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August 19 2011


Ghostery | Detect - Learn - Control

Ghostery sees the invisible web - tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons. Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity.


// oAnth  (added 2011-08-22)

Before you try to install Ghostery there are some aspects worth to concider.
'Reviews for Ghostery'

I see here more advantages than risks and installed it.

Once installed, you may configure the application according to your individual privacy demands.
Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

July 03 2011

Zygmunt Bauman for Social Europe & | Is this the end of anonymity? - From micro-drones to the internet, technology is invading the private sphere – with our encouragement | 2011-06-28


As for the "death of anonymity" courtesy of the internet, the story is slightly different: we submit our rights to privacy to slaughter on our own will. Or perhaps we just consent to the loss of privacy as a reasonable price for the wonders offered in exchange. Or the pressure to deliver our personal autonomy to the slaughter house is so overwhelming, so close to the condition of a flock of sheep, that only few exceptionally rebellious, bold, pugnacious and resolute wills would earnestly attempt to withstand it.


via Evernote

Zygmunt Bauman for Social Europe & | Is this the end of anonymity? - From micro-drones to the internet, technology is invading the private sphere – with our encouragement | 2011-06-28


Everything private is now done, potentially, in public – and is potentially available to public consumption; and remains available for the duration, till the end of time, as the internet "can't be made to forget" anything once recorded on any of its innumerable servers. "This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cell phone cameras, free photo and video web-hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people's views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private". And let me add: the choice between the public and the private is slipping out of people's hands, with the people's enthusiastic co-operation and deafening applause. A present-day Etienne de la Boétie would be probably tempted to speak not of voluntary, but a DIY servitude.


via Evernote

February 23 2011

Planning a better whistleblowers' site: a review of Domscheit-Berg's book "Inside WikiLeaks"

Amidst all the arguments about whether WikiLeaks is good, bad,
sustainable, replicable, or just plain inevitable, I've been
frustrated by two gaps in the discussion. First, commentators tend to
treat WikiLeaks as some kind of pure emanation of the Internet,
ignoring the vast legal, financial, media, and other systems that make
it possible. Second, they either praise or criticize its mission, but
rarely ask how it could be improved.

For these reasons, I find Daniel Domscheit-Berg's new book, href="">Inside
, an important contribution to current politics.
Written by one of the key leaders of the WikiLeaks project during its
startling rise to fame, this book advances our understanding of
WikiLeaks in the context of global society, and proposes a new site
named OpenLeaks with a similar
mission but a radically different way of getting there. The book
displays these treasures in an eminently enjoyable setting with a
great story involving unforgettable characters and a passionately
confessional look at Domscheit-Berg's own motivations.

Although I still crave more background on how WikiLeaks operated
during the author's tenure there, I understand that there are many
things he can't talk about, and others that may be arbitrary
historical details with little relevance for those who want to advance
human freedom in other settings. This article is not a summary of the
book, but an examination of a few issues it illuminates that I
consider of paramount importance.

The systems that make WikiLeaks run

Nobody, not even the immensely energetic Julian Assange, could create
a site with WikiLeaks' achievement without support from numerous other
systems. One of the subtexts I found reading Inside
is the complexity of the interactions between Assange
and his environment. I'll list here all the major support systems I
found; probably other people could identify even more.


Although this primary force behind WikiLeaks would seem almost too
obvious to mention, it's disturbing how little support exists for
those who consider becoming whistleblowers. WikiLeaks claims not to
solicit leaks--although its very existence, of course, is taken as a
provocation by its detractors--but Domscheit-Berg points out that it
could do more to protect its sources.

During his time there, Domscheit-Berg claims they posted many warnings
that sources should avoid posting any information that could be used
to trace them. But what about an informational service that
objectively reports the rights and risks of whistleblowing in
different jurisdictions? I am reminded of a project at Harvard
University, the Online Media Legal
, that offers advice to journalists in recognition of our
new age where hundreds of thousands of amateurs take on journalism
part-time. Whistleblowers don't dare form communities in the same way
as journalists do, but they need support and advice.


Because fake documents sometimes get uploaded, and because many
documents could put lives at risk if they were published uncut,
redactors are necessary both to judge the authenticity of documents
and to black out sensitive personal information. Inside
offers little detail in this area, but shows that the
leaders were very conscious of its importance.

Regarding authenticity, Domscheit-Berg indicates that efforts were
somewhat haphazard and inadequate, although they didn't lead to
disaster. First, he mentions textual stylistic analysis as a way to
determine that the same person wrote two unrelated documents. But his
main passage on the subject is not reassuring:

Julian and I usually checked whether documents had been manipulated
technologically and did a few Google searches to see whether they
struck us as genuine. We could only hope that things would turn out
all right. Apparently we developed a pretty good sense for what was
authentic and what wasn't; at least as far as I know, we didn't make
any major mistakes. But we could have. (p. 217)

To black out personally identifying information on the Afghan war
leaks, they used a form of crowdsourcing.

Every volunteer had access to a small package of work via the Web
front end and only received an excerpt of the complete data. Hundreds
of volunteers could view and edit the documents at the same time.
There were at least two editors per document, and every change was
protocolled. (p. 191)

Without vetting or training, I don't see how the volunteers could do a
good job, but the work was completed and WikiLeaks emerged
clean-handed from accusations that it was putting informants at risk.
Experts were sometimes brought in too: the major media outlets who had
early access to the work were asked for help, and in the Afghan case,
even a US Ambassador (who refused).

One more form of redaction became critical once WikiLeaks became well
known: deciding where to put their limited resources when they
couldn't find time to release all the worthy documents that turned up
on their servers. The choices they made--often driven by the
preferences of their media partners or by marketing decisions about
how to cause the biggest stir--became a central theme of Inside
, and Domscheit-Berg's dissatisfaction with many of
Assange's choices led to the proposed crowdsourced approach discussed
later in this article.

Media Outlets

Nothing challenges the premise of open information as the progenitor
of freedom and citizen involvement more than the experiences of the
WikiLeaks leaders trying to inflect public action with their leaks.
Essentially, nobody noticed or cared about even the most incendiary
leaks unless major media outlets (the New York Times the
British Guardian, the German Spiegel) played them

This book, therefore, could well be cited by proponents of journalism
as evidence for the critical role of professional news outlets.
WikiLeaks consciously formed intensely symbiotic relationships with
the journalists they worked with, and Domscheit-Berg rues the extent
to which--in his view--the newspapers gained the upper hand and
started to drive the agenda.

Professional journalists were key not only to getting attention, but
to making sense of many documents. The most shocking WikiLeaks
revelation, a video of American soldiers cavalierly shooting Iraqi
civilians, was given some pointed editing and subtitles and released
under the title Collateral Murder in order to achieve its
effect. The organization was widely criticized in this case for
dropping its stance of neutrality. Yet the video would not been
understood by so many viewers without the doctoring.

It's hard for outsiders to know what a document is talking about,
particularly because authors who recognize they are doing something
wrong like to couch their descriptions in jargon, acronyms,
euphemisms, and other obfuscation. Even without these barriers,
citizen journalists can easily misinterpret a document or can
deliberately distort its meaning in describing it--and other outsiders
have just as much trouble recognizing the distortions as understanding
the originals. So WikiLeaks is not an effective force on its own.
Domscheit-Berg incorporates this lesson into his OpenLeaks proposal.

Financial Institutions

WikiLeaks is intricately interwoven with the international system for
transferring and verifying payments. It depends on donations that must
pass through banks and sites such as PayPal. So far, the leaders of
WikiLeaks have seemed successful in diversifying their sources of
income so that punitive actions by a number of financial institutions
have failed to shut it down.

Non-Governmental Organizations

NGOs were major funders of WikiLeaks, but they have a more subtle role
to play. In the first couple years, before the media took notice of
WikiLeaks, Assange visited numerous conferences to recruit funds,
motivate volunteers, and promote the idea of whistleblowing on his

Law Enforcement

People who do the things done by Assange and Domscheit-Berg develop
enemies, and although Domscheit-Berg's anecdotes make Assange look
paranoid, they could definitely be in physical danger. While Assange
lashes out at the Swedish authorities and the hidden forces he claims
lay behind the rape charges, police and courts are also present every
day to keep Assange safe from retaliation. True, the legal system
dropped the ball when it should have forced institutions such as Bank
of America, PayPal, and to honor their contracts with
WikiLeaks. But the system has been pretty damn good to WikiLeaks
overall. The single lawsuit brought against it failed, a judge's
initial take-down order being quickly reversed (albeit after public protests).


There are many other people we could mention as important to
WikiLeaks--the general public with its sympathies, and ultimately the
keepers of the secrets whose plots make WikiLeaks necessary--but most
of all we must acknowledge the computer experts who created the
networks and applications used by WikiLeaks. Domscheit-Berg's stories
show clearly that WikiLeaks grew out of the cypherpunk and hacker
communities whose political proclivities focused (ironically) on
preserving privacy. WikiLeaks was not the brainchild of political
scientists but of computer programmers.

In the time Domscheit-Berg spent at WikiLeaks, it grew from a single
underpowered server to a secret network of dedicated computers
scattered throughout various countries. He portrays the later use of's cloud service--which obviously backfired when Amazon
kicked them off--as a poor choice, probably necessitated by a lack of
technical knowledge within the organization.

And behind the TORs and other secure systems that WikiLeaks uses to
gather source material lies the general-purpose Internet, based on a
radical architecture of distribution that allows each system to
blindly and trustingly forward data from other systems. Anonymity is
an emergent property in a layered network where each component minds
its own business and serves the larger community.

