Authenticity and the end of online anonymity

Just over a year ago I wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard that asked if it would soon be all-but impossible to be anything other than your true self online.

Those days, it seems, are fast approaching.  “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone,” announces a headline in today’s New York Times. Author Brian Stelter picks out several recent examples of people caught doing something unusual, illegal or embarrassing in public and then being swiftly identified through their online activities and social connections.

Another news item from today — detailing the arrest of an alleged member of the LulzSec hacker collective — suggests that even those who know their way around web anonymity are finding it hard to stay hidden.

Since I wrote the Standard piece, the financial information-sharing website that I featured, called Blippy, has gone under. At the time it looked likely to fail because relatively few people had taken their online self-revelations to the extreme that Blippy required to succeed. I was nevertheless interested in how the tell-all culture upon which Blippy was predicated was growing in strength, a development that I predicted would eventually spark suspicion of those who refused to share.

What I didn’t address was the idea that it’s also becoming ever-easier for one’s behavior, both online and off-, to be revealed even when you had an expectation of anonymity. But if we’ve reached that point too, as the Times article suggests we might have, then the same consequences hold: that we’ll likely feel ever greater pressure to be authentically ourselves whether we’re online or off, and that that pressure might in turn have us modifying our behavior in both spheres.

As I said in the article, “Maybe, as a result, we’ll all be inspired to lead more responsible lives in the future, figuring that since so much about our modern lives is searchable, we might as well just be good instead of worrying about looking good.”

The same caveats also hold, however. To live both publicly and safely requires a system that’s law-abiding, tolerant, open and totally accepting of its critics and malcontents. Unfortunately, that’s not something that our shifting ideas of authenticity and anonymity are likely to make it any easier for us to secure.

 

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Filed under Analysis, commentary, journalism, social networks

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