Identity crisis: On names, anonymity and our online selves Melanie Baker July 21, 2016 Columns, Featured, M-Theory If you have a dog and go pretty much anywhere with it regularly, there’s a phenomenon with which you may be familiar. You know all the dogs’ names and details, but there’s a good chance you can’t name a single dog owner’s name. We just… never seem to get around to that. I’ve never really found this to be a big deal. But I’m a geek and there are a lot of things I’d rather do than make small talk with strangers. Unless it’s about their dogs. Recently, though, upon learning the name of a guy I’ve been talking to for probably two years, I actually gave some thought to this. I considered when I first really started spending time online in university. While things were still pretty text-based, all of a sudden there was… the world. I “met” a lot of people (Telnet, baby!) It didn’t strike any of us teens and 20-somethings as odd that folks who became close friends or romantic partners were invisible. People you’d never met in person, who lived hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Eventually you probably got around to swapping real names and such, but you still generally referred to each other by your chosen handles. Identity in those communities had a lot of facets and uses, and tended to be pretty fluid. I recall several different “names” I used over the years. But proper, permanent, and specific names were largely irrelevant. Identity shifts and evolves pretty regularly when you’re young. I for one am pretty damned grateful to have survived that sans social media. Having a Polaroid camera was bad enough. Identity online in those days had a very different shape. There weren’t “real name policies,” for example. That said there are still communities and corners online that retain that. When I first started using Twitter, it was still pretty common for people’s handles not to be real names. But then as the online world evolved and social media continued to explode, personal branding became A Thing, and getting your actual name became much more important. Of course, back then it was a lot easier to wrest your name handle from a dormant account. But eventually, people who couldn’t get real name handles resorted back to using some other identifier. Eventually, as the Internet became a lot bigger and often a less friendly place, identity became a huge and serious issue. Identity, as we had constituted it, frequently led to certain behaviours. If you want a very clear explanation, google “Theory of Internet Anonymity”. TL;DR: being anonymous online with access to an audience does not encourage mature and reasoned behaviour. As a result, a lot of properties like Facebook glommed onto the idea that forcing people to use their “real names” would somehow magically make them accountable and behave themselves. This has not exactly proven to be the case. And by “not exactly,” I mean it has put people in danger, required using variants of identities that people never use and don’t identify with (furthering offences like transphobia), and denied self-directed identity. At times they’ve also arbitrarily decided that someone’s real name… isn’t. Because of course a monolithic media company knows better than you do who you really are. This has now extended well beyond Facebook. We’re typically encouraged to sign up/in for sites/apps now with Facebook or Google account credentials. This hands a significant degree of identity management over to the platform owner. Since most people don’t read EULAs very well, this can also give platforms a staggering degree of access to your social accounts. Just look at the recent privacy concerns when Pokémon Go was released. An extension of this issue pops up in my business as well. ICANN, the governing body for the Internet, has some pretty outdated policies, particularly with regards to personal privacy and the ability (and right) to hide your personal information with domain registrations. If you own a domain name, go do a WHOIS lookup on it. You’ll see what information is publicly available to anyone. (If a WHOIS privacy service is available for your type of domain, add it. If it’s not free, transfer to a registrar where it is.) Not all registries even offer a WHOIS privacy service. If you have a .CA domain, for example, too bad. And some sketchy sites even ignore WHOIS privacy and post whatever they want for as long as they want. When I have panicked women contacting me and begging for their personal information to be hidden – women with restraining orders who are hiding from abusers – it makes governing body policies and politics regarding identity seem not only outdated, but cruel. I also find that people frequently assume having an online presence means they should be top-ranked in search results. They could have registered a domain and drag-and-dropped a basic site an hour ago, but they built it… so why hasn’t Google gotten with the program? They may have little technical, sales, or marketing knowledge, but assembling an identity, to them, equals entitlement to dissemination and dominance of their brand. Identity online continues to be a thorny issue, and I think it’s safe to argue that how it’s defined and regulated lags behind reality. Governments and big companies aren’t well known for being nimble, or for being broadly technically savvy, which is problematic juxtaposed with a universe that is constantly evolving. If it’s all too much, though, there’s always the option of checking out entirely. As for me, I’ll be over there throwing tennis balls for the dogs. Photo: Hello my name is … by carnagenyc is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.