Two important features of digital media and cyberculture are the division between anonymity and authenticity when it comes to one’s identity. Part of this mix is wrapped up in the prior discussion of public/private behavior, and what makes it onto the front stage versus the carefully protected backstage. The audience interaction with online communication is complex. When one communicates online, important decisions go into the form, shape and direction of communicative acts. Who might see this? How will they understand it? What kind of feedback am I likely to get? Is this something I need to worry about coming back to bite me? If this is semi-private communication, is there a risk that it could go public? We ask these questions largely unconsciously most of the time, posting freely and frequently, more and more as time goes by.
One of the safeguards that cyberculture has adopted for these potential issues is the practice of anonymity. An alternate persona cloaked in pseudonyms and avatars can be created to participate in various forms of communication and in various contexts. One can be freed of gender, race, physical abilities and limitations, sexuality or other defining traits in order to relate to a particular audience in a performance that meets particular gratifications and purposes. When it comes to political activism, it is sometimes useful to adopt a pseudonym for online activities that might cause complications at work or in one’s community. When engaged in online activity that may be considered deviant by particular segments of one’s community, anonymity is crucial. This audio from a 2011 panel at the SXSW conference deals with this issue: E-Race: Avatars, Anonymity and the Virtualization of Identity.
The flip side to this issue is the presence of trolls, who engage in purposeful anti-social behavior in order to disrupt online environments. Judith Donath, in her piece “Identity and deception in the virtual community” writes:
Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns; the newsgroup members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings and, upon judging a poster to be a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they – and the troll – understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll’s enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.
Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling – where the rate of deception is high – many honestly naive questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one’s online reputation.
The quest for the authentic and the need for anonymity are defining issues in cyberculture, and issues that bleed into the physical world as well. As we interact more frequently online than we do in person, how do these habits and attitudes change us? Five scholars attempt to address these issues from various points of view. Read through each of the five perspectives at this blog (Noril, Glessi, Simonowski, Wesch, and Turkle) and consider the issue of anonymity and identity.