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Do I Know You?

Two 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 been brewing.

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.

—John Rodat

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