A better whistleblower site

WikiLeaks was an exhausting but continually educational experience for
Domscheit-Berg. His new project tries to achieve the goals for which
he joined WikiLeaks in a manner that more cleverly exploits mass
participation and crowdsourcing. It's a humbler system that may fix
some problems of WikiLeaks, and will certainly lead to a new wave of
the sort of lessons that can be derived only by trying things out in
real life.

OpenLeaks will not be a publisher, and therefore won't make choices
about what to publish. Instead, it will simply connect sources with
potential publishers. News outlets, human rights organizations, and
all kinds of other respected organizations can register with OpenLeaks
to receive content. Sources can then choose which organizations
receive their leaks. Sources may also be offered the option to publish
the material for all to see, if the chosen organizations fail to
pursue it.

Much redaction thus gets offloaded to the worldwide community of
concerned organizations. In this way, Domscheit-Berg plans to
eliminate the potential conflicts of interest and difficult choices
that come up when a small group of leaders have to decide where to
dedicate their time.

By staying out of the limelight, Domscheit-Berg hopes to avoid
attracting a leader with the weaknesses he finds in Assange:
arrogance, dictatorial tendencies, and capricious decision-making. A
consistent anarchist, Domscheit-Berg yearns for a managerial
organization that lets everyone work by consensus and avoid elevating
one leader. He states his ideals at the very beginning of the book:

In the world we [Assange and Domscheit-Berg] dreamed of, there would
be no more bosses or hierarchies, and no one could achieve power by
withholding from the others the knowledge needed to act as an equal
player. (p. 4)

I don't believe this is possible, but I'm glad there are people like
Assange and Domscheit-Berg who do. I recommend this book for the
insights I've summarized here, as well as for some fascinating
portraits of Assange and other actors in the WikiLeaks story,
including Domscheit-Berg himself.

January 07 2010

Pew Research asks questions about the Internet in 2020

Pew Research, which seems to be interested in just about everything,
conducts a "future of the Internet" survey every few years in which
they throw outrageously open-ended and provocative questions at a
chosen collection of observers in the areas of technology and
society. Pew makes participation fun by finding questions so pointed
that they make you choke a bit. You start by wondering, "Could I
actually answer that?" and then think, "Hey, the whole concept is so
absurd that I could say anything without repercussions!" So I
participated in their href=""
2006 survey and did it again this week. The Pew report will
aggregate the yes/no responses from the people they asked to
participate, but I took the exercise as a chance to hammer home my own
choices of issues.

(If you'd like to take the survey, you can currently visit;

and enter PIN 2000.)

Will Google make us stupid?

This first question is not about a technical or policy issue on the
Internet or even how people use the Internet, but a purported risk to
human intelligence and methods of inquiry. Usually, questions about
how technology affect our learning or practice really concern our
values and how we choose technologies, not the technology itself. And
that's the basis on which I address such questions. I am not saying
technology is neutral, but that it is created, adopted, and developed
over time in a dialog with people's desires.

I respect the questions posed by Nicholas Carr in his Atlantic
article--although it's hard to take such worries seriously when he
suggests that even the typewriter could impoverish writing--and would
like to allay his concerns. The question is all about people's
choices. If we value introspection as a road to insight, if we
believe that long experience with issues contributes to good judgment
on those issues, if we (in short) want knowledge that search engines
don't give us, we'll maintain our depth of thinking and Google will
only enhance it.

There is a trend, of course, toward instant analysis and knee-jerk
responses to events that degrades a lot of writing and discussion. We
can't blame search engines for that. The urge to scoop our contacts
intersects with the starvation of funds for investigative journalism
to reduce the value of the reports we receive about things that are
important for us. Google is not responsible for that either (unless
you blame it for draining advertising revenue from newspapers and
magazines, which I don't). In any case, social and business trends
like these are the immediate influences on our ability to process
information, and searching has nothing to do with them.

What search engines do is provide more information, which we can use
either to become dilettantes (Carr's worry) or to bolster our
knowledge around the edges and do fact-checking while we rely mostly
on information we've gained in more robust ways for our core analyses.
Google frees the time we used to spend pulling together the last 10%
of facts we need to complete our research. I read Carr's article when
The Atlantic first published it, but I used a web search to pull it
back up and review it before writing this response. Google is my

Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?

Our computer usage will certainly move more and more to an environment
of small devices (probably in our hands rather than on our desks)
communicating with large data sets and applications in the cloud.
This dual trend, bifurcating our computer resources between the tiny
and the truly gargantuan, have many consequences that other people
have explored in depth: privacy concerns, the risk that application
providers will gather enough data to preclude competition, the
consequent slowdown in innovation that could result, questions about
data quality, worries about services becoming unavailable (like
Twitter's fail whale, which I saw as recently as this morning), and

One worry I have is that netbooks, tablets, and cell phones will
become so dominant that meaty desktop systems will rise in the cost
till they are within the reach only of institutions and professionals.
That will discourage innovation by the wider populace and reduce us to
software consumers. Innovation has benefited a great deal from the
ability of ordinary computer users to bulk up their computers with a
lot of software and interact with it at high speeds using high quality
keyboards and large monitors. That kind of grassroots innovation may
go away along with the systems that provide those generous resources.

So I suggest that cloud application providers recognize the value of
grassroots innovation--following Eric von Hippel's findings--and
solicit changes in their services from their visitors. Make their code
open source--but even more than that, set up test environments where
visitors can hack on the code without having to download much
software. Then anyone with a comfortable keyboard can become part of
the development team.

We'll know that software services are on a firm foundation for future
success when each one offers a "Develop and share your plugin here"

Will social relations get better?

Like the question about Google, this one is more about our choices
than our technology. I don't worry about people losing touch with
friends and family. I think we'll continue to honor the human needs
that have been hard-wired into us over the millions of years of
evolution. I do think technologies ranging from email to social
networks can help us make new friends and collaborate over long

I do worry, though, that social norms aren't keeping up with
technology. For instance, it's hard to turn down a "friend" request
on a social network, particularly from someone you know, and even
harder to "unfriend" someone. We've got to learn that these things are
OK to do. And we have to be able to partition our groups of contacts
as we do in real life (work, church, etc.). More sophisticated social
networks will probably evolve to reflect our real relationships more
closely, but people have to take the lead and refuse to let technical
options determine how they conduct their relationships.

Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

Our idea of writing changes over time. The Middle Ages left us lots of
horribly written documents. The few people who learned to read and
write often learned their Latin (or other language for writing) rather
minimally. It took a long time for academies to impose canonical
rules for rhetoric on the population. I doubt that a cover letter and
resume from Shakespeare would meet the writing standards of a human
resources department; he lived in an age before standardization and
followed his ear more than rules.

So I can't talk about "improving" reading and writing without
addressing the question of norms. I'll write a bit about formalities
and then about the more important question of whether we'll be able to
communicate with each other (and enjoy what we read).

In many cultures, writing and speech have diverged so greatly that
they're almost separate languages. And English in Jamaica is very
different from English in the US, although I imagine Jamaicans try
hard to speak and write in US style when they're communicating with
us. In other words, people do recognize norms, but usage depends on
the context.

Increasingly, nowadays, the context for writing is a very short form
utterance, with constant interaction. I worry that people will lose
the ability to state a thesis in unambiguous terms and a clear logical
progression. But because they'll be in instantaneous contact with
their audience, they can restate their ideas as needed until
ambiguities are cleared up and their reasoning is unveiled. And
they'll be learning from others along with way. Making an elegant and
persuasive initial statement won't be so important because that
statement will be only the first step of many.

Let's admit that dialog is emerging as our generation's way to develop
and share knowledge. The notion driving Ibsen's Hedda Gabler--that an
independent philosopher such as Ejlert Løvborg could write a
masterpiece that would in itself change the world--is passé. A
modern Løvborg would release his insights in a series of blogs
to which others would make thoughtful replies. If this eviscerated
Løvborg's originality and prevented him from reaching the
heights of inspiration--well, that would be Løvborg's fault for
giving in to pressure from more conventional thinkers.

If the Romantic ideal of the solitary genius is fading, what model for
information exchange do we have? Check Plato's Symposium. Thinkers
were expected to engage with each other (and to have fun while doing
so). Socrates denigrated reading, because one could not interrogate
the author. To him, dialog was more fertile and more conducive to

The ancient Jewish scholars also preferred debate to reading. They
certainly had some received texts, but the vast majority of their
teachings were generated through conversation and were not written
down at all until the scholars realized they had to in order to avoid
losing them.

So as far as formal writing goes, I do believe we'll lose the subtle
inflections and wordplay that come from a widespread knowledge of
formal rules. I don't know how many people nowadays can appreciate all
the ways Dickens sculpted language, for instance, but I think there
will be fewer in the future than there were when Dickens rolled out
his novels.

But let's not get stuck on the aesthetics of any one period. Dickens
drew on a writing style that was popular in his day. In the next
century, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote in a
much less formal manner, but each is considered a beautiful stylist in
his or her own way. Human inventiveness is infinite and language is a
core skill in which we we all take pleasure, so we'll find new ways to
play with language that are appropriate to our age.

I believe there will always remain standards for grammar and
expression that will prove valuable in certain contexts, and people
who take the trouble to learn and practice those standards. As an
editor, I encounter lots of authors with wonderful insights and
delightful turns of phrase, but with deficits in vocabulary, grammar,
and other skills and resources that would enable them to write better.
I work with these authors to bring them up to industry-recognized

Will those in GenY share as much information about themselves as they age?

I really can't offer anything but baseless speculation in answer to
this question, but my guess is that people will continue to share as
much as they do now. After all, once they've put so much about
themselves up on their sites, what good would it do to stop? In for a
penny, in for a pound.

