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The identity continuum isn’t a continuum

I don’t know that anyone needs correcting on this point, but that won’t stop me…

Identity isn’t a continuum with anonymity at one end and documented, certified, authenticated ID on the other. It probably never was and it certainly isn’t online. There’s a third vertex: Pseudonymity. Pseudonyms online are not midway between anonymity and ID. They’re different in kind, but enough on the same plane that any discussion of anonymity and ID that does not include pseudonyms is likely to go wrong.

It’s hard to find an exact analog to this in the real world. Social roles aren’t really the same as pseudonyms. But that means that we have to be extra special careful to include pseudonyms in our thinking so we don’t port inappropriate real world schema into the new virtual world, especially since the porting is being done top down by the traditional fear-based organizations (big corps and governments). [Tags: ]

10 Responses to “The identity continuum isn’t a continuum”

  1. In light of those comments, I’d be interested to hear your opinion on this.

  2. Bill, I’m with those who think that the handle and the URI constitute attribution. That’s how a researcher can locate the source, and that’s how the photographer wants to be acknowledged, which I think covers the point of attribution.

  3. It’s hard to find an exact analog to this in the real world.

    Costume party?

    What you’re really asking about (or rather, what I hear you asking about) is the construction of identity. I think that we as a society have become so dependent on the visual and tangible that we mistake construction of identity with visual familiarity. The visual aspect is manifest in everything from the North American/European obsession with body image to the parental fear over our young children trusting familiar strangers in parks. The tangible aspect is revealed in the choice of language – “virtual” used in reference to that which exists in cyberspace, in dichotomous opposition to “real,” referring to that which exists in physical space.

    Your strawman identity continuum reflects this erroneous dichotomy (i.e., virtual::real mapped onto anonymous::certified-grade-a) which is, I think, an artefact of the former dominance of the visual in modern society. In the UCaPP environment of our contemporary world, the dominant sensation is tactile, not visual (tactile as distinct from tangible); complex networks of relationships are key to the construction of identity.

    The problem with social roles (in traditional role theory) is that they tend to be defined as discrete, fragmentary and contingent. Not so when they are considered as complex patterns of effects in relationships (this was the underlying premise of my master’s thesis on Role* [pdf]). In this context, I would understand each instance of pseudonymity as one (among many) emergent identities in the context of a complex environment of relationships, that does not correspond with either a visual, or a nominative (and possibly others already defined by regulatory or legislative agencies, for instance) identity.

  4. I think the problem is that in the digital there is no continuity at all. this space is actually built on discuntinuities (0/1 ?), while the we could zoom in forever the real matter.

    is like cyber identity shows handles for those who approach us, empty spaces between our presence so that they can manipulate us at their convenience.
    as mark remind us, this is a tactil world that is a way to connect with each other more invasively (at list for our generation that is not yet used to it).

    official ID requires a center and will never manage to exist here, and I would say that anonimity is just a lazy way for pseudonimity.

    I think is more like that each one here give us the identity they feel like giving us, and ask for name and surnames when they want to have the phisical backgrounds.

  5. It’s hard to find an exact analog to this in the real world.

    I’m thinking of having attended Dragon*Con while living in Atlanta a few years back and seeing all those funny names on the name badges. You could branch out from that one example in many ways: There is a track at Dragon*Con for hackers, and effectively a track for people interested in topics. The reason you aren’t getting a lot of input from the folks involved in them is that they have those pseudonyms for a reason.

  6. David,

    I don’t think psuedonym is the right word. Doesn’t it mean an equivalence of meaning rather than being? I tend to look at the issues related to anonymity and identity in terms of personas (in the social psychology sense, not the experience design sense) and character. We present different personas to different audiences in order to control what people in those audiences know about us. Character is what people know about you that you don’t realize. So, for example, if Yahoo message boards were to give users the option of knowing all the monikers individuals use, we would not know the identity of the person, but we would have the opportunity to get to know their character when we engage one of their personas.

  7. This isn’t really an argument for or against your statements, but just some meandering thoughts — largely on the confusion of vocabulary as it’s translated online.

    I believe that in the real world and online, in the perception of the person using it, a pseudonym grants anonymity — anonymity by convention, rather than security.

    When someone posts with a pseudonym, they are usually doing so because they don’t want to use a real name — they are unwilling to have their work traced to their true identity. Isn’t that anonymity?

    Online, a pseudonym is unlikely to be traced by the general public to the originating user, although stronger technical anonymity protects from being traced by more and more sophisticated means.

