’ve posted is “private.” Developers and privacy advocates find this contradiction confusing—why don’t we understand that everything we post is, or might become public? Why would we ever be embarrassed about something we’ve posted?

But psychologically, when we are participating in one particular forum of space online, we get the feeling we are in a particular social group, setting, or context. We follow the rules of that socially constructed identity. These rules might tempt us to exaggerate our hostility to another political group, or tread lightly on various topics. We might be comfortable sharing very personal information in a particular setting, but horrified if those details reached others who know us in a different way.

The problem is often that the content we create is more permanent than we really imagine. The boundaries of who is listening can change suddenly—based on a policy shift by the platform, for instance. Or we can easily mismanage complex privacy settings.

All of these lead to what we often describe as privacy violations. In a sense, they are, but I think to really understand privacy, we also need to understand the role that identity plays in categorizing the content we produce.

It is important to create new spaces for people to explore different identities. And, though these new spaces are semi-public, we need to understand that what people do within them is in the context of that group, that environment. Privacy isn’t just a sense of hiding information from anyone, but for most people it is the desire to curate our statements made in different groups and in different settings.

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