Social norms will evolve to accept more candor. After all, Ronald
Reagan got elected President despite having gone through a divorce,
and Bill Clinton got elected despite having smoked marijuana.
Society's expectations evolve.

Will our relationship to key institutions change?

I'm sure the survey designers picked this question knowing that its
breadth makes it hard to answer, but in consequence it's something of
a joy to explore.

The widespread sharing of information and ideas will definitely change
the relative power relationships of institutions and the masses, but
they could move in two very different directions.

In one scenario offered by many commentators, the ease of
whistleblowing and of promulgating news about institutions will
combine with the ability of individuals to associate over social
networking to create movements for change that hold institutions more
accountable and make them more responsive to the public.

In the other scenario, large institutions exploit high-speed
communications and large data stores to enforce even greater
centralized control, and use surveillance to crush opposition.

I don't know which way things will go. Experts continually urge
governments and businesses to open up and accept public input, and
those institutions resist doing so despite all the benefits. So I have
to admit that in this area I tend toward pessimism.

Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

Yes, I believe people have many reasons to participate in groups and
look for information without revealing who they are. Luckily, most new
systems (such as U.S. government forums) are evolving in ways that
build in privacy and anonymity. Businesses are more eager to attach
our online behavior to our identities for marketing purposes, but
perhaps we can find a compromise where someone can maintain a
pseudonym associated with marketing information but not have it
attached to his or her person.

Unfortunately, most people don't appreciate the dangers of being
identified. But those who do can take steps to be anonymous or
pseudonymous. As for state repression, there is something of an
escalating war between individuals doing illegal things and
institutions who want to uncover those individuals. So far, anonymity
seems to be holding on, thanks to a lot of effort by those who care.

Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

As organizations and news sites put more and more information online,
they're learning the value of organizing and cross-linking
information. I think the Semantic Web is taking off in a small way on
site after site: a better breakdown of terms on one medical site, a
taxonomy on a Drupal-powered blog, etc.

But Berners-Lee had a much grander vision of the Semantic Web than
better information retrieval on individual sites. He's gunning for
content providers and Web designers the world around to pull together
and provide easy navigation from one site to another, despite wide
differences in their contributors, topics, styles, and viewpoints.

This may happen someday, just as artificial intelligence is looking
more feasible than it was ten years ago, but the chasm between the
present and the future is enormous. To make the big vision work, we'll
all have to use the same (or overlapping) ontologies, with standards
for extending and varying the ontologies. We'll need to disambiguate
things like webbed feet from the World Wide Web. I'm sure tools to
help us do this will get smarter, but they need to get a whole lot

Even with tools and protocols in place, it will be hard to get
billions of web sites to join the project. Here the cloud may be of
help. If Google can perform the statistical analysis and create the
relevant links, I don't have to do it on my own site. But I bet
results would be much better if I had input.

Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

Yes, I don't believe there's much doubt about the technologies that
companies will commercialize and make widespread over the next five
years. Many people have listed these technologies: more powerful
mobile devices, ever-cheaper netbooks, virtualization and cloud
computing, reputation systems for social networking and group
collaboration, sensors and other small systems reporting limited
amounts of information, do-it-yourself embedded systems, robots,
sophisticated algorithms for slurping up data and performing
statistical analysis, visualization tools to report the results of
that analysis, affective technologies, personalized and location-aware
services, excellent facial and voice recognition, electronic paper,
anomaly-based security monitoring, self-healing systems--that's a
reasonable list to get started with.

Beyond five years, everything is wide open. One thing I'd like to see
is a really good visual programming language, or something along those
lines that is more closely matched to human strengths than our current
languages. An easy high-level programming language would immensely
increase productivity, reduce errors (and security flaws), and bring
in more people to create a better Internet.

Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

I'll pick up here on the paragraph in my answer about takeoff
technologies. The end-to-end principle is central to the Internet I
think everybody would like to change some things about the current
essential Internet protocols, but they don't agree what those things
should be. So I have no expectation of a top-to-bottom redesign of the
Internet at any point in our viewfinder. Furthermore, the inertia
created by millions of systems running current protocols would be hard
to overcome. So the end-to-end principle is enshrined for the
foreseeable future.

Mobile firms and ISPs may put up barriers, but anyone in an area of
modern technology who tries to shut the spiget on outside
contributions eventually becomes last year's big splash. So unless
there's a coordinated assault by central institutions like
governments, the inertia of current systems will combine with the
momentum of innovation and public demand for new services to keep
chokepoints from being serious problems.

December 30 2009

Being online: Conclusion--identity narratives

An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

(This is the final post in a series called
"Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

After viewing in rotation the various facets of that gem that we call identity, it is time for us to polish and view them in one piece.
This series has explored what identity means in an online medium, the
most salient aspect of which is the digitization of information.
Consider what the word digitization denotes: the
fragmentation of a whole into infinitesimal, fungible, individually
uncommunicative pieces. The computer digitizes everything we post
about ourselves not only literally (by storing information in
computer-readable formats) but metaphorically, as the computer
scatters our information into a meaningless diaspora of data fields,
status updates, snapshots, and moments caught on camera or in
audio--as Shakespeare might say, signifying nothing.

No computer--only a person--can reassemble and breath life into these
dry bones, creating from them a narrative.

Anthony Giddens, whom I quoted earlier in the section on selves, says
that constructing a narrative for oneself is an obligatory part of
feeling one has an identity. Giddens does not seem to take the
Internet on in his writings. But it's a reasonable stretch to say that
we build up narratives online, and others do so for us, through the
digitized, disembodied (or to use Giddens's term, disembedded) bits of
information posted over time.

In place of the term narrative,
some psychologists, who would probably love to do an intake interview
on Hamlet, refer to the self as being established through a soliloquy.
However you look at
identity formation, taking it online extends its reach tremendously.
The soliloquies we engage in, and the narratives we create for
ourselves, reshape our memories and determine our futures. But these
self-interrogations that used to take place in our craniums while we
lay in bed at night now happen in full view of the world.

College development staff and others who search for information on us
are building up narratives haphazardly based on available data. On
blogs and social networks, however, we quite literally provide them
with the narrative. Perhaps that's why those media became popular so
quickly, and why so many people urge their friends to follow them:
social media take some of the anarchy out of our presentation of self.

The next step to gain more control over searches about yourself or
your business may be emotionally formidable as well as time-consuming:
when someone comments about you on any searchable forum, answer
him. The answer can be on the same forum as the original comment or on
some site more under your control, such as your blog--use whatever
setting is appropriate for what you have to say. You can then only
hope that your reply is picked up and treated as important by the
search engines.

One indication of Shakespeare's genius was the parallel, distinct
narratives he managed to create in Hamlet--or as Goffman
might put it, his ability to develop two sophisticated frames that are
totally at odds throughout the play. Similar stylistic devices have
been worked into thriller moves, spy novels, and thousands of other
settings since then.

Everyone except Hamlet himself (and a few sympathetic colleagues)
created a narrative as uncompromising as it was terrifying. Hamlet was
seen as irrational, brooding, provocative, ungrateful, impulsively
amoral, cruel, dangerously violent, and totally out of control.

Only we, the audience, see Hamlet the way he saw himself: brilliant,
sensitive, almost telepathically alert, courageous, unambiguously
righteous, gifted with a hidden power, blessed by a divine mission--in
short, a hero.

Upon all my readers I wish narratives unlike Hamlet's. I hope you
never feel the need to construct for yourself a narrative, online or
offline, as desperate as the ones he constructed. At the same time, I
hope that other people de-digitizing a narrative from your online
signals do not see you as Polonius or Laertes saw Hamlet.

But we have to accept that we are constrained in life by how others
see us, that many will formulate opinions from the digital trail we
are all building just by living in the modern world, and that we can't
control how others see this trail. There are just a few things we can
do to improve our prospects for surviving and thriving online.

We can assess the economic value of what we reveal: what we are
allowing others to do by revealing something, and what we may get back
of value. And like economists, we have to think long-term as well as
short-term, because the data we reveal is up there forever.

We can also develop tolerance for others, learning not to judge them
because we don't know the back story to what we see online, as I have
recommended in

an earlier article

Finally, we should accept that we can't bring other people's image of
us into conformity with what we feel is our true identity. But at
least we can resist bringing our identity into conformity with their

The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

  1. Introduction

  2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

  3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

  4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you

  5. What you say about yourself, or selves

  6. Forged identities and non-identities

  7. Group identities and social network identities

  8. Conclusion: identity narratives (this post)
  9. December 28 2009

    Being online: Group identities and social network identities

    So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
    End in one purpose, and be all well borne
    Without defeat.

    (This is the seventh post in a series called
    "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

    Despite all the variations played on the theme of personal identities
    in the previous sections, remember that identity is a group construct,
    not an individual one. If we never took part in groups, our personal
    identities would scarcely matter.

    We're all members of certain groups without our choice: the particular
    race, social class, or gender that other people assign us to. When a
    woman posts a seductive picture online, she is helping to shape the
    way men and other women view womanhood in general. The same goes when
    she posts a demonstration of herself expertly fixing a computer or
    operating a super-collider. And the image every member of a racial
    minority puts up of himself or his cohorts, like it or not, determines
    the way all members of that race are judged.

