I Know You?
of the most talked-about aspects of online life are the anonymity
it can grant and, with the recent proliferation of Web-connected
mobile devices, the anonymity-puncturing, location-specific
information it can provide.
Many of us know the great pleasure of logging into a Web site
or blog that allows anon- or pseudonymous comments and firebombing
the place with outrageously candid opinions and/or personal
attacks, attributed to “OptimusBile,” “JethroTroll,” or some
other such nom du ‘Net.
This makes perfect sense: ZombieThomPaine’s opinion, for example,
that a cabal of ex-KGB operatives, Rothschilds and Venusians
created an American president out of Kenyan mud and the DNA
of Leon Trotsky is merely unconventional; Bob Wilson from
the Bills Payable Department’s self-same opinion is more problematic.
Attributes other than civility and historical sense, too,
can be dropped and tinkered with under the cover of Internet
anonymity: “Li’lCheerleader” is almost certainly neither,
for example, and the number of spouses shed online would give
Henry VIII an absolutely monumental royal boner. And why shouldn’t
Bill Wilson be able to blow his loony whistle? And why shouldn’t
the 280-pound, retired vice principal and former college-football
star be “FeelinPretty,” from time to time?
But it’s not just intemperate political expression and erotic
frustration that motivate webcrawlers to hide their real-world
selves: A recent survey funded by Microsoft claims that 70
percent of recruiters and hiring managers report dismissing
an applicant for information about them found on the Internet.
Increasingly, though, the benefits and much of the fun of
being Web-tethered have to do with being identifiable: It’s
a place, we’re told by marketers and job coaches, for “personal
branding.” Leaving aside any gains from job-seeking sites
like Monster or networking hubs like LinkedIn, there have
been surprise success stories generated by blogs and social-media
platforms: A fortunate few creating content have been “discovered”
on the Web, like starlets in the Schwab’s, landing book and
movie deals or plum writing gigs (Hel-LOOOOO!). The
29-year-old behind the Twitter stream “Shit My Dad Says” typed
his way—140 characters at a time—to a deal for a sitcom pilot
starring William Shatner.
From shit to the Shat. Beat that.
Granted, the online signal-to-noise ratio makes it tough to
stand out, and competing with LOLCats or Keyboard Cat . .
. really, with any kind of cat, damn them . . . is daunting.
But if you put stuff out there consistently, you can find
a following, and to be followed you need to be, you know,
followable. Even though it makes you vulnerable to instant
messages from Lucas the Paste-Eater from Mrs. Tilson’s third-grade
class. (Who is, I can report, still at it.)
Another anonymity-challenging development is the emphasis
on geo-location. From simple GPS devices to the newer mobile
applications like Foursquare that turn your very physical
placement on the globe into a game, awarding points and special
statuses for frequency or diversity of visitation, there are
benefits and kicks in being traceable.
Advertisers love, love, love this development, of course:
Standing next to a Starbucks? They can send you a solicitation,
a coupon or a special incentive to stand closer, closer, c’mon,
a little closer . . . Walking past the pub? They can let you
know they just tapped that delicious whiskey porter they’ve
And there are social and communal functions and possibilities,
as well. Sitting in the library? Well, hey, guess who’s in
the quiet-study area upstairs? It’s the brunette from the
coffee shop around the corner—which has, by the way, just
dropped piping-hot croissants into the counter basket!
There are still plenty of pragmatic users of the increasingly
social Internet who hold it in cautious—if not outright disdainful—regard.
It’s a research resource and a communication device, and as
the latter, one to be used with circumspection and vigilance.
It’s not so much a “password” as a “safe word.”
But there are others who are embracing what someone in a grad-school
seminar has, no doubt, already labeled the post-privacy paradigm:
casually, even compulsively, divulging personal information,
photographs, opinions, schedules, whereabouts and menu-item
choices via iPhone, etc. As with other activities, the only
100 percent safe and effective prophylactic is abstinence;
and as with other activities, total terror of the act seems
hobbling in its puritanical paranoia. But, we do seem to be
at a pivotal point in the popular definition of privacy, and
it will be interesting—to say the least—to see where we come
down on this, collectively.
Till then, you know where to find me . . . sigh . . . Lucas.