Friday, March 12, 2010

In Pursuit of Authenticity in the Digital Age

I often wrangle with the idea of digital authenticity. How do we know who we're talking to online? How do we know they are accurately representing themselves? Does it matter? As an ambitious graduate student, I devised and carried out a study investigating the creation of "authenticity" on the Internet. I wanted to see if I could fake my way into an online community. How'd it turn out? I was banned; they weren't happy with me. My exaggerated emulation of other members marked me as a rat right off the bat. But it's a study that I'm prepping to revisit in my wizened old age. I think these issues are salient as we struggle to tame the digital beast that has taken hold of our lives.

In this vein, the WSJ recently ran a story concerning the intersection of public and professional lives in social media. By now you've certainly heard the horror stories (and perhaps know someone personally who's experienced a social media mishap)—for example, the guy who interviewed with CISCO and tweeted about the potential cons of the job, the intern who called in sick and then posted photos of himself at a Halloween party, the Eagles employee who should have kept his commentary to himself instead of posting his feelings to Facebook, and of course the professor whose Facebook statuses have been construed as threats against students. More and more it seems that the web is the place we turn to reveal ourselves. Behind a computer screen it's easy to feel invisible, when the truth is that we've laid clear digital trails concerning our interests, amassed scores of followers, and now can broadcast our location with the push of a button. We're anything but anonymous.

An article on CNET talks about the growth of Generation X-hibitionist, who according to Harris Interactive have few concerns about privacy and the Internet: 59 percent were happy to provide personal information to marketers. Compare this data to 1998, when 80% of people cited privacy concerns as a obstacle to shopping online. And digital and social media developers are encouraging this new-found comfort level:
At a technology conference in January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his audience that Internet users don't care as much about privacy anymore. The 25-year old said that, in the seven years since he started the company, "people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people—and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time." Zuckerberg defended the company's decision in December to push users to reveal more, saying "we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it." 
Thinking back to "earlier" days, digital sociality seemed in many ways to encourage individuality while protecting identity. You could create multiple screen names to cater to different aspects of your personality and keep them all separate if you so chose. (Sex fiend by night, book worm by day? Or vice versa? No one needed to know!) The emergence of avatars further encouraged this. Green skin, pink hair, surf clothes—if those attributes presented a closer representation to who you felt you were, you were free to roam cyber-space in your new skin. This removed some of the limitations we may experience in the physical world in terms of expressing ourselves—I don't think my coworkers would look at me the same if I showed up wearing green face paint.

[Avatar screen for MSN Minimise Me. © MSN]

So Zuckerberg may be right. It appears that we have been moving in this direction for some time because diminished privacy standards encourage a truer representation of who a person is. And perhaps these relaxed rules about representation online are crossing over into the physical world in the form of a more relaxed view about personal representation. Perhaps some time in the near future it'll be okay if I decide I want to wear green face paint all the time—it wouldn't raise any eyebrows on the street, people would still sit next to me on public transportation, and I wouldn't get referred to HR for an evaluation. But we're not there yet. And until that time, perhaps what we are perceiving as relaxed rules about online privacy is an attempt to author an authentic self online?


  1. Hot topic with me Krystal. Where is the de-sensitized generation leading themselves? I made a sociological/anthropoligical connection to this that you might enjoy. Why the Facebook generation is like East Island:

  2. You've made an interesting connection, Mark. And it begs the question regarding what our expectations are in terms of the data we are making available. Do we as consumers expect organizations to respond? Or do we not care ... and can we afford not to?