Laura June’s lament about the internet’s steady march towards a single internet identity contains one unfortunate oversight—the fact that the entire internet is not moving towards that. It is debatable whether there is even a generalized trend towards this, although it is not hard to imagine a shift in that direction.
Before we begin, I want to make clear: when I refer to anonymity, I am also referring to pseudo-anonymity via the use of an alternate online persona. For the purposes of these arguments, they are effectively identical.
The crux of the argument as presented is that there is value in online anonymity, and that Mark Zuckerberg is going to take that away from us, via this quote:
"You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."
A series of examples is provided to illustrate the importance of anonymity:
Am I no longer entitled to some separation between who I am when I’m talking about technology rather than when I’m talking about my political beliefs, should I choose to separate those things? Is a teenager no longer entitled to explore and even comment on blogs about, say, homosexuality, without logging in to Facebook to do so?
I am sure everyone can agree that anonymity in those cases would be important, perhaps even necessary. And I am pretty sure that if we asked Mark Zuckerberg (someone should really ask Mark Zuckerberg), he would agree with that sentiment. He would then go on to say that he has no intention of taking anonymity away from anonymous forums. Similarly, anti-firearm crusaders are (outliers aside) not advocating that we take away guns from the soldiers or law enforcement professionals. Or, if you prefer, look at the example of anonymous tip lines or helplines. In the real world, we enforce a single identity—we have birth certificates, social security numbers and drivers licenses—yet somehow these anonymous phone lines persist.
"How is that possible?!"
We’ve all tacitly agreed to a social contract. In doing so, we’re subject to rules enforcing our single identity. But, like most rules, there are exceptions.
Creating and enforcing a social contract online—which would be the net effect of the single online identity—is not going to abolish anonymous forums. If anything, it will see their popularity increase as people who used to enjoy anonymity in public forums search for new havens for their alter-personae. But here is the really important consideration: The social contract is opt-in. Unless of course we’re talking about a dystopian future in which Mark Zuckerberg is the head of state and Facebook is the ruling party. But we’re not talking about that, because it is idiotic.
The opt-in online social contract, being opt-in, would allow for the continued existence of anonymous forums. If your favorite blog or forum opts-in to the Facebook single identity, pack up your toys and take them to another site with similar content which has maintained the option of anonymity. If one does not exist, create one. If you subsequently find yourself alone, well, maybe this anonymity thing was not such a big deal to your fellow commenters after all.
The other popular argument is for the separation between one’s personal digital persona, the one hidden within a private Facebook profile, and the evidently completely fake person presented to family, co-workers and prospective employers.
Do you see what I did there?
But that is not my final answer. Once again, allow me to point out that just as in real life, it is opt-in. To which “it” do I refer? Take your pick: Commenting on your favorite blog, publishing racist jokes, uploading pictures of yourself doing a keg stand to Facebook, or just being an asshole.
Back to reality for a minute. When you go into the office, nothing is really stopping you from being a bigot. Well, aside from everyone hating you and the high likelihood of being fired. Except that they are not stopping you; you are stopping you, because you do not want to have face those consequences. Did I just blow your mind? I sure hope not.
It seems to me that the majority of people making this particular argument are assholes who don’t want to face the consequences of being identified as such. Some people have pointed out that their Facebook profiles are full of photos of them doing activities their mothers may object to. Well, you have a few choices. You could, for example, defriend your mom, or you could just not post those photos to Facebook. But then you’d either have to explain to your mom why you had defriended her, or go through life without your close circle of five hundred friends reveling in your amazing alcohol-fueled exploits. Congratulations, you are now faced with an adult decision.
Okay, maybe you haven’t heard of it. Perhaps you forgot it when you fell off a keg on a particularly epic binge and gave yourself a minor concussion. Let me refresh your memory: Facebook’s privacy settings allow you to control who may or may not see the various components of your Facebook persona, including but not limited to: photos of you doing keg stands, photos of your bong collection, photos of you draped in a confederate flag, and photos of you being cruel to animals. Facebook even implemented very fine-grain control allowing you to limit your misogynistic jokes to a group of friends of your choosing, which you could name something like “true bros”. What this means is that if after applying for a job as a workplace diversity expert only to be outed to your prospective employers as a racist by your Facebook profile, you have only your dumb racist self to blame.
Before wrapping up, allow me to digress in bringing out another contrived example: That of mistaken online identity. Some people have really scraped the bottom of the edge case barrel for this one.
I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but I could search for John Smith right now. Were I looking to find out more about a job candidate named John Smith, I may very well even find reference to a John Smith being a dog-fucker. I may then deduce that this is a case of mistaken identity, give him the benefit of the doubt, or even erroneously assume these are the same John Smith. I can do this today, without a single online identity.
It must be obvious that I am fully in favor of Facebook’s new single identity. After all, I am sitting here blogging about it using my real name. The truth is that I am not sure how I feel about it yet. In the past, I have avoided signing in using my Facebook account, but not because I do not want to be identified by my real name or associated with my Facebook identity—neither of these things are true, as I have no alter-persona and have nothing to hide in my Facebook profile, though I still restrict access to almost every part of it. No, the real reason I have avoided logging in via Facebook is that I don’t trust what Facebook or the partner sites will do with my information once that link is established. But that is easily mitigated by simply not providing sensitive information to Facebook. Today, if a malicious site were to somehow siphon all of my Facebook data—which should be impossible given my privacy settings and Facebook’s access control—all they would end up with is a bunch of photos of things I ate while on vacation, and my birthdate.