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How not to be Oneself or Anyone Else while building Group Identity Online

“Do virtual personas inherit the qualities – and responsibilities – of their creators?” While Donath focuses on deception and the potentiality for deception in virtual communities, I would like to believe that there are online communities where virtual personas do inherit the qualities and responsibilities of their creators. Where the embodied self, or the self-at-the-keyboard, shares the same identity as its virtual self, making the transformation from atoms to bits a mere digital requisite, and not a personal or cultural desire. Although we can deceive, troll, role-play, and create avatars, we sometimes choose to extend our physical presence virtually simply to re-construct our identity online, perhaps concealing some parts while enhancing others. As Franziska Nori summarizes succinctly, “virtual identity is an extension of the physical self that we create to establish relations and interact with others online.” Although it is hard denying that human beings in the real world perform identity, altering themselves to suit different social situations, these are just alterations of performances that create identity. In the real world, you are still your same self, the same human, naturally altering his or her performance for a given environment. Online, although the opportunities to change one’s identity are endless, where the representation of one’s body, mind and thus self in the digital sphere [can] consciously [build] an identity that does not necessarily have to correspond to one’s real self, why do many keep their own identity? After all, in a virtual world where we can be anyone we want to be, why choose to be ourselves?

What is more intriguing than building one’s own identity online, however, is choosing to be your real-world self in a virtual community, while being completely anonymous. Sharing one’s own interests, hobbies, accomplishments, all of which belong to the physical self and thereby to its virtual self, yet choosing to remain anonymous in doing so. What I am discussing stands contrary to Wesch who writes about the phenomenon of Anonymous, “who interact anonymously, rarely ever sharing any details of their offline identities” and who “continuously work to shed their collective identity as well…offering a critical commentary on the ends of identity.” There is a contradiction in critiquing identity while being members of a group that share the same interest in not believing in identity.

In light of this, what I am exploring is not the end of identity because of anonymity, but the building of group identities through anonymity—and why humans, who are portraying their genuine selves-at-the-keyboard virtually, rather be anonymous than themselves, or better yet, rather be anonymous than anyone they could be. If our cultural desire is not to be who we are nor to be who we are not, then who are we on cyberspace?

Experiencing the Project

We are creating virtual communities, in which we are not fully ourselves, yet we are no one else, we want to be anonymous, yet create group identity. Experienceproject.com is a pertinent example of both a social networking site, but one that is designed around anonymity. Armen Berijkly, a Stanford graduate, in late 2004, founded the site after first creating a support community for multiple sclerosis patients. The site now aims to unite millions of people through shared experiences where people can join online communities. As is written in the About Us on its homepage, the site is based upon who you are and not who you know. The site thrives in having a sense of self—one identity in the physical world—that can be translated online to unite people that share similar common experiences (that in turn shape one’s identity.)

My main objective is to describe the website, how it functions, and particularly, how it functions to establish group identity. As ABC news puts it “experienceproject.com allows users to spill their guts online without identifying themselves.” The title of the article “Anonymous Secrets Find Life Online,” seems to undermine the overall objective and goal of the social networking site. It is not a site where only anonymous users post secrets, in other words, it is not just a place in cyberspace where one can let out his or her feelings. Rather, feelings can be turned into life experiences that can be shared online with others who share those same life experiences, forming groups and group identities around a specific topic, interest, belief, feeling, etc. The people sharing their life experience’s within a certain group become the “us” different from the “them,” who may even have their own sense of unity and form an “us” around another shared common experience.

To join a group is to first enter the website by providing an e-mail address (that will never be displayed publicly) and create a username, which is the only identification others on Experience Project can see. The username, of course, can be anything that has nothing to do with one’s own personal information. Once logged onto the site, a user can choose from five groups to enter, groups range from “I want to think Positive” to “I love Chocolate” to “I am not cheap, I’m Frugal” to “I battle Depression.” The user clicks on the “me too” circle displayed near each experience to become part of the group. Once the user has entered five groups, the user can continue becoming part of as many groups as he or she would like. The groups reflect the user’s own real-world experiences, and the user is then able to virtually post commentaries about those experiences, while other users can post their own commentaries or respond to one another. While this is a social networking site where the users can also become friends and can be added to one another’s circles, the main objective is to create several virtual communities, or virtual groups, where a user can connect with other users and become part of an online community. In “Personal Connections in the Digital Age,” Nancy Baym discusses how “internally on social network sites, groups are allowed to be formed within the system…these groups within social networks network through the internet, creating a shared but distributed group identity.”

group identity

Essentially, the image explains the group dynamic of experienceproject.com; individuals become part of various groups all connected to one network.