    It seems an invariant of human culture to exploit the image of an
    individual in order to leave an impression about the entire group to
    which he or she belongs. It has been done by the arts and mass media
    ever since they were invented, but the Internet gives millions of
    ordinary people the chance to inflect the process. This diffusion of
    influence was recognized by Time Magazine in 2006 when it

    designated "you" as its Person of the Year

    Going by Goffman's extremely broad definition of "framing"--any
    assumption or shared knowledge that lies behind a visible act is part
    of the frame--identity might be the most important frame of all, and
    the locus around which other frames revolve. Thus, my identity as an
    English-speaker and US native frames the starting point of this
    series from the perspective of a world technological and cultural

    Others, though, may come to the Internet with an identity impaired by
    its very use. For instance, they may have to sacrifice their
    languages, or at least the character sets they traditionally use, in
    order to communicate online in a cost-effective way.

    As Lisa Nakamura points out in her book Digitizing Race: Visual
    Cultures of the Internet
    (University of Minnesota Press, 2008),
    individuals can expand or criticize conventional images of women,
    Asians, Muslims, and others by reusing images and mashing them up in
    challenging ways. Nakamura even suggests that the typical slicing and
    recombination of digital images reflects the way people create their
    identities from fragments of older traditions, which in turn have been
    shattered by the economics and culture of modern global change.

    Technology also groups us. Are we the first to jump on a new medium
    such as Voice over IP or Google Wave? Just as--to cite Giddens--we
    express identity through lifestyle choices such as vegetarianism or
    living in a downtown apartment instead of a house in the suburbs, we
    express identity through the devices we buy and the Internet services
    we use. And other people make assumptions about our identity based on
    these things.

    Let's turn now to groups at a more intimate level. Every online forum
    has the potential to be a small community--and even a small
    government, with rules backed up by unique punishments--where people
    train each other to carry out their identities in various ways.

    Groups must be explicit and conscious of group identity. Online media
    rarely provide chances for the equivalent of sitting at a bar with
    grizzled veterans and hearing their stories. That is why groups often
    post rules (check out Wikipedia's, which are complicated enough to
    call for an entire wiki of their own) to deal with churn and the lack
    of opportunities to pass on norms informally.

    This article began with the hope of understanding the current state of
    the art in online group formation: social networking. The reason
    social networking sites hold promise is that they augment the
    individual, an echo of Douglas Engelbart's goal to augment personal
    achievement through the invention of the mouse and multimedia
    networking in the 1960s. In a 2004 article
    anthropologist danah michele boyd made the observation--or perhaps just
    reported a subject's observation--that these networks try to represent
    each person's identity as the set of connections he or she has. At
    Friendster, at least (where people look up each others' friends for
    potential dates), the networks of friends become the main show. The
    same criticism could be made of LinkedIn, where the chief goal is
    career-building rather than dating.

    Perhaps adding relationships to our definition of identity can
    humanize the concept, as suggested by
    Cynthia Kurtz.
    I explained the importance of sharing information with "friends of
    friends" in a comment added to an

    earlier section of this article
    But when viewed in the worst light, Friendster and LinkedIn cheapen
    your identity to the connections you can offer other people.

    Just as rudimentary digital cameras--especially when embedded in
    mobile devices--have confirmed the old notion that a picture is worth
    a thousand words, the connecting power of social networks will be
    multiplied a thousandfold if facial recognition improves to the point
    where it can automatically disseminate information about where we were
    and whom we met. If automated crawling tools could identify faces in
    millions of photos taken at parties, conferences, banquets, and even
    public places, and then combine the information to determine who knows
    whom, the amount of information that would become publicly available
    about our habits and associations would be staggering.

    For instance, imagine if the recently announced service for photo
    recognition, Google
    , evolves to the point where it can match faces against
    faces in other photos. And then imagine that Google provides Goggles
    as an API for use with social networks where people tag photos with
    names. A single tag by a cousin on your photo at a party could lead to
    your being associated with everybody else in all other photos of you
    posted online. These developments, while not imminent, are plausible
    in the light of past advances in the technologies.

    Social networks create a new personal information economy. We
    already have such an economy in real-life's customer reward cards: we
    give up valuable information about our long-term purchasing habits in
    exchange for discounts. Some business experts suggest a similar
    explicit arrangement for the Internet. Regulations would prohibit the
    retention of information unrelated to a sale, but allow retailers to
    offer discounts in exchange for the right to retain certain types of
    information. This would make privacy a class issue, because the
    affluent would be most likely to forgo the bribe and withhold their
    information. And because the affluent are the biggest spenders,
    businesses are unlikely to find it worth their while to support this

    Everyone on social networks is engaging in the new personal
    information economy. We choose to post our favorite movies in order to
    meet fans and learn about new movies we'd like. And we reveal the
    colleges we attended so we can meet potential business partners from
    those institutions. We even post jokes and casual observations to earn
    people's admiration. While we're all having fun, every nugget we
    release is subjected first, consciously or unconsciously, to a key
    question: will we get some benefit from the social network
    commensurate with the value of the information we are about to give
    our contacts?

    This view of social network as economy provides a partial answer to
    the questions posed at the very start of this series:

    Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile
    private or public? Should we reveal that we're gay?...

    The answer is that each of us is responsible for assessing the value
    of posting at every moment, taking into consideration the tone of the
    network, how many people are watching our postings, what they can
    offer us, and more.

    The economy extends to sending nude photographs of yourself to current
    or would-be lovers. A recent

    report from the Pew Research Center

    says no less:

    "Sexually suggestive images sent to the privacy of the phone have
    become a form of relationship currency."

    Exhibitionists don't seem to realize that their photos are likely to
    travel far beyond the person to whom they're entrusted--a bitter
    truth that, once admitted, would certainly alter the senders' economic

    While filtering our contributions to the network, we also filter those
    who are entitled to receive them--and here the economy is out of
    balance. Rampant are the complaints about receiving connection
    requests you don't want from old boyfriends or the guys who smoked dope
    with you in high school. Social networking urgently needs to establish
    a culture in which it's OK to say that you're filtering your
    connections. (A couple years ago I rejected a connection and got a
    death threat in return. Looking at the person's profile, I determined
    that it was a joke--but I still think twice about visiting the city
    where he lives.)

    Although connections on social networks are definitive, no one asks
    about the identity of the social network itself (except shareholders
    hoping to increase its popularity and critics trying to change its
    policies). But some online communities head in a very different
    direction. Law professor Beth Simone Noveck, in an essay titled

    A democracy of groups
    points out that self-organized groups can mold their own unique identities
    in order to effect collective action.

    Noveck's optimism regarding self-organizing groups led to the current
    experiments with online democracy pursued by the Obama administration,
    where Noveck was appointed to both the transitional team and a Deputy
    CTO position to start implementation of the Open Government initiative
    that Obama

    released on his first day in office

    In Noveck's theory, a group's effectiveness depends on each member's
    success is gelling his or her individual identity. "Through visual and
    graphical representation, this new technology enables people to see
    themselves and others and to perceive the role they have
    assumed. Appearing as a defined person--whether by name or in an
    embodied avatar--makes it easier to sense oneself as part of a group
    and, arguably, will facilitate the inculcation of the social norms at
    the heart of a group's culture."

    These are intriguing claims, but it's odd that Noveck does not
    consider the ability to import external markers of identity into the
    group space, or to check members' assertions of identity against these
    external markers. For instance, what if visitors to Second Life could
    receive a token from her law school (through the OAuth protocol, say)
    that validates her as a professor?

    One way to tie individuals more tightly together in online groups, as
    explained in her article, is to make online forums feel more like
    real-world places so that people can develop "forms of attachment" to
    the forums in ways that they feel emotionally attached to their town
    square, college, or other local "great good place" (to borrow the name
    of a popular book by Ray Oldenburg). As Noveck writes, "The new
    generation of technology is reintroducing the concept of space and
    place online." As an example she cites Second Life, which was growing
    rapidly in popularity at the time. Effectively, she is granting groups
    identities, just like individuals, and recommending that a group
    foment stronger ties among its members by creating a stronger group

    No one in the Obama administration has picked up the most aggressive
    suggestion in A democracy of groups, that the law recognize
    groups as entities--"new forms of collective legal personhood"--in a
    similar manner to how it now recognizes corporations. But Vermont has
    taken a step in that direction by changing its laws to allow virtual
    corporations, and ultimately we may be dealing with group identity
    online as much as with individual identity.

    The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

    1. Introduction

    2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

    3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

    4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you

    5. What you say about yourself, or selves

    6. Forged identities and non-identities

    7. Group identities and social network identities (this post)

    8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

      December 26 2009

      December 24 2009

      Being online: What you say about yourself, or selves

      Which is the natural man,
      and which the spirit? who deciphers them?

      (This post is the fifth in a series called
      "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

      What we've seen so far in this series would be enough to shake
      anyone's sense of identity. We've found that the technology of the
      Internet itself fudges identity (but does not totally succeed in
      hiding it), that companies use fragmented and partial information to
      categorize you, and that your actual identity is perhaps less
      important to these companies than your role as snippet of a statistic
      within a larger group. This post demands an even
      greater mental stretch: we have to face that what we say about
      ourselves is also distorted and inconclusive.

      Sociological and psychologists tend to see our activities online as
      inherently artificial, referring to them as aspects of "the
      performative self." But the pundits haven't succeeded in getting their
      point of view across to the wider public. For instance, the millions
      of people who view personal video weblogs, or vlogs,
      fervently believe--according to a recent

      First Monday article by Jean Christian
      --in the
      importance of authenticity in people's video self-presentations. Viewers
      reject vlogs over such telltale signs as overediting or reading from

      The touchstone for discussions of people's appearances and what their
      appearances say about them is Erving Goffman's classic
      Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, whose lessons

      I applied to the Internet in a recent blog
      The book suggested that we fashion our appearances not to
      hide our true selves, but to reveal them in a manner
      others find meaningful. My blog reinforced this insight, pointing out
      that, although we do prettify ourselves online as

      claimed in one newspaper article
      we can't compartmentalize aspects of ourselves. In other words,
      whatever presentation we make in one context or forum is likely to
      leak out elsewhere.


      another blog about Goffman
      I focused on the signals we give out and pick up instinctively about
      each other in real life, indicating that they have to be specified
      explicitly in online media (although graphics and video now bring back
      some instinctive reactions).

