Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Internet—The Freedom to Be Who You Want to Be?

Internet use is rapidly evolving. As more people log online, they are finding that the freedom to voice their opinions and thoughts is almost limitless—anyone can start a blog, and almost anyone can chime in on a debate, and anyone can be an expert. The Internet puts information at everyone's fingertips. A few keystrokes can call up information instantaneously on virtually any topic to anyone with the time to read and quasi-digest the information. And you can act within the illusory comfort of anonymity. You can share your opinions without divulging your identity, or create an entirely new identity to support your comments, and you're untraceable to both John Doe and Joe Plumber. I've explored this issue of authority on the Internet previously, with the story of Park Dae-Sung—the Korean man who authored himself as an expert on economics and gained a massive web following as his financial predictions proved true—asking how the Internet blurs the "ownership" of knowledge. A story about a usurped identity has added to this discussion.

The NY Times published an article discussing the arrest and prosecution of Raphael Golb for assuming multiple identities, both fictional and factual in nature, to support a theory on the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The prevailing theory is the the scrolls were produced by the Essenes, a sect of Jews thought to have lived at Qumran. The scrolls contain Biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian texts, which reveal new insights into the literary history of the Bible and the practice of Judaism under the Second Temple period. Golb supports a theory put forth by his father, Norman Golb, a professor at the University of Chicago, who believes that the scrolls were produced by multiple libraries in Jerusalem and hidden in the caves when the Jews fled the Romans during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. According to authorities,
He used pseudonyms to post on blogs. Under the name of a professor he was trying to undermine, prosecutors charged, Mr. Golb wrote a quasi confession to plagiarism and circulated it among students and officials at New York University.
The practice is not quite so uncommon—sock puppets have long been used to support ideas and denounce others, but Golb apparently adopted the identities of real scholars to discredit opponents:
Prosecutors said Mr. Golb opened an e-mail account in the name of Lawrence H. Schiffman, the New York University professor who disagreed with Mr. Golb’s father. He sent messages in Professor Schiffman’s name to various people at N.Y.U. and to others involved in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate, fabricating an admission by Professor Schiffman that he had plagiarized some of Professor Golb’s work ... [He] also set up blogs under various names that accused Dr. Schiffman of plagiarism.
This bring us back to issues of authenticity on the Internet. How can identities and knowledge be managed in this medium? Is there a need for identities to be managed in this forum? In this anonymous world, reputation has come to be extremely important. Prosecutors are proposing that Golb committed a form on identity theft—but online you can be anyone. Daniel Lyons used this to his advantage when he began to blog as Steve Jobs on The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Despite speculation that the Apple magnate was actually behind the postings, the blog had a high readership. Park Dae-Sung took advantage of the same web principle to leverage his desire to write about and discuss economics—he authored himself as an authority using the confidence inspired by the Roman goddess, Minerva. In both cases, the men were found out. In Park's instance, his real reputation was wrecked. Lyons, however, enjoyed continued popularity.

Repeatedly posting under a user name eventually grants that user a reputation. Other readers are able to judge for themselves whether the authority can be trusted. When a real world identity is mobilized on the internet, it brings with it its existing reputation: Lyons did not intend to hurt Jobs' reputation, but Golb did set out to mar Schiffman's standing, and Park was guilty of misrepresenting his expertise. As an increasingly important source for information, there is a need to preserve the integrity of web representations, but it must be done without imposing limits on the free exchange of information that currently occurs.

How do you think knowledge/identities should be managed on the web? Let's discuss below.


  1. I think if someone is assuming anothers identity online than it should be construed as corrupt intention. Along the lines of being anyone you want to be online...if it is doing no harm, than what harm is it really doing?
    Great blog, very informative!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Good Sense. I tend to agree with the first point, but I wonder at the outcome of being someone other than yourself in the long run. Will be lose our sense of identity? Will we see more multiple personalities?

    Glad to have you on board, here. Hope to hear from you again.