Friday, December 5, 2008

Personal Reputation and the Internet

Identity, anonymity, personal responsibility. I got to thinking about these after hearing a piece on NPR (yes *gasp* I listen to liberal radio sometimes) about the court proceedings regarding the cyber-bullying that resulted in a teen suicide in October 2006. They were discussing how this would effect the use of false identities or multiple identities on the same site.

They only touched on the false identities topic briefly, stating that it is common practice to give false information, the interviewer admitting as much, citing an example of having given a false birthdate upon sign-up to a site because he was not comfortable giving his true information to the company in question, as he couldn't be confident of their security with this, his private information. The conversation quickly turned to the argument over this court case using the Terms of Service breach in the prosecution.

As they gave examples of how most people don't read the terms of service on many sites and just click "okay" or "accept" with no thought to read the thing, I wandered off on my own thought track.

It's funny how the internet has changed the concept of being able to know someone by their reputation. Used to be, in a small town or community, you would not be able to hide your appearance, your daily travels, and even your everyday purchases. Everyone in a community would know everyone's business - who they visited, what they ate, where they went and who they liked. No one could hide their personality or general nature, as it would be observed in your everyday dealings with everyone you passed, by necessity.

One's personal reputation in life is built slowly, over the course of your life. The people who have access to you form their opinions based on what they see, what you show the outside world. When you step outside in your robe and are seen, this becomes part of your public persona. Same as when you step outside in tailored pressed clothes, this also becomes part of your public persona. You choose the person you present to the world every day, and this is what others use to form opinions of you, and your reputation grows whether infamous, good or indifferent.

Then the internet came along, and you were constantly encouraged, even warned, that you must choose a nickname and make yourself as anonymous as possible, in order to protect your identity. At first this seemed a little paranoid to me, but I went along, making up new nicknames for myself wherever I wandered.

I have been online since the mid 90s, when I first connected in an online BBS text role-playing space adventure game with some kid who ran it (I think we found it in an IRC listing - no, no, wasn't it called something else? It seems like there were lists of BBSs you could connect to, yes, I think that's it, and we found it on the list - I'm having to really crank the old brain gears to pull up those old memories), and my husband and I would play at the office where I worked. We were quickly enchanted with being online and got our first dial-up connection for our home right around the time that our oldest child was born (there was no such thing as Cox Cable or Southwestern Bell DSL back then). I was always true to myself wherever I went, but I was cautious with what information I shared as I went, always following the safety guidelines as closely as I could.

So while I was acting and posting as myself, albeit "saying" much more than I ever would "in real life," much information about me that would be common public knowledge in a more traditional social setting was hidden: my appearance, my name, my comings and goings, my posture, my bearing, my facial reactions to the world and persons around me - all of this is common information when you live in a social arena.

Let's say you go to a ball game. The persons around you won't all know your name, but if you struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, and you had seen them there before, perhaps you might introduce yourself. You wouldn't make up a nickname - you would use your real name.

You each have already given each other information - you each know what the other looks like, you recognize them, you may even say whether you live in town or not. As your conversation continues, you are likely to share information about your families (even their first names!) and other personal interests.

And yet all this information is withheld on the internet. So it is a strange and different way to get to know people: writing short notes and messages back and forth, often carrying on a conversation (on a forum) with 4 or 5 or 20 other people, while hundreds of others watch anonymously but don't participate. It certainly does make for some strange friendships.

I have 'met' and become close to several people that I would never have talked to otherwise, even if I sat next to them at a ball game (heck I don't even go to ball games). But many would not recognize me if I passed them on the street and vice versa, even though we may have carried on intimate private conversations about matters of deep personal interest.

And then came FaceBook, and suddenly here was a site where I was actually supposed to use my real name? And actually make real connections with real friends - not just forum friends that I only previously knew by their own self-imposed nicknames, but also neighbors and family? We weren't going to be anonymous anymore? And then I realized ... were we ever really anonymous? Even with a self-made nickname, one gains a reputation, for good or ill.

Celeste-TwystTye will forever retain certain qualities for those who know me by that name, likely that of being a too-cautious diplomat that feared to upset anyone, but also an anal-retentive organizer of information and reference materials. MrsJ will perhaps be remembered for hatching butterflies with her kids, or maybe someone will remember her fast bartending abilities or downright silliness in busy chat rooms. And Annette may long be known for strangely bursting into tears when surprised with a birthday gift of confetti being dumped on her head as she walked into biology class.

But all these names belong to only one person. And that person sure likes to think about deep stuff an awful lot. But how many people know that? Not really a lot - only the people who read what I write have any clue about that. And people who primarily get that opportunity are those who know me online.

To know me in real life is to know someone who doesn't talk very much at all, who keeps to herself and mostly just listens to other people and doesn't offer advice or information unless prompted. So my reputation in real life is that of a quiet person who easily shares smiles in the grocery store with strangers, but does not strike up a conversation (even with neighbors and friends).

But my online reputation is slightly more extroverted, simple because I love to ramble on in writing. I live to write. And so strangely enough, it seems that I reveal much more about myself as an online persona than face-to-face. So is my online reputation actually a more in-depth revelation of my personality? Is this true for others as well? Perhaps.

I really like the reputation-building abilities of our new group for SAHP, where one can see every single thing one person has ever posted, and where the managers can see members' IP addresses, and so know if someone is trying to use an alternate identity to post something they wouldn't "normally" post, or in order to be malicious in some way that would require a fake ID. And I really like the reputation-building abilities in the Yahoo! Answers question and answer format site.

And although these types of sites still expect everyone to use a made-up nickname, you are still building a reputation, whether it is the only ID you ever use, or whether you use multiple IDs, you become known to those who frequent the sites.

I absolutely think a person's reputation online is a direct reflection of who they really are. I think the cyber bullies of the world are actually revealing much more about their true self than they are able to successfully hide. Deceptive attempts eventually reveal themselves, as though the lies desire to be brought to light. Once a person embraces their online identity, they begin to establish a reputation that mirrors their life.



How will the internet settle out when we're all more blasé about it all? Fifty years from now, will people bank more on their personal reputations and use their real name all the time, depending on their own past history to speak for them? Or will nicknames and multiple personalities still abound? Rampant anonymity has a way of biting those in the butt who abuse it, and their "anonymous" pranks can be traced back to them when it turns criminal. Bullies and other generally evil mean people - such as the three idiots mentioned above who purposefully sought to hurt a girl's feelings and thus drove her to suicide - are found out in the end and are now known as the wicked evil hate-mongers that they are - they get what's coming to them, as always, even if it's only in their own personal misery evil people do suffer for their deeds. Conversely, persons of honest reputation gain honor and respect. Where is the benefit in anonymity for the honest man? (disclaimer: yes, there is real danger out there, although it is rare it is very real and it can be deadly)

We gain such a sense of false bravado when we type away in our homes and offices, hidden behind the monitor, behind a nickname. Forums can beget flame wars, words get out of hand quickly when, if these conversations were held in a real-life crowd with bodies and faces all around, many would never dare speaking to the other person(s) with the rudeness that is commonplace online. But instead, someone who would have only whispered private thoughts and feelings to one person ends up telling an entire audience, as though standing on a stage with a microphone, and in turn gets responses from some of the most inappropriate sources.

When will we all become more consciously aware of the giant audience standing around looking at us?


Oh great. Now I'm paranoid again. Um. Someone else take this microphone now, k? Thx.

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