      Goffman's career ended before the Internet became a topic of
      sociological analysis, so at this point it's appropriate to bring in
      the chief researcher in the area of identity and the Internet,
      psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle. She claims that we
      do maintain multiple online identities, and that this is no
      simple game but reflects a growing tendency for us to have multiple
      selves. The fragmentary and divided presentation of self online
      reflects the truth about ourselves, more than we usually acknowledge.

      Turkle's research, unfortunately, got channeled early in the
      Internet's history into landscapes that don't reflect its later use as
      a mass medium. She became fascinated, during the early years of
      popular computing and gaming in the 1980s, with the whims so many
      people indulged for portraying themselves as someone of a different
      age, gender, or profession, or just for hiding as much as they could
      in order to try out a different personality. This orientation colors
      both of her books on the subject, The Second Self (1984) and
      Life on the Screen (1995), and relegates her work to a study
      of psychological deviation.

      Still, Turkle's work can make us think about the vistas that the
      Internet opens up for the Self. Surveying the multiple identities we
      create online and the ways we represent or misrepresent ourselves, she
      finds that people don't do this just for play or to maliciously
      deceive other people. Many do it to don identities that are hard to
      try on in real life.

      A woman pretending to be a man might open up scenarios for practicing
      assertive behaviors that would produce a backlash if she rolled them
      out in real life. A shy person might learn, through an invented
      personality, how to flirt and even to practice mature love. Both of
      these forms of mimicry, which go back at least as far as Shakespeare's
      As You Like It, have proven useful to many people online.

      But beyond these simple sorts of play-acting (for which real life
      provides its settings: acting classes, long journeys, spiritual
      retreats, "What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas") we glimpse
      in online personas a contemporary view of the self that is
      multi-layered and multi-faceted--by no means integrated and

      Turkle also explores the psychological impact of computer
      interfaces. In particular, programs that act like independent,
      autonomous decision-makers push us to rethink our own human

      In the 1960s, people would spend hours typing confessions into the
      psychologist persona presented by Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA
      program. Trying out ELIZA now, it's hard to imagine anyone could be
      enticed into a serious conversation with it. But as we've grown more
      sophisticated, so have the deceits that programmers toss at us. Turkle
      reports an interaction with a robot at the MIT AI Lab that drew her in
      with a veracity that made her uncomfortable. "Despite myself and
      despite my continuing skepticism about this research project, I had
      behaved as though in the presence of another being."

      Affective technologies have leapt even further ahead since 1995.
      Someday, robots for the disabled and elderly will try to reflect their
      feelings in order to provide care that goes beyond washing and
      feeding. Turkle draws on many strands of psychology, sociology,
      neurological science, and philosophy to show how our intellectual
      substrate has been prepared throughout the twentieth century for the
      challenges to Self that sophisticated computer programs present. Had
      the field of synthetic biology existed when Turkle wrote her books, it
      would have provided even more grist for her thesis.

      This is one place where I part company with Turkle. I don't believe
      we're getting more and more confused about the dividing line between
      Computer Power and Human Reason (the title of a classic book by
      Weizenbaum, ELIZA's creator). I have more faith in our discernment.
      Just as we can see through ELIZA nowadays, we'll see through later
      deceptions as we become familiar with them. Simulated intelligences
      will not perennially pass the Turing test.

      Turkle's view of online behavior is more persuasive. I'm willing to
      grant that exploring identity on the Internet can help us develop
      neglected sides of our identity and integrate them into our real
      selves. She expects us to go even further--to develop these sides
      without integrating them. We can quite happily and (perhaps) healthily
      live multiple identities, facilitated by how we present ourselves

      Let's review the social setting in which Turkle inserts her
      arguments. Looking over the period during which the technologies and
      social phenomena Turkle researches have grown--the period from 1970 to
      the present, when MUDs and other online identity play developed--we
      see an astonishing expansion of possibilities for identity throughout
      real life. We have more choices than ever in career, geographic
      location, religious and spiritual practice, gender identification, and
      family status--let alone plastic surgery and drugs that alter our
      minds or muscles. People have reclaimed disappearing ethnic languages
      and turned vanishing crafts into viable careers. And people are
      experimenting with these things in countries characterized by
      repression as well as those considered more open.

      Changes in speech and clothing allow us to try out different
      identities in different real-life settings with relative safety. We
      can sample a novel spiritual rite without relinquishing our
      traditional church. But of course, doing all these things online is
      even safer than doing them in physical settings.

      Global information and movement lead to what sociologist Anthony
      Giddens, in his 1991 book Modernity and Self-Identity, calls
      reflexivity. I showed in the previous section how reflexivity
      works in the data collected by advertisers and corporate planners.
      Toward the cause of producing more of what we want and marketing it to
      us effectively, the corporations are constantly collecting information
      on us--purchases, web views and clicks, sentiment analysis-and feeding
      it back into activities that will, on the next phase, produce more
      such information. Reflexivity is a fundamental trait of modern
      institutions. But individuals, as Giddens points out, are also
      reflexive. We imitate what we see, online as well as offline. Online,
      it's even easier to try something and learn from the results. Goth
      clothing and body piercings we pick up online are cheaper and easier
      to discard than real ones when we have to clean up our image.

      However, we're becoming more circumspect over the past few years as we
      realize that people will be able to tie our online forays back to us
      in the future; this may cause the lamentable end to experimentation
      with the Self.

      Turkle refers to a story that was widely circulated and much discussed
      in an earlier decade, of a male psychiatrist who posed as a disabled
      but capable woman on CompuServe. He quickly entered supportive online
      relationships with a number of women. But as the relationships became
      too deep, he had to extricate himself from his virtual friends'
      dependencies, leaving a good deal of anger and numerous sociological

      But the most interesting aspect of the story to me is that no one can
      verify it. It appears to be a conflation of various incidents
      involving different people. In a way, drawing any conclusions at all
      would be pointless, because we don't know what emotions were involved
      and can't investigate the participants' positive and negative
      reactions. Thus does an influential and highly significant case study
      about Internet identity take on a murky identity of its own.

      Today's digital trails are more persistent than those ones that
      created the legend of the CompuServe psychiatrist. Anyone engaging
      with strangers today would probably carry on through social networks,
      blogs, or wikis that do a better job of preserving the trail of logins
      and postings.

      Thus, I return to my assertion that identity is becoming more unified
      online, not more fragmented. We may not be exactly as we appear
      online, but for the purposes of public discourse, what we appear to be
      is adequate.

      When college student Jennifer Ringley began her famous webcam of daily
      life in 1996, it was seen either as a bold experiment in conceptual
      art or a pathetic bid for attention. Soon, though, the inclusion of
      cheap cameras in cell phones fostered a youth culture that captured
      and distributed every trivial moment of their lives, a trend driven
      further by ease of using Twitter from a cell phone.

      Handy access to networks by cameras and video devices made it
      inevitable that people would impulsively send sexually suggestive
      photos of themselves to people with whom they were having intimate
      relationships, or with whom they wanted such relationships.
      A rather unscientific



      The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

      found that 20% of teenager send nude or semi-nude photos
      of themselves to other people.
      A less sensationalistic

      report from the Pew Research Center

      finds only 4%, but raises the mystique-shattering admonition that the
      trust shown by the senders of the photos is routinely violated by
      their recipients, either right away or later when the relationship is

      Addressing the safety issue in an

      earlier article
      I suggest that "along the spectrum of risky behaviors young people
      engage in (eating disorders, piercings in dangerous locations, etc.)
      to deal with body image problems that are universal at that age, a
      nude photo isn't so bad."
      But I would love to see a deeper psychological inquiry into why young
      (and not always young) people perform deal such blows to their own
      privacy. I think such counter-intuitive behavior embodies the very
      contradictions in image and reality that run through this series of

      Perhaps the eroticism of releasing intimate photos over the network
      reflects the core contradiction people sense in online identity. The
      nude photo is a unique token of one's deepest identity, without
      actually being that identity. Like
      René Magritte's famous pipe painting
      the photo of you is not you. But by sending it to someone with whom
      you want a sexual relationship, you're saying, "Hey bud, this could be
      me if you follow through in the flesh."

      For a long time the Internet was praised as a place to shed the
      baggage of race and other defining traits ("nobody knows you're a
      dog"). But as researchers such as Lisa Nakamura point out, postings
      that brim over with images and videos reintroduce race, gender, and
      other artifacts of daily life with a vengeance. And research by
      anthropologist danah michele boyd shows that people self-segregate in
      social forums, reinforcing rather than breaking down the social
      divisions that frustrate the prospects for mutual understanding among
      different races and groups.

      One could throw in, as another consequence of the growth of identity,
      the oft-observed tendency to read only political articles that
      reinforce one's existing views. Unlike other observers, who look back
      wistfully at an age where we all got our information from a few
      official media sources, I

      have applauded the proliferation of views
      but agree that we need to find ways to encourage everyone to read the
      most cogent arguments of their opponents. Censorship--even
      self-censorship--does not contribute to identity formation in a
      healthy manner.

