Online Identity

I was reading this interesting article on comment trolling on blogs. It breaks down people order generic cialis who comment on blogs into three categories; those who read and comment with something useful to say, those who “spam”-comment, hoping to generate traffic for their own web sites, and the trolls: those who comment to criticise/put down both the content and the authors (luckily (?) it seems that mobblog has very few of the first category and no trolls!). The interesting thing about the article was the pointer to this other one, which explains that this destructive behaviour may be explained by the lack of online identiy. Here is a quote from the article:

Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity – a process called deindividuation – we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called “suicide baiting” – when someone threatening to jump from a high building is . Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. Psychologically, we are “distant” from the person we’re talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we’re more prone to aggressive behaviour, he says.

What this seems to say is that we need a strong sense of online identity in order to promote social behaviour; hence the need to transfer concepts such as trust and reputation to the online world. However, on the other hand, people are worried about giving too much personal information when online. Fears of identity theft, data misuse (and so on) heavily influence who and how people interact with online.

So the question seems to be; where is the balance between the social utility of identity and the personal safety of anonimity? Interestingly enough, the issue of data governance was the subject of a talk that my dad gave recently!

5 Responses to “Online Identity”

  1. First post! ;)

    Oh well, I also have some contribution. From a game-theory point of view, lack of identities (or, more correctly, the fact that creating a new identity is very cheap), means that there is a barrier that newcomers have to pay: they have to distinguish themselves from misbehavers before being trusted… as discussed in this paper on the social cost of cheap pseudonyms.

    And, relating to real internet life, well… everybody who frequents forums and/or newsgroups knows which is the attitude towards “noobs”…

  2. mike says:

    It’s interesting to think about the possible tension between anonymity and cooperation, since I tend to view both as desirable. I’ve recently been talking to Nathan Lovejoy about a tangle of ideas surrounding online identities, starting with Foucault’s idea that surveillance disciplines and normalises people, which suggests that anonymity/unobservability could give rise to ‘undisciplined’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour, raising the question of whether cooperation is an autonomous behaviour or a socially enforced norm.

    Deleuze argues that Foucault’s model no longer applies: surveillance and control in contemporary society have moved from the shaping of individuals to the shaping of ‘dividuals‘ – the administration of bodies has been replaced by the administration of roles. I am a consumer, a worker, a student, a citizen, all moving in the same space but subject to different controls. This involuntary dividuation is the flipside of the voluntary dividuation or presentation of self that’s made so easy by digital media: in each chatroom, forum and online social network I can adopt a different identity, or none at all. So perhaps one of the key issues for online communication is “who dividuates the individual?” – to what extent can we define the lines along which our selves will be divided, and to what extent will those lines be defined for us?

    What’s the relationship between dividuation and deindividuation? Is the anonymity of the crowd the same as the disposable pseudonymity of the chatroom? Is there a troll inside each of us, trying to get out? ;-)

  3. Neal Lathia says:

    Thanks for the non-troll comments, guys :)

    I have yet to read the paper Matteo pointed out, but I have a feeling that in this case it’s a bit more difficult to recognise noobs, given that many people participate in online societies without even showing their presence, by, for example, only reading a blog (at least I hope that is the case for mobblog!). So when they do show their identity by posting- should they really have to put up with being treated badly since they are seen as “newcomers?”

    I’ve also never read the Deleuze/Foucalt stuff on (in)dividuals. The interesting thing that you said is about voluntary dividuation. If I have understood correctly, involuntary dividuation arises from some kind of pre-determined roles that people fall into. Voluntary dividuation would mean that I willfully divide myself into different roles that I can adopt; but isn’t that pointing back to the idea of an individual? Who makes the decision?

    I definitely think that there is a huge difference between the anonymity of the crowd and disposable pseudonymity of the chatroom, starting from the simple lack or presence of a label to an identity, and ending in the psychology of the masses vs individual behavior (Ok, so I’m not being 100% clear but this comment is long enough! :) ). Any thoughts?

  4. [...] about is how useful it has been to everybody- not just those actively posting and commenting (thus revealing their identity), but also the quiet anonymous readers and the members of our research group and [...]

  5. mike says:

    Good point, I hadn’t thought about “voluntary” implying an individual making the decision. But are decisions really made by individuals rather than identities?

    I’d argue that a decision-making self is defined, above all, by consistency: “being true to yourself” means remaining consistent when there’s pressure to be inconsistent. “That’s just the way I do things.” “He’s not that kind of person.”

    On the other hand, inconsistency implies a rupture of the self. “I’m not the same person as I was in those days.” “He’s a different person when he’s drunk.” “She’s reinvented herself.” “How can you say that? The other day you said the opposite.”

    But there’s much less expectation of consistency across roles – indeed you could almost say that roles are defined by inconsistency. I don’t treat the members of my family the same way I treat customers at work or strangers on the tube, and it would be considered very strange if I did. My behaviour as an individual is inconsistent from hour to hour, but within each role my behaviour is expected to be consistent across long periods of time.

    But that seems to lead to a paradox: if decisions are taken by consistent identities, how can an identity ever choose to create a new identity that may behave inconsistently? I guess Deleuze in his pessimistic moments would argue that it doesn’t work that way: roles are imposed from the outside and their conflicting requirements create conflicting identities – involuntary dividuation.

    I think it’s possible to take a less fatalistic view if we accept that externally consistent identities may contain internal tensions that can either be explored, if there are opportunities to create new identities, or suppressed, if there’s pressure to remain consistent. (I’m not happy with this loaded language but I’m not sure how else to express it – fragmentation vs integration would cast the shadow on the opposite side, I guess.)

    So maybe dividuation can be seen as a kind of branching process subject to a mixture of internal and external pressures to divide or cohere. But that sounds terribly mechanistic…

    I’d probably better leave the question of crowd psychology for another night, I’ve rambled on long enough! :-)