the value of a pseudonym: privacy, paranoia, and internet identity

There has been a lot of panic lately about Facebook’s questionable use of the data it collects, and its less than transparent changes to its user and privacy policies. I have heard more than one person swear to delete their account (although none of them have to date), and I nearly did so myself in a fit of annoyance at the thing.

However, I remembered something that put my mind at ease. I’m not myself on Facebook. I’m someone else. I have nothing to fear, because nothing there is real.

In other words, I am pseudonymous.

Of course, especially because I am on track for a career in librarianship – and in university libraries, we are always trying to reach out to students on a platform where they already gather and feel comfortable – I have a professional, real-name Facebook page. This, however, causes me no panic. It’s a virtual resume: schools attended, web links to my other public web sites, “friends” who are colleagues and professors and students, and a status update fed by links and notes I post to a public Twitter account. No one can post on my wall, but I can keep those who are interested in my public life up to date, and I can network with others in my field.

It’s under my real name, contains real (but extremely constrained) information, and is completely public.

My private account? Not only is everything blocked to friends-only (and on top of that won’t even show up in the Facebook search engine), the information listed is mostly dummy information: if not fake, it’s mostly meaningless to everyone but me. There’s no way to trace it to me unless you were friends with me online in late high school and can make a very, very educated guess about a way in which I’d arrange a very short-lived pseudonym with another word to make a cute little name. And there’s next to nothing for Facebook to mine from interests that are simply quotes from obscure song lyrics or references to science fiction authors.

I was discussing Facebook with a friend of mine here in Tokyo the other week. She recently joined and, like most other Japanese I know on Facebook (all three of them), has filled out next to nothing on her profile, has no photos, and no friends. I don’t think it’s because Facebook is difficult to use for non-English speakers, because when I’m in Japan, it automatically detects my IP address and location, and switches to the Japanese interface. And I’ve got plenty of friends from non-English speaking countries who spend a lot of time on Facebook.

Then I remembered Mixi – the Japanese social networking site, a kind of Japanese MySpace, that already has the market saturated. Facebook? Why? I’m already on Mixi! And so are all of my friends. What’s the point of joining Facebook when I have my network already? I thought this might be her reasoning.

But that’s not it, really. First it was Friendster and Orkut (which has weirdly remained popular in Brazil), then MySpace, and now Facebook. You follow your friends. I was a holdout on MySpace and Facebook for the longest time, and only joined when I moved to a new place where most of my new friends used the service. What can you do? It helps move friendships along. I went along with it.

There’s nothing keeping more Japanese people from using Facebook instead of Mixi – or is there?

There is.

It’s the problem of the real name. It’s the problem that’s starting to manifest itself as a huge lurking monster overshadowing the fun of social networking.

When you record something with your name – a message, a forum post, a picture, a stupid comment – it can be tracked down. Although this is especially true with Facebook (and tagging doesn’t help – you wouldn’t believe the number of people who have no idea they can un-tag themselves), it’s a general rule of life. Before the internet, there was paper. There was the newspaper, the magazine, television. There have always been and will always be ways to record your embarrassing or ill-conceived moments for posterity.

In the old days of the internet – now I’m making myself sound like a dinosaur – it was quite rare to post under one’s real name. A handle was expected. I would never have considered listing my full name anywhere (and this had a lot to do with being in middle school and having a mom watching what I was doing), and there was a long-standing joke among some online friends that I really didn’t have a first name – that it was “m.” Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, and obviously someone trying to make a professional presence (whether that was for a job, hobby, research, or something else) would want their real name attached to their sites and posts. But the internet and “real life” – those were two separate things. Your online friends and offline friends were separate.

Yourself online, yourself in real life – these two are separate as well. The internet is a place for multiple identities, for experimentation and trying out ways of living and being that could never be done in your mundane everyday existence.

However, they are converging these days. Indeed, Facebook’s founder has recently made comments to this effect. Not only do people want to share more and more, and participate more publicly in conversations that used to be private (see wall posts as opposed to emailing), they want to do so with their real name attached. They do not keep these separate identities. Or, if they mean to, they forget that that one name will unify it. At best, you have a strong presence online of your “real life” self; at worse, they become mashed together in the most contradictory, embarrassing, and helpless ways. Your combination of Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, and Twitter accounts make for a strange picture of a human being.

When you keep your identities separate, however – via pseudonyms and fake information – you can go on sharing as much or as little as you like. You keep the internet separate, not quite real, or perhaps rather a super-real space. A space where you can still feel freedom or explore, both in terms of ideas and your own identity. You can communicate with others pseudonymously as well, without worrying about who they “really” are. This is the old internet. This is the dinosaur. And it is a dinosaur that I still crave.

My dinosaur internet has given me many strange habits. I don’t know anyone else with separate Facebook or Twitter accounts for their real and fake names; who maintain multiple private and public blogs and entire web sites; or who keep all these accounts under different pseudonyms so none of them can be traced to each other. The connection? They are all me. But I feel safe and comfortable that only I know this, and I can let friends in on it at my discretion. And on top of that, the friends I might make online and let into these worlds – they don’t know who I “am.” They know me online. They do not know the writer of this essay. What they see is what I let them see, the aspect of me that connects – and they do the same for me.

These are pieces of me that don’t make sense put together in real life, necessarily. No one friend, not even my closest, can hold all of these in their view of me. No one can see into my mind. But I can free these distinct parts of it as individual, pseudonymous identities, self-portraits with a life of their own.

When I first used Mixi, I was surprised to find that even in 2008, every user had a handle rather than a name, and no user had a photo of his or her face. Mixi is a place for abstract self-portraits. Mixi is the kind of internet that I can deal with.

I think we could learn a thing or two about the Japanese way of being online; in other words, from paranoia-induced pseudonymity. Or rather, privacy-induced. It’s in this private world, when so much of our lives are now made public or conducted in public space, where we can truly relax and open ourselves, express ourselves, and engage in dialogue with others. Where we can do so freely, without the paranoia that what we explore may come back to haunt us, sooner or later.

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