      There's also more than a hint of the trend toward asserting identity
      in the participatory culture chronicled and analyzed by Henry Jenkins:
      the fan fiction, the commentary sites for X Files and The
      , the games and consumer polls held by movie studios, and
      so forth. This participatory culture is mostly a community affair,
      which creates a group identity out of many unconnected
      individuals. But surely, creating an unauthorized sequel or
      re-interpreting a scene in a movie is also an act of personal
      expression. I would call it placing a stake in the cultural ground,
      except that the metaphor would be far too static for an ever-changing
      media stream. It would be more apt to call the personal contributions
      a way of inserting a marker with one's identity into the ongoing reel
      of unfolding culture.

      It's a lot easier nowadays to be real when you're on the Internet. But
      some people still, for many reasons, adopt forged identities or
      non-identities. We'll explore that phenomenon next.

      The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

      1. Introduction

      2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

      3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

      4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you

      5. What you say about yourself, or selves (this post)

      6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

      7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

      8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

      December 22 2009

      Being online: Your identity to advertisers--it's not all about you

      Thy self thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing

      (This post is the fourth in a series called "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

      Voracious data foraging leads advertisers along two paths. One of
      their aims is to differentiate you from other people. If vendors know
      what condiments you put in your lunch or what material you like your
      boots made from, they can pinpoint their ads and promotions more
      precisely at you. That's why they love it when you volunteer that
      information on your blog or social network, just as do the college
      development staff we examined before.

      The companies' second aim is to insert you into a group of people for
      which they can design a unified marketing campaign. That is, in
      addition to differentiation, they want demographics.

      The first aim, differentiation, is fairly easy to understand. Imagine
      you are browsing web sites about colic. An observer (and I'll discuss
      in a moment how observations take place) can file away the reasonable
      deduction that there is a baby in your life, and can load your browser
      window with ads for diapers and formula. This is called behavioral

      Since behavioral advertising is normally a pretty smooth operator, you
      may find it fun to try a little experiment that could lift the curtain
      on it bit. Hand your computer over for a few hours to a friend or
      family member who differs from you a great deal in interests, age,
      gender, or other traits. (Choose somebody you trust, of course.) Let
      him or her browse the web and carry on his or her normal business.
      When you return and resume your own regular activities, check the ads
      in your browser windows, which will probably take on a slant you never
      saw before. Of course, the marketers reading this article will be
      annoyed that I asked you to pollute their data this way.

      Experiences like this might arouse you to be conscious of every online
      twitch and scratch, just as you may feel in real life in the presence
      of a security guard whose suspicion you've aroused, or when on stage,
      or just being a normal teenager. Online, paranoia is level-headedness.
      Someone indeed is collecting everything they can about you: the amount
      of time you spend on one page before moving on to the next, the links
      you click on, the search terms you enter. But it's all being collected
      by a computer, and no human eyes are ever likely to gaze upon it.

      Your identity in the computerized eyes of the advertiser is a strange
      pastiche of events from your past. As mentioned at the beginning of
      the article, Google's Dashboard lets you see what Google knows about
      you, and even remove items--an impressive concession for a company
      that has mastered better than any other how to collect information on
      casual Web users and build a business on it. Of course, you have to
      establish an identity with them before you can check what they know
      about your identity. This is not the last irony we'll encounter when
      exploring identity.

      But advertisers do more than direct targeting, and I actually find
      the other path their tracking takes--demographic analysis--more
      problematic. Let's return to the colicky baby example. Advertisers add
      you to their collection of known (or assumed) baby caretakers and tag
      your record with related information to help them understand the
      general category of "baby care." Anything they know about your age,
      income, and other traits helps them understand modern parenting.

      As I
      wrote over a decade ago,
      this kind of data mining typecasts us and encourages us to head down
      well-worn paths. Unlike differentiation, demographics affect you
      whether or not you play the game. Even if you don't go online, the
      activities of other people like you determine how companies judge your

      The latest stage in the evolution of demographic data mining is
      sentiment analysis, which trawls through social networking messages to
      measure the pulse of the public on some issue chosen by the
      researcher. A crude application of sentiment analysis is to search for
      "love" or "hate" followed by a product trademark, but the natural
      language processing can become amazingly subtle. Once the data is
      parsed, companies can track, for instance, the immediate reaction to a
      product release, and then how that reaction changed after a review or
      ad was widely disseminated. Results affect not only advertising but
      product development.

      Once again, my reaction to sentiment analysis mixes respect for its
      technical sophistication with worries about what it does to our
      independence. If you add your voice to the Twittersphere, it may be
      used by people you'll never know to draw far-reaching conclusions. On
      the other hand, if you refuse to participate, your opinion will be

      Google's Dashboard tells you only what they preserve on you
      personally, not the aggregated statistics they calculate that
      presumably include anonymous browsing. But you can peek at those as
      well, and carry on some rough sentiment analysis of your own, through
      Google Trends.

      Considering all this demographic analysis (behavioral, sentiment, and
      other) catapults me into a bit of a 21st-century-style existential
      crisis. If a marketer is able to combine facts about my age, income,
      place of birth, and purchases to accurately predict that I'll want a
      particular song or piece of clothing, how can I flaunt my identity as
      an autonomous individual?

      Perhaps we should resolve to face the brave new world stoically and
      help the companies pursue their goals. Social networking sites are
      developing APIs and standards that allow you to copy information
      easily between them. For instance, there are sites that let you
      simultaneously post the same message instantly to both Twitter and
      Facebook. I think we should all step up and use these services. After
      all, if your off-the-cuff Tweet about your skis from the lounge of a
      ski resort goes into planning a multimillion dollar campaign, wouldn't
      it be irresponsible to send the advertiser mixed messages?

      My call to action sounds silly, of course, because the data gathering
      and analysis will obviously not be swayed by a single Tweet. In fact,
      sophisticated forms of data mining depend on the recent upsurge of new
      members onto the forums where the information is collected. The volume
      of status messages has to be so high that idiosyncrasies get ironed
      out. And companies must also trust that the margin of error caused by
      malicious competitors or other actors will be negligible.

      We saw in an earlier section that your online presence is signaled by
      a slim swath of information. At the low end, marketers know only your
      approximate location through your IP address. At the other extreme
      they can feast on the data provided by someone who not only logs into
      a site--creating a persistent identity--but fills out a form with
      demographic information (which the vendor hopes is truthful).

      As another example of modern data-driven advertising, Facebook
      delivers ads to you based on the information you enter there, such as age
      and marital status. A tech journal reported that

      the Google Droid phone combines contacts from many sources
      but I haven't experienced this on my Droid and I don't see
      technically how it could be done.

      Most browsing takes place in an identity zone lying between the IP
      address and the filled-out profile. We saw this zone in my earlier
      example from the coffee shop. The visitor does not identify himself,
      but lets the browser accept a cookie by default from each site.

      Each cookie--so long as you don't take action to remove one, as I did
      in my experiment--is returned to the server that left it on your
      browser. If you use a different browser, the server doesn't know
      you're the same person, and if a family member uses your browser to
      visit the same server, it doesn't know you're different people.

      Because the browser returns the cookie only to servers from the same
      domain--say, sent the cookie, your identity
      is automatically segmented. Whatever knows about
      you, and do not. Servers can
      also subdivide domains, so that can use the
      cookie to keep track of your preferred mail settings while serves meteorological information
      appropriate for your location.

      This wall between cookies would seem to protect your browsing and
      purchasing habits from being dumped into a large vat and served up to
      advertisers. But for every technical measure protecting privacy, there
      is another technical trick that clever companies can use to breach
      privacy. In the case of cookies, the trick exploits the ability of a
      web to can display content from multiple domains simultaneously. Such
      flexibility in serving domains is normally used (aside from tweaks to
      improve performance) to embed images from one domain in a web page
      sent by another, and in particular to embed advertising images.

      Now, if advertisers all contract with a single ad agency, such as


      (the biggest of the online ad companies), all the ads from different
      vendors are served under the domain and can
      retrieve the same cookie. You don't have to click on an ad for the
      cookie to be returned. Furthermore, each ad knows the page on which it
      was displayed.

      Therefore, if you visit web pages about colic, skis, and Internet
      privacy at various times, and if DoubleClick shows an ad on each page,
      it can tell that the same person viewed those disparate topics and use
      that information to choose ads for future pages you visit. In the
      United States, unlike other countries, no laws prohibit DoubleClick
      from sharing that information with anyone it wants. Furthermore, each
      advertiser knows whether you click on their ad and what activity you
      carry on subsequently at their site, including any purchases you make
      and any personal information you fill out in a form.

      Put it all together, and you are probably far from anonymous on the
      Internet. In addition, a more recent form of persistent data,
      controlled by the popular Flash environment through a technology
      called local shared objects, makes promiscuous sharing easy and
      removing the information much harder.

      The purchase of DoubleClick in 2007 by Google, which already had more
      information on individuals than anybody else, spurred a great protest
      from the privacy community, and the FTC took a hard look before
      approving the merger. A similar controversy may surround Google's
      recently announced purchase of

      which provides a service similar to DoubleClick for advertisers on
      mobile phones.

      So far I've just covered everyday corporate treatment of web browsing
      and e-commerce. The frontiers of data mining extend far into
      the rich veins of user content.

      Deep packet inspection allows your Internet provider to snoop on your
      traffic. Normally, the ISP is supposed to look only at the IP address
      on each packet, but some ISPs check inside the packet's content for
      various reasons that could redound to your benefit (if it squelches a
      computer virus) or detriment (if it truncates a file-sharing session).
      I haven't heard of any ISPs using this kind of inspection for
      marketing, but many predictions have been aired that we'll cross that

      Governments have been snooping at the hubs that route Internet traffic
      for years. China simply blocks references to domains, IP addresses, or
      topics it finds dangerous, and monitors individuals for other
      suspected behavior. The Bush administration and American telephone
      companies got into hot water for collecting large gobs of traffic
      without a court order. But for years before that, the Echelon project
      was filtering all international traffic that entered or left the US
      and several of its allies.

