Thursday, June 28, 2007

On the internet, no-one knows you are a dog...

Anonymity is a curious thing. Many of us want to be famous, but on our own terms. Some seek the life of a recluse whilst the rest of us are somewhere in between.

Back in the 1940s, The American psychologist Abraham Maslow put forward the theory known as Maslow's hierarchy of needs, often referred to as Maslow's triangle or Pyramid. At the base of the pyramid are our primal requirements to survive- eating, sleeping, breathing and so on. The next layer is the safety layer- the security of having somewhere to live, employment, good health and such. Above that is the need for belonging, satisfied by friendship, family and intimacy. The fourth level is labelled esteem and relates to self esteem and respect. We want to be accepted by others, to be recognised as good at what we do and to mix with others of equal calibre. There is the shallow version of this that goes under the title of "Celebrity" where people are accorded fame, respect and glory, often for extremely fatuous reasons (think big brother!) many people can't cope with this if they have low self esteem and end up on a self-destructive spiral.

(There is an apex to the triangle known as self-actualization but whilst worth a look that isn't particularly pertinent to this post).

Now, in order to be famous, it was always necessary to be well known. There used to be one notable exception to that- the non-de-plume of an anonymous author. However, with the advent of the Internet, the ability to be an unknown is much more available, but it is far too easy to compromise the cloak of secrecy. Two examples spring to mind, one of them funny.

Here in Morley, a couple of years back, someone set up a website and forum known as the LS27 group. (LS27 is the postcode area of Morley within Leeds). The unknown person did it chiefly for the purposes of winding people up. It became apparent, however, that this person was the same individual who had been impersonating others on a mailing list, by creating various hotmail accounts in the names of others and then posting inflammatory remarks. He gave himself away by his writing style and a consistent quirky use of punctuation. (He also gave himself away by registering the domain in his own name and address!). Events took a sinister turn when someone who had been fixated on somewhat in postings got attacked on the way to work one morning and the police took an interest. I have no idea if there was any connection but the site was quickly pulled. There was a bit of a repeat performance earlier this year on the Town Council mailing list and that was pulled too.

The other (and funnier) example was on a now mostly defunct mailing list known as Tabslist, a backstage UK Theatre list with several hundred techies on it. Every list is obliged to have at least one eccentric, and ours was an Am Dram man known as Frank. He often had controversial views and could generate huge quantities of frustrated angry argument over topics like whether you actually needed ultra violet light to cause fluorescence. Anyway, another list member, exasperated by Frank's entrenched opinions, did a bit of online digging on him and was bemused to find that he had posted (once) to a Sado-Masochism Usenet newsgroup. It further transpired that he was a regular there under a pseudonym (and alternative email) but had inadvertently posted from his normal address.

His unusal activities laid painfully bare (ooh err!), he gradually went quiet on the Tabslist scene, especially whenever he was dismissively referred to as "Spanky" in replies.

And the moral of the story is? It is much harder to live a lie, as you have to be on your guard at all times and inconsistencies or simple errors will eventually catch you out.

Now blogging has many people in the shadows. Some do it because they have to or they would probably lose their job (David Copperfield, Walking the streets), some do it because they can be much more offensive and rude than would be otherwise possible without the cloak (Devils Kitchen, Mutley). Others do it to adopt a persona they would much rather be. (Chip dale? discuss!) I imagine a few do it because they don't want their mates or immediate family to know it is them, for whatever reason.

I have personally dabbled with anonymity previously mainly for the purposes of lurking in things that I am vaguely interested in but don't necessarily want to get roped into (or sometimes, roped into again after previous involvement). I have never felt a particular urge to set up a furtive hate site but there again perhaps I've never quite felt strongly enough!

Moving on to second life, anonymity rises to another level. You get to choose your name (freeform first name, a large list of last names). Many bloggers have chosen the name "Writer". I personally chose "Furse" as W.J. Furse and Co. of Nottingham built the original post-war Delicolor systems, an on-line badge that I adopted for quirky reasons a decade ago. You get to choose what you look like, which can closely resemble real life, or can be wildly different. You get to choose how much information you reveal about yourself, from nothing to everything.

So, when you talk to somebody, how do you know they are what they say they are? When you are flirting with that real stunner, could she really be a spotty teenage boy with bad breath in his back bedroom in Luton?

The simple answer is you don't, but as ever, it is harder to consistently lie than to just be yourself (which comes easy!) so you have to use your hunches. As the punchline of the famous joke goes, "You shag one sheep..."


Crushed by Ingsoc said...

The avatar I have in second life does ressemble me quite accurately.

I choose to stay anonymous for a number of reasons.
I could not continue blogging if my identity was compromised openly.

I think that goes for at least half of Blogpower.

Colin Campbell said...

Woof Woof Rumbled

Great post Ian. I think that it is great that everyone can be who they want to be. I would be disapointed if Chip was an impersonator. It is just hard to know one way or another.

Enjoy should be the motto.

Bag said...

Nice post. I've always considered myself high up on that pyramid and am comfortable where I am.

As far as being anonymous I have always tried to keep my head down being one who likes to keep himself private to all but friends and family.

As far as blogging. I don't want any issues so I keep myself anonymous. I specifically don't blog about things I pick up at work and as I've worked with some of the hot topics it has been a struggle not to comment particularly when an article is totally wrong. I also write articles in our local rag, again anonymously, in the readers pages. Most of my friends and family know about it.

As far as SL is concerned. I like my names to mean something. Writer was the only one I felt any relation to at all and that was after a few minutes of trying to make a link with the other names.

I couldn't find a balding, short and tubby avatar but the one I have now is the closest I have. A few tweaks with the hair and some stubble and I'm done.

Delicolor said...

Guys, Tom Paine has expanded on the topic over at nourishing oscurity. Vain? Nous?

Ruthie said...

What a nice post... I know what you mean. There's a book that I'm beginning to read called "The Cult of the Amateur" which blames a lot of our current problems on what the author calls "Web 2.0," full of user-driven content by anonymous (and often unqualified) people. I'm not sure I agree with him, but it's an interesting book.

My SL surname is a few letters off from my actual surname. I tried to make the avatar look like me. I blog using my real first name.

But no one who actually knows me in real life knows I have a blog.