By this time, we’ve covered issues of public and private space. We’ve covered issues of anonymity and identity, and we’ve covered the boundaries of civility and bullying online. By now you should be feeling comfortable with the ideas we’ve incorporated about media, digital media, culture, cybernetics, and cyberculture, as found in the definitions post of this blog. In addition the framework suggested by the readings of Wesch and Sternberg (see: Blackboard) are important for their incorporation of George Herbert Mead (identity/self/generalized other), Erving Goffman (impression management/front and back stage), and Joshua Meyrowitz (McLuhan/medium theory/changes in culture via electronic media). Finally, the Blackboard reading about cyberbullying from Patchin and Hinduja offers a look at how scholars treat specific issues of cyberculture.
Bridging the topic of civility and bullying to the next topic, Sockpuppets and Catfish, we move even closer to the specific. Online communication of the public variety, being subject to the cultural practices of anonymity and identity work (impression management), comes in many forms. The sock puppet, in particular, is an aspect of cyberculture that manifests in a number of critical ways. What is a sockpuppet?
Wikipedia offers this definition of sockpuppet:
A sockpuppet is a” false online identity” or “a phony name made up by a user in order to masquerade as someone else on the Internet”. The term—a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock—originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community who spoke to, or about, himself while pretending to be another person. The term now includes other misleading uses of online identities, such as those created to praise, defend or support a third party or organization, or to circumvent a suspension or ban from a website. A significant difference between the use of a pseudonym and the creation of a sockpuppet is that the sockpuppet poses as an independent third-party unaffiliated with the puppeteer. Many online communities have a policy of blocking sockpuppets.
The Oxford Dictionaries blog offers another look at some of the practices associated with sockpuppetting. Researcher Simon Tanner offers a look at how sockpuppets disrupt and pose new challenges to academics and reporters in a UK Guardian article from 2012. The story of Megan Meier is a fairly well known example of sockpuppetting. Megan was a teenager suffering from depression, who was targeted online by others teens, some say at the behest of a classmate’s mother, and eventually committed suicide. These types of incidents raise awareness of new modes of living and our paralysis in dealing with them, legally or culturally.
The case in question may, more recently, be known as catfishing. Catfishing is the practice of constructing an online persona, essentially a sockpuppet, of remarkably detailed quality. The identity is an elaborate fiction, including networks of friends, a detailed personal narrative, and a compelling hook of some kind. This false persona then trolls the Internet for unsuspecting individuals to string along. The term has been linked to several origins, but the film Catfish is one of the most successful cultural phenomena in the naming of the practice.
Many people first came into contact with the idea of catfishing in the 2013 case of Notre Dame football player Manti T’eo. While sockpuppets are often relatively harmless, and often quite funny, catfishing is a particularly cruel and destructive manifestation of online identity, anonymity, and deception.