      One alternative to being tossed on the waves of marketing is to join
      the experiments in Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), which I

      covered in a recent blog
      Although not really implemented anywhere yet, this movement holds out
      the promise that we can put out bids for what we want and get back
      proposals for products and services. Maybe VRM will make us devote
      more conscious thinking to how we present ourselves online--and how
      many selves we want to present. These are the subjects of the next section.

      The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

      1. Introduction

      2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

      3. Your identity online: getting down to basics

      4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (this post)

      5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

      6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

      7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

      8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

      December 20 2009

      Being online: Your identity online--getting down to basics

      What men daily do, not knowing what they do!

      (This post is the third in a series called "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

      Previous posts in this series explored the various identifies
      that track you in real life. Now we can look at the traits that
      constitute your identity online. A little case study may show how
      fluid these are.

      One day I drove from the Boston area a hundred miles west and logged
      into the wireless network provided by an Amherst coffee shop in
      Western Massachusetts. I visited the Yahoo! home page and noticed that
      I was being served news headlines from my home town. This was a bit
      disconcerting because I had a Yahoo! account but I wasn't logged into
      it. Clearly, Yahoo! still knew quite a bit about me, thanks to a
      cookie it had placed on my browser from previous visits.

      [A cookie, in generic computer jargon, is a small piece of data that a
      program leaves on a system as a marker. The cookie has a special
      meaning that only the program understands, and can be retrieved later
      by the program to recall what was done earlier on the system. Browsers
      allow web sites to leave cookies, and preserve security by serving
      each cookie only to the web site that left it (we'll see in a later
      section how this limitation can be subverted by data gatherers).]

      Among the ads I saw was one for the local newspaper in my town.
      Technically, it would be possible Yahoo! to pass my name to the
      newspaper so it could check whether I was already a
      subscriber. However, the

      Yahoo! privacy policy

      promises not to do this and I'm sure they don't.

      As an experiment, I removed the Yahoo! cookie (it's easy to do if you
      hunt around in your browser's Options or Preferences menu) and
      revisited the Yahoo! home page. This time, news headlines for Western
      Massachusetts were displayed. Yahoo! had no idea who I was, but knew I
      was logging in from an Internet service provider (ISP) in or near

      What Yahoo! had on me was a minimal Internet identity: an IP address
      provided by the Internet Protocol. These addresses, which usually
      appear in human-readable form as four numbers like, bear no
      intrinsic geographic association. But they are handed out in a
      hierarchical fashion, which allows a pretty good match-up with
      location. At the top of the address allocation system stand five
      registries that cover areas the size of continents. These give out
      huge blocks of addresses to smaller regions, which further subdivide
      the blocks of addresses and give them out on a smaller and smaller
      scale, until local organizations get ranges of addresses for
      their own use.

      Yahoo! simply had to look up the ISP associated with my particular IP
      address to determine I was in Western Massachusetts. But the
      technology is a bit more complicated than that. I was actually
      associated with three IP addresses--a complexity that shows how the
      fuzziness of identity on the Internet extends even to the lowest
      technological levels.

      First, when I logged in to the coffee shop's wireless hub, it gave me
      a randomly chosen IP address that was meaningful only on its own local
      network. In other words, this IP address could be used only by the
      hub and anyone logged in to the hub.

      The hub used an aged but still vigorous technology known as Network
      Address Translation to send data from my system out to its ISP. As my
      traffic emanated from the coffee shop, it bore a new address
      associated with the coffee shop's wireless hub, not with me
      personally. All the people in the coffee shop can share a single
      address, because the hub associates other unique identifiers--port
      numbers--with our different streams of traffic.

      But the ISP treats the coffee shop as the coffee shop treats me. The
      coffee shop's own address is itself a temporary address that is
      meaningful to the local network run by the ISP. A second translation
      occurs to give my traffic an identity associated with the ISP. This
      third address, finally, is meaningful on a world scale. It is the only
      one of the three addresses seen by Yahoo!.

      However, an investigator (hopefully after getting a subpoena) could
      ask an ISP for the identity of any of its customers, submitting the
      global IP address and port numbers along with the date and time of
      access. The coffee shop didn't require any personal information before
      logging me in and therefore could not fulfill an investigator's
      request, but a person doing illegal file transfers or other socially
      disapproved activity from a home or office would be known to the hub
      system and could therefore by identified--so long as logfiles with
      this information had not been deleted from the hub.

      The combination of IP address, port numbers, and date and time allows
      the Recording Industry Association of America to catch people who
      offer copyrighted music without authorization. And this technological
      mechanism underlies the European Union requirement for ISPs to keep
      the information they log about customer use, as mentioned in the first
      section of this article.

      If I want to hide this minimal Internet identity--the IP address--I
      have to use another Internet account as a proxy. In the case of my
      visit to Western Massachusetts, I was protected by logging in
      anonymously to a coffee shop, but in some countries I'd be required to
      use a credit card to gain access, and therefore to bind all my web
      surfing to a strong real-world identity. Many European countries
      require this form of identification, outlawing open wireless networks.

      To generalize from my Amherst experiment, the information we provide
      as we use the Internet is very limited, and can be limited even
      further through simple measures such as removing cookies (a topic
      covered further in a later section of this article). But what the
      Internet still allows can be used in a supple manner to respond
      instantly with ads and other material--such as the nearest coffee shop
      or geographically relevant weather reports--that are hopefully of
      greater value than the corresponding material in print publications we

      This post has explored the use of IP addresses metaphorically, as
      well as illustratively, to show how our Internet identity is
      context-sensitive and can change utterly from one setting to another.
      Usually, we provide more of a handle to the people we communicate with
      over email, instant messaging, forums, and so forth. Here too we have
      multiple identities and spend hours collecting each other's handles.

      Email, the oldest form of personal online communication, ironically
      has one of the better hacks for combining identities. You email
      accounts can be set up to forward mail, so that mail to the address
      you kept from your alma mater goes automatically to your work address.

      In contrast, you can't use your AIM instant message account to contact
      someone on MSN, so you need a separate account on each IM service and
      no one will know they all represent you unless you tell them. Twitter
      is experimenting with ways to assure users that accounts with
      well-known names are truly associated with the people after which
      they're named.

      If IM services all agreed to use XMPP (or some other protocol) you
      could reduce all your IM accounts to one. And if every social network
      supported OpenSocial, you could do a lot of networking while
      maintaining an account on just one service.

      A widely adopted protocol called OpenID allows one identity to support
      another: if you have an account on Yahoo! or Blogger you can use it to
      back up your assertion of identity on another site that accepts their
      OpenID tokens. OpenID and related technologies such as Information
      Card don't validate your existence or authenticate the personal traits
      you have outside the Internet, but allow the identity you've built up
      on one site to be transferable.

      My next post shows how the minimal elements of online identity
      have been expanded by advertisers and other companies, who combine the
      various retrievable polyps of our identity. Following that, we'll see
      how we ourselves manipulate our identities and forge new ones.

      The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

      1. Introduction

      2. Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

      3. Your identity online: getting down to basics (this post)

      4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (to be posted December 22)

      5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

      6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

      7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

      8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

      December 18 2009

      Being online: Your identity in real life--what people know

      But he that writes of you, if he can tell
      that you are you, so dignifies his story.

      (This post is the second in a series called "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between.")

      Long before the Internet, much of our private lives were available to
      those who took an interest, and not just if we were a celebrity chased
      by paparazzi or a lifelong resident of a small village. Investigators
      with many good reasons for ferreting out such knowledge--non-profit
      organizations, college development offices, law enforcement
      professionals, private detectives--pursued their quarries with
      incredibly sophisticated strategies for uncovering as much information
      as they could and shrewdly deducing even more. The Internet has simply
      infused these methods with new ingredients.

      For background, I interviewed a development professional at a private
      college. The goal of such professionals is to deduce a person's
      ability to contribute, using publicly available information such as
      purchases and sales of land, marriage and divorce records, and stock
      prices for the companies in which prospects hold leading positions. A
      few golden sources exist for tracking the most attractive fundraising

      • Publicly traded companies reveal the compensation (salary, bonuses,
        and stock) of their five highest paid employees.

      • Law journals report the compensation of the partners at the top 200
        law firms.

      • Foundations owned by prospective donors file public reports, as Series
        990 tax forms, listing the foundation's assets and donations.

      • Salaries of public officials are open records.

      More generally, Lexis-Nexis offers easy and powerful searches on
      articles from which development professionals can glean valuable
      biographical information and indications of how well the prospects'
      companies are faring.

      If your name is John Smith or Ali Khan, you may be a bit hard to track
      over the decades. But casual details such as place of residence or
      number of children can allow the development staff to piece together
      information sources. If you provide the alumni office with even one or
      two scraps of such information, you help snap the connecting rods in

      The Internet has sprung upon the development field like a geyser--with
      particularly rich pools of information in's real estate
      listings, corporate biography sites, and donor lists for philanthropic
      organizations--while the new social networks make fund-raising
      professionals even giddier. For instance, social network traffic makes
      it much easier for development offices to keep track of alumni's
      family members, which offer indications of their financial
      means. Weblogs where a prospective donor trumpets his or her passions
      can help shape the right appeal to loosen the purse strings.