    Technical anonymity can be used with or without a pseudonym.

    One person might want to use Tor to cover his/her tracks so he/she can blog under a pseudonym about politics that might be offensive to his/her employer.

    An American military officer might use Tor to hide his/her origin in Baghdad, so that he/she can use strong identity to log into a Pentagon mail server without declaring to surveillance in Iraq that there’s an American in a particular house outside the green zone.

    But these aren’t the vernacular understandings of anonymity.

    Most people associate “Anonymous” with the arts. The joke is that “Anonymous” is the most prolific author/artist in history. This joke rides on our understanding of the pseudonym or pen name.

    When George Eliot or Publius published their work, they were no less motivated to be anonymous, but wished an identifier to be consistently associated with their works over time. The pseudonym is associated with the output. The identity is still anonymous.

    Some pseudonyms were casual — Samuel Clemens was known to be Mark Twain. Some became greater symbols than the original identity — how many could rattle off Lenin’s birthname?

    In Hamilton’s case, the use of the pseudonym Publius was temporary. Some items he published under his own name. Some of Publius’ articles may have been collaborations. And eventually, all were resolved as being Hamilton’s, when he “owned” the pseudonym. No doubt, at the time he was writing as Publius, some of his friends knew it was he.

    So we see that the pseudonym is identified against the author’s oeuvre, but not related generally to the identity in “the real world.” At least, not until the author volunteers to identify, or his/her cover is blown.

    When the author of Primary Colors (Anonymous) was “outed,” it’s clear that he wasn’t identified as the author of all works of Anonymous over time. But then, Anonymous *as related* to Primary Colors became Joe Klein’s known ruined pseudonym.

    Online we use anonymity in a more specific sense than its cultural analogue. But I think that there is a great deal of anonymity value to the everyday online user in a pseudonym. To the everyday user, a pseudonym would be a form of selective anonymity.

    I don’t believe in some absolute scale of identity, but I believe there’s sort of a complex field. It compounds real identity against roles (including pseudonymous identities) against some pick-and-choose idea of privacy (what data is released associated with the role or pseudonym).

    But in my imagined scheme of identity, anonymity and pseudonymity are close neighbors for most normal uses in the mind of the public. Dare I say, “for marketing purposes?” :)

    And for marketing purposes, I predict that identity frameworks that don’t allow for anonymity and pseudonymity are unlikely to gain public acceptance. We have a great deal of education to do if we want the casual user to distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity, but most people are likely to want either under some circumstances.

    I have a hard time with casual Internet users explaining to them the difference between having some random throwaway hotmail account, and having the sort of anonymity which technically protects one from being traced online. (i.e. proxies, Tor).

    I suspect as more and more breaches of privacy hit the news, week by week, some of this education will be done (however well) by the media.

    Shava Nerad
    executive director
    Tor project
    (not a big corp or govt)

  8. Shava, the vocabulary is indeed confusing. Not surprising since the Net has created some new social phenomena that are related to existing ones (nothing is ever totaly new) but are nevertheless different, as your remarks show.

    Two further thoughts:

    First, we’ve reserved the word “anonymous” prior to the Web for occasions when the norm is that people identify themselves; you don’t enter a movie theater “anonymously” unless there’s some expectation that you’ll show id on the way in. Thus, it’s gotten a shady connotation. In fact, however, for those of us in large towns or cities, most of our real world daily lives are spent in anonymity: Most of the people I encounter don’t know who I am. Nor are they allowed to ask unless they have a specific justification. E.g., if a shopper is blocking access to the Coco Puffs and you’d like her to move, you can’t also say, “May I have your name, please?” without arousing suspicion. Anonymity is the default in the real world. It’ll be an ironic shame if ID becomes the default online.

    Second, online pseudonymity is different than how we use the word offline, but also the same, as you point out. “Mark Twain” is a prototype of the old use of the term. Pseudonyms were confined to the literary world. In the online world, we’re all authors, of course. So pseudonymity is open to all of us. And we use it for lots of reasons, including to enable us to play social roles. The prototyptical pseudonym online is one with persistence. The persistence allows a social identity to form. Combined with a pseudonym’s anonymity, it provides many of the benefits of ID, without the exposure rw person behind the “mask.”

    Sorry to ramble, and to repeat some of what you’ve said.

  9. I agree that pseudonymity is very interesting in its own right, but I’m not convinced that it is wrong to map it onto anonymity / verified ID – just that it doesn’t fit into one particular spot and should be thought of in more precise terms.

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