There was a time when being on the Internet allowed you to reinvent yourself. You could be an acne-ridden fifteen year old sleeping in an unfinished basement, but to the folks in a chatroom, you could be anyone or anything. This was in the days when we didn’t have services like Facebook that tied in heavily with our offline life. With nothing tying our online identity to a real person except an IP address, and maybe an email address, we could re-invent ourselves. The practical upshot of this was that, in different communities online, we could be different people. In some corners of the Internet, we still can, but these are in the minority.
For those of us who came of age online in this period we know that, on one server or message board we were an upstanding citizen, and contributor. On another, we were the thorn in the moderator’s side. We knew what communities we valued, and we knew what we wanted to keep secret. If there’s anything we’ve lost in the transition to a social media dominated culture, it’s the idea that we can be different people in different places. Perhaps this is coming back with the decentralized and ephemeral photo and message services like Kik and Snapchat, popular with the kids, but there’s too much money to be made from preventing true anonymity. Facebook and Google have too much to benefit by tying out youthful indiscretions to our accounts. Of course, we could always just change our name.
As Facebook, Twitter, and Google become the identity backbone of the Internet, we will continue to lose the ability to switch our personalities depending on who we’re dealing with online and where. It’s true that anonymity comes with the price of providing cover for troublemakers—4chan’s /b/ board comes to mind. But not everyone wants to live in public, and the option should exist for us to have an alternate identity online for our shadow self, the one we don’t want our parents, employers, and government to see—and one that can’t be algorithmically tied to our legit, public identity for the purpose of selling advertisements (or worse). I know this can be done, though not easily. I worry that it will become harder in the future, and that the people who need access to it most will lose out. There’s no conspiracy theory thinking here. It’s economics.