Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Guess Who?

If you're a Google+ user, you'll have discovered that Google is 'encouraging' users to operate under their real names - and deciding arbitrarily whether or not its clients are telling the truth. Which might make problems for poor old Moon Unit.

It raises the question of anonymity on the web once more, and the deeper one of identity. As to the former: yes, 'real' names may promote civility and responsibility. Though if your name is John Smith, you can probably say whatever you want with no chance of identification offline.  I use my real name in certain online situations: on the forum relating to my sport, for example. That's because it's a discussion chamber and I wanted to be held accountable for whatever I say. In a small sport, we all know each other. Whenever I go to a competition, or referee, or act as child protection officer, those around me need to know that I'm honest and mean what I say, rather than wind things up out of devilment.

So why don't I use my real name on Vole? Partly because it's not safe: I do have an insecure job and managers who might well take agin' me. That said, Vole and my real name have been officially linked in the Times Higher Ed and the Guardian Higher Education Network, so the cat's out of the bag really.

The deeper motivation is the obverse of the names=responsibility argument. What's to say that my real name (imposed on me by parents, reflecting their cultural values) is any more representative of a 'real' me than Plashing Vole? If you know your Evelyn Waugh, you could trace the origin of my monicker and take a stab at what I'm implying. Identity isn't stable and discrete: it's messy, complicated and constantly in flux. Plashing Vole is a version of me; my offline identity is another me. Mostly, they're contiguous, but they're certainly not the same. My foul language and poor personal hygiene, for instance, aren't carried over into Vole: the freedom to comment on anything I like - without footnotes and structure -  are restricted to the blog.

Another point is that Vole is here to stay: it's not a sock puppet used to abuse people in passing. To a (very) small group of people, it has a history to which I am answerable. I hope you can trust PV in the same way that people can trust the carbon-based author. It's an identity: it's no more fraudulent than any other form of identification. It's inconsistent - but then so am the 'I' who decides what goes under my given name and what is ascribed to Plashing Vole. Google deciding that one is 'real' and trustworthy while the other is automatically unreal and untrustworthy is an ontological abuse.

There's also the matter of audience. Lots of you are personal friends in meatspace. You'll know better than most that Vole is a 'hyperreal', edited avatar of the person you know from day to day. That keeps me honest to some extent: I won't invent things out of principle, and because you'll catch me out, unless I tag something as fiction stylistically or explicitly. But there are groups of friends who know me from different places: university, work, fencing, solely through Vole and so on: none of you should expect complete consistency because identity is a matter of context to a great extent. When I go fencing, nobody knows or cares about Vole or about my professional life: to them I'm a fencer/ref/coach/child protection guy. My academic friends know nothing about what I do in Polish sports halls (oh, the horror of it all), and that's great: we pick and choose what to show each other, and what we take from each other.

Being forced to completely identify ourselves in all contexts may shut down some internets nastiness, but it would also shut down the playground of identities. Imagine being, for instance, a feminist in Tehran, or a socialist civil servant in Washington: appearing under your real name on Google would soon lead to very nasty consequences offline, whereas the ability to operate under a pseudonym gives them both the opportunity to indulge in fantasies, debate ideas, develop personal and political links in a safe place. Google wants to reduce identity to a single fixed point: what a blinkered, conservative, reactionary concept.

(BTW: I know there's an awful lot of philosophical writing I could invoke here, but I'm hungry and my mind's gone blank).

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