      If any of this has made you nervous, let me stake out the position
      that legitimate development research is crucial for social progress.
      Colleges and non-profits depend on the donations of those fortunate
      enough to have disposable income. People whose incomes render them
      subjects of this sort of tracking know the score; dealing with
      fund-raisers is just part of the responsibility of wealth management.
      And the fund-raisers have high professional standards, such as the

      Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement's statement of

      The general population is less well informed than the rich about the
      public aspects of their private lives, which is why I've chosen this
      section to begin my survey of identity. I myself run into surprise
      from ordinary citizens I call up when I'm volunteering for a political
      campaign and trying to mobilize potential supporters. Some people
      express annoyance that I know they voted in a Democratic or Republican
      primary. Indeed, although their choice of candidate on the ballot is a
      secret, the fact that they voted on that ballot is public information.
      (Forty-eight states in the US provide it to anybody who asks, while
      the other two have ways of getting it less directly.)

      Democracy relies the use of voter rolls by campaign workers like me to
      reach out to our neighbors, drum up the vote, and convey our
      message. The extensive time we put into these pursuits is one of the
      few counterbalances to the dominance of TV and radio ads in
      determining public opinion. Those who don't understand the value of
      open records in voting might be even more upset to know that anyone
      can easily find out what candidates they gave money to, and how
      much. But get used to it: your actions matter to society, and our
      right to know often trumps your right to be left alone.

      Of course, I haven't recounted the ways banks, retail chains, and
      insurance companies track us; we're all aware of it. A section of this
      article is devoted to the slice of this activity that makes up
      behavioral advertising online. When WIRED journalist

      Evan Ratliff gave a up month of his life to be voluntarily hunted
      ditching his identity and trying to hide
      behind a new one, he discovered that savvy investigators, working
      with cooperating vendors but with no help from law enforcement, could
      decipher when and where he got money from ATMs, made routine
      purchases, and arranged air flights.

      Ultimately, you can be most reliably identified through your DNA, but
      the methodology and data are usually available only to law
      enforcement. The police used to trace you through fingerprints, but
      we've learned over the decades how unreliable those are. So DNA is the
      gold standard for identity.

      The British police have been using any excuse to take a DNA sample
      from everyone they come across. Recently, upon being told by the
      European Court of Human Rights that preserving samples for indefinite
      lengths of time were a violation of privacy, the police grudgingly
      agreed to destroy the samples taken from innocent people after six

      In many British localities--and a number of American ones as
      well--your identity is extended to include your automobile. These are
      areas where governments have installed cameras to capture license
      plates, and where the traffic ticket will come to you if some other
      person driving your car goes through a red light or exceeds the speed

      To the security system at your workplace, you may be your key card, or
      the numeric code you enter on a touchpad, or your facial bone
      structure or iris image. Security experts like to distinguish three
      kind of identifying traits that correspond to these security checks:
      something you possess, something you know, and something you are.

      Even anonymized data such as census figures can be associated with
      individuals through a little--surprisingly little--bit of additional
      information. In the most famous and dramatic demonstration of the
      power of joined data, a

      Carnegie Mellon student obtained the health records of a public

      simply by combining publicly available information. Such exploits are
      fodder more for identity thieves than for fund-raisers or advertisers,
      but they show how exposed you can become when tiny pieces of your life
      float around on public sites. The Internet provides an enormous,
      integrated platform for retrieving identities.

      The next post in this series, turning to our presence on the
      Internet itself, reduces our focus to the minimal data technically
      available on the Internet. As we'll see, while it restricts what web
      servers know about us, it compensates by providing immediate, dynamic
      exploitation of that information.

      The posts in "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between" are:

      1. Introduction

      2. Your identity in real life: what people know (this page)

      3. Your identity online: getting down to basics (to be posted December 20)

      4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (to be posted December 22)

      5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

      6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

      7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

      8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

      December 17 2009

      Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between

      To be or not to be: that is the question.

      Hamlet's famous utterance plays a trick on theater-goers, a mind
      game of the same type he inflicted constantly on his family and his
      court. While diverting his audience's attention with a
      seemingly simple choice between being and non-being, Hamlet of all
      people would know very well how these extremes bracket infinite

      Our fascination with Hamlet is precisely his instinct for presenting a
      different self to almost everyone he met. Scholars have been arguing
      for four hundred years about Hamlet's moral compass, whether his
      feigned insanity masked a true mental illness, whether the suffering
      and death he inflicted on those around him was a deliberate strategy,
      what psychological complexes fueled his cruel excoriation of Ophelia,
      and other dilemmas that come down to questions about his identity.

      We can appreciate, therefore, why actors up to the present day have to
      memorize Hamlet's "Speak the speech" passage. As a thespian, Hamlet
      outshown all the Players.

      We can bring this critical perspective on identity into our own
      21st-century lives as we populate social networks and join online
      forums. When people ask who we are, questions multiply far beyond the
      capacity of a binary "to be" digit.

      No matter how candidly we flesh out our digital representations
      online, they remain skin-deep. They can never reflect how we are known
      to our families, neighbors, and workmates. Even if we stole a vision
      from science fiction and preserved a complete scan of our brains, the
      resulting representations would not be able to demonstrate the
      dexterity we've built by playing basketball every Saturday, or show
      the struggles we have to control Tourette's syndrome.

      I don't believe anybody has tied down the meaning of online presence,
      and I don't presume to do so here. But we may find better resolutions
      to some of the everyday dilemmas we face by exploring, over the course
      of this article, facets of self that have been discovered and debated
      in the age of computers.

      Before widespread participation in Web 2.0-style forums, the question
      of online identity was framed as an issue of privacy under assault by
      large institutions. Only governments and major corporations could
      install and program the mainframe computers that stored the digital
      evidence of our identities. Within that framework, starting in the
      1970s, European countries that were still shadowed by the history of
      Nazi round-ups started to limit the sharing of personal information
      gathered during commerce and other transactions.

      But at the same time that these laws, enshrined in a 1995 Data
      Protection Directive and further extended to transactions that the EU
      carries out with other countries, set a standard for the regulation of
      commercial data collection, these same European governments have also,
      ironically, unleashed surveillance in response to the terror that hit
      them during this decade. Internet providers are required to retain
      information about the connections made by their customers for periods
      of time ranging from six months to many years. London has led the
      world in putting up more than one million surveillance cameras--which
      helped to identify the 2005 Underground bombings--and yet, according
      to the BBC,

      has fewer cameras per capita than many other cities

      To faceless spies and intrepid marketers, our identity is defined by
      the web site we just visited about surveillance cameras, the tube of
      spermicidal jelly we bought on vacation in Florida, or other odds and
      ends that allow them to differentiate us from other people with
      similar ordinary profiles. The result may be a knock on the door from
      Interpol or just a targeted ad for romantic getaways.

      But in the age of social networks and Web 2.0, we become the agents of
      our own undoing. And therefore, discussions about identity must be
      fashioned with a subtler clay. At every juncture--morning, noon and
      night--we redefine our own identities.

      Should we post our age and marital status? Should we make our profile
      private or public? Should we reveal that we're gay? (Data-crawling
      programs can make a pretty good guess about it even if we don't.)
      Should we boast on Twitter that we applied for a grant? Should we talk
      about the ravages of chronic Crohn's disease? This article will lead
      its readers, hopefully, to a fruitful way of thinking about these

      Next, what about the elements of our identity that are controlled less
      by us than by other random individuals? Should we ask that freshman to
      take down the photo he posted where we lay passed out at a party?
      Should we respond to the blogger who mangled the facts during a
      blustering attack on our latest political activity?

      And the ultimate arbiter of identity: what turns up when people search
      for us? Yes, our selves are all in the hands of Google (and for the
      most wretched of all--the famous--Wikipedia). Admitting its
      hegemony over identity, Google now lets us store our own


      to be served up when people search for us.
      They also reveal (at least some of) how they're tracking us at a
      service called

      As we'll see, social networking allows us more control over the image
      we present--at the cost of entering discussions that are not of our

      Truly, social networking is the Internet phenomenon of the year and deserves an end-of-the-year profile (this post is the first in a series of eight). In a recent 19-month period, Facebook rose from 75 million to 300 million members, and Twitter has gone from perhaps 1.3 million users (depending on how you count them) to an estimated 18 million.

      Not only have the sites dedicated to social networking swollen
      voluminously, but their techniques have been watched carefully by
      others. Analysts advise corporations that, to maintain their customer
      bases, it's not enough to offer a good product, not enough to market
      it adeptly and back it up with good service, not enough even to invite
      comments and customer reviews on popular web sites--no, the
      corporation must build community. They have to entice
      customers to socialize and come to feel that they're part of a common
      mission--a mission centered on the corporation.

      Increasingly, the forward march of social networking can be seen on
      site for other services and organizations. It inspires things as
      trivial as visitor pictures and profiles, or as complex as mechanisms
      for encouraging visitors to sign up more recruits, mark other members
      of the site as friends, form affinity groups, post content, and
      compete for points that harbor some promise of future value.

      Although I'd like to drop in to buy a cup of coffee or a shirt without
      social networking, and many of the ground-breaking techniques for
      building community turn into gimmicks when reduced too crassly to
      attention-getting techniques, I think this trend is beneficial. People
      are more effective when they know each other better. And the basis for
      knowing each other will be found in personal and group identity.

      Before the end of the year, I'll post eight related entries that add up to a treatise titled "Being online: identity, anonymity, and all things in between:"

      1. Introduction

      2. Your identity in real life: what people know (to be posted December 18)

      3. Your identity online: getting down to basics (to be posted December 20)

      4. Your identity to advertisers: it's not all about you (to be posted December 22)

      5. What you say about yourself, or selves (to be posted December 24)

      6. Forged identities and non-identities (to be posted December 26)

      7. Group identities and social network identities (to be posted December 28)

      8. Conclusion: identity narratives (to be posted December 30)

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