Conservation of Identity

There has been a lot of discussion going around lately about Google and Facebook cracking down on pseudonyms and requiring their users to work under their real names. Big Brother/Company paranoia aside, I have come out on their side of this issue. That is actually a little shocking for those who know my position on network privacy. Maybe I should explain.

Let's say you are a newbie to this whole interwebs thing, and your kids have started dragging you kicking and screaming into cyber-space. You know enough to be afraid of bad people getting your credit card or social security number, but you still want to participate. You do a little googling about online privacy and find some advice about using a free fake email address and an assumed "identity" that is not really your true information. It sounds reasonable and it doesn't really hurt anyone. Off you go to Hotmail and you create Golf_Duffer1960@thatdomain. All of a sudden, you have an email address that is not related to your name, your ISP, or anything else terribly personal. Poof, you are now anonymous. You shop on Amazon, you sign up for newsletters, and you start to get spam. Welcome to the Internet.

While you are enjoying your newfound freedom online, you continue to use your actual credit cards to earn reward points at retail shops, eat out, and autodraft your monthly Blockbuster, cell phone, and auto-insurance. You may even actually write checks to the electric and cable companies. Your carry a wallet or purse with ALL your credit cards and cash, your driver's license, and your medical plan number. In your cell phone hides all of your contacts with email and possibly street addresses, phone numbers, and probably lots of Apps and music. It probably also has a direct link to your account with your cell service. But, you can sleep at night- you are safe online.

Eventually, you feel a little brave and want to get on whichever social network is in style today. You sign up with your fake email and a made-up name, find a cartoon for a picture, and put nothing in your profile. Now, you are really part of the Internet generation. So, you search out your kids and send a friend invite. Blam, you are reported for either spamming or stalking, depending on how well you have taught your kids. You have not really lived until someone who has lived in your house for 20 years denies a friend request. Eventually it all gets sorted and you are now friends with your loving offspring. Unknown to you, all of their twenty something buddies ask about this new friend who is invisible, has no profile, and lives in Tanzania. You can't understand some of the six and seven strings of capital letters posted as comments to your sincere "I love you!!!!!" wall posts. And, you have no idea what most of the conversation is about. Your kids had better have some wicked eye-rolling muscles built up, they are going to need them.

If these twenty-somethings were eloquent enough, they would try to explain that social media is meaningless, and somewhat ironic, to people hiding from the public. Sure, make a few beligerant comments on a golfing forum and post some snarky replies to equipment reviews from the comfort of your pseudonym. Go so far as to blog or tweet your advice and breakthrough putting methods as that nameless character of your imagination. But, the moment you get into the social aspects of the Internet, your identity is your only currency. A faceless, hollow profile is good for nothing in net cred. You have only the eloquence and passion of your words as your reference, and "LOL I know, right??" does not garner much respect in that department. To be social, you actually need to be yourself. Nowadays, anonymity and pseudonymity are practically the sole domain of insecure, socially awkward misfits and lowlife marketers. You decide if there is a difference.

Now, I don't disagree that there are valid reasons to protect your privacy, your identity and your very person. I am absolutely with you, and I have a lot of ideas on that. But, for social media where personal connections matter, it would be easier to just stay the hell out. I use the term media intentionally. Social media is a peer to peer communication. It is everything the traditional media wishes it could be- topical, immediate, personally relevant, omni-present and direct. We read and post news from computers, phones and pads while driving, riding trains, and when in meetings. We actually opt for screen pops and message/chat with each other incessently. If you want to like a product or get the latest updates about someone famous, you can even give some marketers and public relations managers a chance to have a little real estate on your wall. This is the first time any communication media has been under such consumer (end user) control. It is also the largest and most popular. Hmmm...related?

On the flip side, if what you have to say is so revolutionary, anti-government, hateful or incendiary that you have to shout it from the safety and shadows of a made-up name, I had probably rather not hear it. This is a one way message, I may overhear it, but I don't necessarily pay it any attention. You are "that guy" on the corner advancing some anti-war cause while waving a change cup. He can say anything he wants and stand there all day- nobody cares, and nobody gives him any money either. Now, if you turn the corner and see one of your old high school friends or a former co-worker facing hard times, I think your reaction would be a little different. You wold probably pay much more attention. This is the value of social identity. The stronger it is, the more followers and friends you will have, and the more shared attention. You can even find others out there that like Glam-rock, prefer dark beer, and play the same Farm Game you do. All of this social interaction comes from opening up, sharing your likes, passing on personal news and snickering at snarky remarks. We often forget that real communication is two way, and the social media is uniquely able to help us remember that other people do read what we write, listen to us, and will quickly share their opinions about all of that and more.

So, I think the social media giants are actually on the right track for discouraging pseudonyms and anonymity. I think some recent moves by Google have been heavy handed, but the desire to foster real names and real people is actually for our own good. People interested in one way communication are the spammers, marketers, and kooks. They have a burning message (in their opinion) and this whole "have to be part of the network" thing has them stumped. I think the whole "have to have friends" thing is the real issue, but I digress. The social media has grown as I thought it would, and the big companies have sought to capitalize on the wealth of information shared, posted, liked, and +1'd. The biggest names in the consumer marketplace have found social network advertising, such as it is, much more challenging than they had hoped. Indeed, it is practically the hardest media to penetrate. It is also readily measurable, which is often not good for traditionalists. Feedback is quick and brutal, invitations are clearly rejected, and incredible offers die on the wall without a thought. This is unfamiliar territory to people used to buying adwords or banner impressions, paying clickthroughs, or budgeting the cost per M.

They have not discovered the power of friendship, useful resources and information, or humor. This is not the web, a demographic or a niche market. We are more than a street address, an e-mailbox, or a phone number. We are real people with thoughts, ideas, opinions AND friends. We talk amongst ourselves and amuse our own audiences on our own terms. Everyone here is part of a two way dialog. It may not always be informative, but it does bring us closer together as friends. Real people with real interests are real connections. That is what being social is really all about.

Mom taught me not to talk to strangers, and I still think she knew what she was talking about.