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Separating information from identity in an online world

By in Features/News/Technology

The Muse (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

ST. JOHN’S (CUP) — Just as the prominence of the World Wide Web has changed drastically, so too has its “raison d’être” — it has gone from a database to a hub of real-time communication and social networks. It spreads ideas, news coverage and multimedia across geographical boundaries instantly, and researchers are constantly trying to make it even more streamlined and efficient.

According to a recent study by the Miniwatts Marketing Group, nearly 80 per cent of North Americans are online — some 270 million of us. The multifaceted nexus of computers that is the Internet has been steadily expanding since coming to the public’s attention at the end of the 20th century. It has evolved from a technological novelty to a virtual necessity for billions of users worldwide.

One of the most interesting discussions on the changing landscape of the Internet focuses not so much on its content, but rather on the users themselves. Who are you when you log onto the web?

IP de plume

Every email you send and every post you make online is rubberstamped with an Internet Protocol (IP) address. This address can be traced by others — although, without a court order, even the most programming-savvy users can only get a relative idea of who you are, such as what province you live in or who your Internet Service Provider is.

In other words, the Internet gives you access to a worldwide forum where you are virtually an anonymous being.

The concept of anonymity isn’t even relatively new. People have been finding reason to obscure their identities for centuries, and for many different reasons. In some cases, anonymity gives people an opportunity to voice their honest opinions and concerns, without fear of repercussions or prosecution.

One of the most prominent writers of the Victorian period was a woman named Mary Anne Evans — although you most likely know her by her pseudonym, George Eliot. This “nom de plume” helped hide her gender, which allowed her work to be taken seriously in her own time, and helped ensure her a spot in the Western literary canon.

That is not to say that the ability to fade into anonymous obscurity should be an unquestionable human right. Think of robberies where criminals’ faces are obscured in an attempt to evade legal consequences — a rise in anonymity can be strongly linked to a decline in responsibility. Social psychology finds a similar idea at work during riots, where people feel that the crowd functions as a faceless whole, rather than a sum of its parts.

The consequences of anonymity are very different when it takes place online rather than in a physical reality.

Considering that a huge number of websites on the Internet have the option for creating personal user profiles, which can then be used to communicate with other users and to post on public topics, people are increasingly using the web to create an online identity.

Functioning in a virtual world

tween people is completely different compared to when a computer screen and modem separates them.

Judith Donath — founder of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, which is concerned with how individuals function in a virtual sphere — wrote on the subject more than 10 years ago in her essay, Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. For her, the removal of a physical presence in online interaction is related to the disintegration of user accountability and the abandonment of regular social behaviour.

“In the physical world, there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity,” she explained. “The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter.”

Browsing news websites, it’s not uncommon to see comments turn to personal attacks — comments that one could not imagine actually saying to the person’s face, given the opportunity.

A recognizable incident of these types of comments is the recent Rebecca Black fiasco. Black was only 13 years old in March when the music video for her song “Friday” became a viral sensation after being uploaded to YouTube.

“Friday,” even after being removed and replaced, is still the most disliked video on YouTube. User comments — which literally came in seconds apart when the video peaked in popularity — ranged from contemptuous to outright malicious.

“Those hurtful comments really shocked me,” Black went on to say to the Daily Beast. “At times, it feels like I’m being cyberbullied.”

At its most severe level, Internet anonymity has given rise to a classification of users known colloquially as “trolls.” These users frequent YouTube, Facebook and other forum-based websites, posting flagrant comments solely to elicit emotional responses from other users.

Trolling can be as harmless as poking fun at a song in hopes of garnering angry rebuttals from fans, generating another Internet coinage, a “flame war.” This is something Internet trolls do solely “for the lulz,” an online catchphrase that basically means “for the sake of comedy.”

How far can a joke go?

Under the guise of anonymity, users are free to be as outrageously racist, violent and profane as they can imagine. More than a few do just that.

The ability for users of social media websites such as Facebook to create pages in support of special interest groups has led to the formation of memorial pages in honour of deceased friends and family members. These pages provide a forum for users to upload pictures and post personal messages as a means of consolation.

Their public nature also means that anyone can access them.

It’s an increasingly common practice for Internet trolls, completely apathetic to mourning friends and family members, to seek out such memorial pages and vandalize them with disrespectful images and comments. The worst part is that, despite calls for increased Internet regulations, the trolls are still legally permitted to harass these grieving people. The worst consequence available is a ban on the social networking website, although it only takes another name and email address to start a new account and begin the harassment again.

Born from some of the same websites that helped establish the concept of Internet trolls, a group of users styling themselves as “Anonymous” wreak similar havoc on the online community, albeit in a much more organized fashion.

Like trolls, the endeavours of Anonymous have repercussions in the real world. From collaborative mischief — on May 20, 2009, they uploaded pornographic videos to YouTube, disguised as family-friendly content — to plaguing major corporate websites such as MasterCard and PayPal, in what is known as a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS). In some of these cases, several arrests have been made across the globe.

Nonetheless, the issue of online anonymity is extremely complicated.

The online communal nature of the Internet has made it easy for vigilantes to send photographs and information related to criminals (think of the online response to the recent London riots, where images of rioters were posted on photo-sharing websites), and law enforcement agencies have been paying attention.

Protesters in the recent Egyptian and Syrian revolutions also owe something to the Internet as a tool for rallying support.

The world is yours
From the safety of your computer chair, you have the power to create a profile in a virtual realm where you can ruin someone’s reputation, be yourself victimized, work against it or stand by on the sidelines and watch it all happen. It sounds like a computer role-playing game, but some of the realities of the 21st century are ultimately stranger than fiction.

The unprecedented peak in online activity has demanded that laws be updated to accommodate the new challenges presented by the Internet, but balancing anonymity and privacy remains a tricky problem in contemporary society. Just as Danish police are currently pushing to disrupt the anonymous nature of the Internet in Denmark, thousands of users applaud the World Wide Web for its ability to protect real-life identities, calling it the ultimate form of free expression.

Wherever you stand on the issue, you could always post your opinions on Twitter, Facebook, message boards or any number of other public forums on the Internet, and be completely anonymous and open with your thoughts — just as long as you know that your readers will be too.

Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf

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