Collective Performances of Identity on experienceproject.com

Experience Project is a great example for showing how users rather be themselves online. How users choose to establish relations and group identities with others based on real experiences, rather than imagined fantasies. Here the boundaries between the real world and the virtual world are blurred. Yet, if a user establishes several group identities, or becomes part of various groups, as is possible in experienceproject.com, what does this say about identity? How does a user create group identity, or feel a sense of group belonging, when they belong to several of these groups? If shared interests are all that define a group, then we all have several group identities. It would make more sense to say that there is no one identity then, rather an identity is a collection of performances. As a user goes online and joins various groups, they share a performance with one group, while they share a different performance with another. Identity becomes a collection of performances that defines a person, while group identity becomes a collective collection of performances that defines a group. If identities are performances, the performers do not necessarily have to be identified in the virtual world. Can’t a collection of performances still go on without creating chaos onstage?

Anonymity on experienceproject.com

Now I am sure that there may be the occasional troll on experienceproject.com who wishes to disrupt the sharing of interests within a group. However, to identify a troll is to identify the language of a user who is not posting in accordance with the rest of the group. What matters to me in exploring identity and anonymity on experienceproject.com is not so much the possibility of deception, but the idea that if in fact users are virtually recreating themselves, then why do so anonymously? And can groups still create performances anonymously? If users wish to build group identity around a shared experience, then how can this be done when every user is in fact anonymous? Unlike Wesch who writes about an anti-environment in which Anonymous wants to end identity, I am referring to the building of group identity where the very sense of attachment stems from users being comfortably anonymous. As Judith Donath writes perhaps one reason for identity concealment is not to deceive, but to secure privacy. Yet, as written in USA today, others like Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the Huffington post, believe that “Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they’re saying and who are not hiding behind anonymity.” Mark Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues the contrary by stating that, “”I think (anonymity is) an important legal right that needs to be protected.” However, it seems that the reason for supporting anonymity is one related to safety concerns, that anonymity is a valuable tool that allows for whistleblowers and protestors to rely on anonymity for their own safety.

In the case of experienceproject.com the reason for users anonymity is related less to practical reasons like that of safety and more for psychological reasons. That is, the users feel free expressing their real world experiences online without shame, embarrassment, or any reasons of the like. The question of why users still choose to be anonymous regardless of whether the rest of the group is sharing the same experiences remains. Why feel embarrassed or ashamed when everyone else shares your same interest and affirms your same performance? This question seems to fall under the category of what makes us human, and why we choose to remain human even in the virtual world. For now, however, the question of whether anonymity can create group identity and relations can be answered with a definitive yes, at least in the virtual world of experienceproject.com. For the most part, anonymity here is a gateway for people to blur the distinction between the physical and virtual world, perform with others online, build group identities and create cyberculture.

Connections and Cyberculture

I remain positive in affirming that cyberculture, although a culture that emerged out of the use of computer networks for communication (that can be purely an online culture) in many ways remains tied to both the physical and virtual world. Maybe, to create cyberulture, we cannot be exactly who we are nor who we are not. Maybe we can have being anonymous and belonging to a group, what seems like a paradox, work together in virtual communities. The reason for why we would want this, however, should be speculated. Why we would rather be anonymously in a group online rather than alone? Maybe we need to think about the possibilities of relations on cyberspace, and think even more about the new kinds of connections we want and can create (connections that stress the boundaries we’ve established in our embodied world). As a psychologist, Sherry Turkle, speaks about these connections from 10:20-11:50.

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