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Publicly Anonymous

An online identity is a complex, and often times deceiving, extension of each person’s individual self. With the various social networks that exist today, there is a much bigger opportunity for deception to take place. This idea of being able to create a persona that is completely different from the one that exists in everyday life creates an alluring opportunity to escape the troubles of the real world. This seemingly harmless escape mechanism can quickly turn into something much bigger. Without any consequences for their wrongdoing, people can use this fabricated identity for bullying, trolling, and even purposely deceiving someone just for their entertainment. Identity online has many layers, but it’s most common use seems to be deception.

“Cyber bullying” has become one of the most popular problems associated with internet use. Anastasia Goodstein describes cyber bullying as “the new bathroom wall”. It blurs the lines between home and school. Home was once an escape for those who were bullied, but social networks now make it easy for the taunts to follow children home. The complexities of identity online further complicate the issue. Bullies can taunt from the comfort of their own computer without having to reveal themselves and without any consequences for having done so. Goodstein also points out that “cyberbullying has democratized bullying because you don’t have to be able to physically overpower your victim-a person can simply log on, create a new identity, and bully away”. With the ability to totally recreate one’s identity, bullying offers an unlimited amount of possibilities. The system of feedback is also completely different when dealing with cyber bullying. When a child is taunted in person, the bully can often feel remorse after watching their victim cry or look sad. This does not exist online. The internet seems to have completely desensitized bullies, only encouraging them to make their taunts more malicious and hurtful. With the ability to hide behind a fake identity in any of the major social networks, online bullies are unlikely to stop, even with the string of recent anti-bullying campaigns, and feel more empowered to spread hate from behind their keyboard.

Internet trolling is also a big deal when it comes to online identity and anonymity. “Trolls”, given their name because of their disruptive nature, often bring in unwanted things from the outside. In other words, trolls thrive off being able to disrupt online communities, in a way they probably would not be able to do in the real world. Trolling, like cyber bullying, is another defense mechanism used in the online world. People who decide to take up trolling seem to enjoy being the cause of a disturbance and to have the ability to cause people some kind of discomfort.  Trolling has become so popular that there are even guides that teach the proper way to troll. This acceptance of trolling makes me question how much online communities value identity. Do these online communities attach any type of credibility or importance to identity? It seems like deception has become the norm for online communities and it is now assumed that someone is not the person they claim to be. Trolling can be funny on sites like Facebook, where it is often used to satirize points made by others, but on serious blogs where trolls decide to attack users with ignorant and often hurtful comments, it becomes a problem.             Online identity also deals a lot with anonymity. The idea of completely hiding your identity, rather than creating a fake one, creates a totally different idea of identity online–you simply do not have one. Remaining anonymous allows someone to be a virtual nobody while still being able to perform all the functions of other online users. This anonymous persona allows people, just like trolls and cyber bullies, to say whatever they would like without having to face any consequences. In his analysis of anonymity and its effects, Michael Wesch finds that “anonymous carries this aversion to self-importance, names, and identity to their own group identity well, playing with and mocking concepts such as “culture”, “community”, and “group” that artificially bound, reify and label.” People who are anonymous are put on the same level as everyone else. They are not bound to any label of class, gender, or race and are free to speak their mind without being tied to any particular group. Anonymity is something that is much harder to come by on social networking, than it is on blogs or other types of online communication. Social networking, which seeks to provide as much information, as it possibly can about a person, has too many information requirements to make being anonymous successful. Take Facebook, for example. Facebook asks users about their high school, college, workplace, and even allows people to link their family members to their profile. This makes anonymity much more difficult. Users, of course, have the choice to lie in each of their answers (which in a sense encourages deception) or to completely reject the media site as a whole. Anonymity is not always bad. Unlike the other types of virtual deception that exist, anonymity provides a unique opportunity to be to voice an opinion or thought without any real consequences. Someone may counter an anonymous post or comment, but it remains as nothing more than words on a screen. In this unique case, concealing one’s identity is a good thing. As Cooper explains in his article, being able to be identified online is becoming more important but there is a  “…great value in being anonymous commenting”. People seem to be more likely to share their honest opinions when they know they are not under any threat.

This comic depiction of a troll represents the type of person a troll is expected to be. Most people who troll online use trolling to gain a sense of empowerment and for their own entertainment.

This comic depiction of a troll represents the type of person a troll is expected to be. Most people who troll online use trolling to gain a sense of empowerment and for their own entertainment.

Finally, online deception, in terms of identity, is becoming increasingly common it comes to more intimate relationships, like dating. Especially when dealing with social networks. “Catfishing”, the act of pretending to be someone other than your self, while getting to know someone online, has made many internet users wary to the dangers that exist online. This form of identity deception, along with cyber bullying, seems to have the most powerful effects as we see it creep into the world. The original Catfish documentary reveals an elaborate web of lies and an entire network of people created by a single woman using just Facebook. I believe the craze Catfish created was not just over the possibility of being in a relationship with a fraud, but also because for the opportunities it created. The woman shown in the documentary was able to create an entire network of different accounts. How common is this? Is she the only person who has created an entire online community? Twitter, for example, facilitates Catfishing, while sites like Instagram make it a little more complicated. As the effects of Catfishing creep into the world outside the internet, everything becomes more real. This form of online communication seems to be the only kind where meeting is almost expected, which adds pressure to the situation and makes overall deception more complicated.

Social media networks are much more aware of the dangers of identity deception. Sites like Twitter and Facebook  have started to verify celebrity users in order to make sure that  other users and fans are not conned. Other sites, like Instagram, rely on the number of followers a celebrity has to help build that person’s credibility. Identity online sets a very delicate balance between who you are online and who you are in the real world. It offers the opportunity to alter a few details about your self in the interest of preserving face, and to reinvent yourself in a way that is unique to the online experience. This opportunity is often exploited by those who seek to use social networks for something other than its intended purpose. Rather than using sites like Facebook and Twitter  to keep in touch with family and friends, trolls and cyber bullies use it for a more destructive purpose. With a heightened understanding of the dangers of identity deception that exists online, it is likely that some progress will be made. Not in stopping these online deceivers, but in educating people on how to deal with them.

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