At some point in the last few years, “identity” became a nasty word. It’s not just identity theft, identity politics or identity requirements. It’s everywhere — maybe especially on the web.
Meanwhile, its opposite, Anonymous, became synonymous for many with sheer chaos, whether they were attacking online businesses or careless celebrities. Fights over pseudonyms and identity verification at Google+ (aka “the Nym Wars“) only showed that sorting out online identity had reached an unhappy, polarized stalemate.
Christopher “moot” Poole, founder of message- and mediaboards 4chan and Canvas, might seem like an unlikely voice to advance or complicate this discussion. Now 23 years old, Poole created 4chan at 15; over time the site became as famous for its embrace of anonymous posting and anarchic subculture, as its ability to generate and spread internet memes like lolcats or Rickrolling. Because of 4chan, Poole’s generally been treated by the media and at high-profile idea salons as an apologist for anonymity, even when his exact position has always been more complicated.
At the Web 2.0 conference this week, Poole gave a compelling talk that mapped this complexity, and which I hope will help reframe our discussion of identity. It’s hard to summarize, but in addition to the full video, I’ll try to pull out a few of the big ideas:
- Both Google+ (with Circles) and Facebook (with Smart Lists) misunderstand the core problem of online identity: It’s not only about who you’re sharing with, but how you represent yourself. “It’s not who you share with, but who you share as.”
- “Identity is prismatic.” We’re all viewed through multiple lenses; we always represent ourselves through multiple personae; and this isn’t a strange aberration or attempt at deceit but a fact of being human.
- Facebook (but not only Facebook) have fostered the assumption that our identity is consistently not just verified but represented online through a first and last name attached to a photograph of our face. This is actually a diminishing of our plural identities, not a flourishing of it. It consolidates our identity, which distorts how we truly are.
- If you’re looking to keep score between the major social media companies: Twitter handles identity better than Facebook, because it allows for handles, multiple accounts, fake accounts and other features that keep Twitter interest-driven, not identity-driven. Google, in turn, “missed a gigantic opportunity to innovate” the representation of identity online by allowing for something as rich as Circles for self-representation, not just choice of audience. “Facebook and Google do identity wrong; Twitter does it better; and I want to think about what the world would be like if we did it right.”
- Ultimately, though, big companies don’t determine identity on the web, even if they shape its contours. Users and other developers do, through their behavior and choices.
What’s refreshing about Poole’s talk is how pragmatic he actually is. Canvas, for instance, uses Facebook to verify identity at signup as a simple hedge to keep out trolls and spammers, but still allows users to represent themselves anonymously, through handles, or under real names, and go back and reclaim or “author-ize” anonymous posts. To paraphrase George Carlin, not every forum post deserves a name.
With identity, once you take the point of view of all-or-nothing terminal purity, there are no limits and there is no compromise. Tim O’Reilly points this out in a joint interview with Poole conducted by TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis: from logged IP addresses on the web and facial recognition software on the street, true anonymity is increasingly impossible.
Poole is actually describing something so much more modest that we take it for granted: how we sign (or don’t sign) what we share online, and the role that plays in our self-expression.
We’re all authors of our data; the question is whether we want everything we’ve written bundled together in a giant book with our name and portrait at the front and testimonials from our friends — as Facebook just introduced with Timeline. Or do we want something looser, more fragmented, less monumental, less final. We could be like the Shakespeare of the First Folio, dead and memorialized; or the living, collaborating, experimental poet, playwright, actor and businessman. He’s something of a mystery to us, but infinitely more vital than the capital-A Author too often used to intimidate schoolchildren.
But Poole’s argument applies to more than just authors, activists, hackers, groups needing special protection or teenagers who should be free to make mistakes without having it come back to haunt them. Understanding and managing identity online is for all of us. What’s more, there is increasingly little to no gap between our online and offline selves. It’s not that online identity should reflect real identity; it is real identity. Poole understands this both intuitively and uncommonly well.
I’m now at a point where (as far as I know), all of my online activity is linked to my real name. I’ve taken a whole-person approach to my self-representation online. If you follow me on Twitter or read my posts here, you know a lot about me, my family, my sense of humor, what sports teams I like, what books and movies I like, what gadgets and services I use, who my friends are and who and what I don’t like very much. It’s not Tim @ Wired.com; it’s extremely close to Tim.
At the same time, however, I’m keenly aware that whole-person approach is only possible because Twitter and blogs actively encourage, as a matter of culture, that kind and variety of self-expression. Both Twitter and blogs are and always have been a mélange of individuals and groups, real names and pseudonyms, institutions and inspired parodies, fans and authorities. It’s not a Robert Moses world of central planning and institutional voice; it’s the Jane Jacobs world of organic, prismatic communities, always reshaping and evolving itself.
The real power of Christopher “moot” Poole’s message about reclaiming identity is that it’s not just about fighting what doesn’t work; it’s about building and supporting what does.