Double You Double You Double You
...Riding the infinite wave of expanding identities, by Richard Nicholls, Future Foundation.
The ability to assume multiple personalities online or to remain anonymous is transforming the very principle of the self.
Consumers creating, tweaking, hiding and consciously managing their online self are discovering the massive power of identity control - making understanding consumers as complete individuals trickier for brands and marketers.
Here we consider how different brands have reacted to this trend and consider whether the consumer's right to experiment with their identity (and assess whether their ability to choose as and when they remain identifiable, traceable, contactable) is under threat.
The response from social networks
Facebook has long since advocated the use of real identities on social network profiles. Since its inception, it has endeavoured to lessen the degree of anonymity or pseudonymity users can pursue via the network by limiting the number of name changes they are permitted and removing people from the network thought to be using a false identity.
Moves to encourage members to link their Facebook identities with their usage of other sites such as Spotify also indicate the network's preference for a single online identity that is identifiable across the web.
Following a similar ethos to Facebook, Google decided to ban the use of pseudonyms on its social network tool, Google+, launched in July 2011. Google+ users are permitted to use only the name "you commonly go by in the real world". Those found to be employing a fake identity were at first immediately removed but now, following much criticism for their policy, are initially issued a warning.
Launched in September 2011, AnyBeat is an open social network that does not force users to provide their real identities to join - positioning itself as a network that respects the consumer's right to online anonymity. Rather than hoping to become a replacement for other more established social networks, AnyBeat wishes to provide an online community space for consumers to share opinions and content without having to reveal their real identity if they do not wish to do so.
Even so, the network does endeavour to create a safe and friendly environment and to monitor activity carefully. One interesting feature of AnyBeat is the CRED score, which denotes a user's credibility within the community. All posts can be rated and so over time users build a reputation for being a good or bad member. As all posts are linked to a user, all are held responsible for their behaviour on the site whether they use a pseudonym or not.
The worldwide controversies of free and/or anonymous online speech
In some places, e.g. South Korea, government restrictions on online comment have always been, in what is locally described as the national interest, very severe. In, say, Denmark, though there have been no such restrictions, the Ministry of Justice has actively considered a fully policed ban on all online anonymity (with internet cafés regulated accordingly). And in the travel business, the awesomely destructive power of negative but un-named reviews has created a revolt among service-providers.
From different directions, the pressure on uninhibited personal expression online has grown. For many, anonymity has its very stark dark side.
Argument for reducing anonymity online
While anonymity can be hugely empowering in many theatres of life - allowing consumers to speak out against injustices or bad service or unfair treatment without fear - using an assumed identity can also give netizens more freedom to potentially act "out of character", bully, spam sites and voice potentially hurtful or offensive views (an activity known as "trolling").
This is often used as an argument for reducing anonymity online by Facebook et al. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg famously was quoted: "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity". Google also adheres to the theory that when we are identifiable as "ourselves" we are much less likely to behave irresponsibly and being able to identify users' real identities makes it much easier to root out online bullies and menaces.
We would remind ourselves here that "trolling" has been treated as a serious offence leading to legal action. In the UK, MoneySavingExpert was forced following a court order to supply details of three users who had posted accusatory comments against JPC Group Sales Ltd. Also in the UK, Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks after mocking the deaths of teenagers on their Facebook memorial sites.
The right to full online discretion
Of course, one may think of reasons why maintaining anonymity on the web would be preferable and even essential. In many parts of the world, political activists and others at particular risk for their views would find it extremely difficult to voice opinions online if they had to make their identity known.
The online "hactivist" group Anonymous, which organises collective hacking of websites as well as other forms of civil disobedience, actively supports the right to online independence. Its existence remains an important manifestation of the Double You trend in action, a device for a particular kind of consumer-citizen empowerment.
Elsewhere, we find that the majority of Europeans wish to be able to independently control what personal information is stored by companies. According to a European Commission survey (2010), 72% of consumers want to be able to delete personal information on a website whenever they want. Undoubtedly, consumers are acutely aware of the tension between their desire to share and their need for privacy.
The shape of things to come
As the social element of browsing becomes further engrained in the wider web experience, people's networked identity is destined to become more influential across different sites and services. Instead of multiple online selves used for different purposes, social networkers could increasingly be using a single identity to connect socially on the web.
The need for a new generation of privacy controls and profile management tools will grow more intense. Consumers will become more attuned to an ever evolving Digital Etiquette as what we do and say online remains traceable, identifiable and influential beyond the confines of social network sites or comments pages.
As social networks and businesses push for real and consistent identities from users, the ability to remain completely anonymous online will lessen. Where unique identification helps brands to offer more useful, tailored and personalised services it is hard to see overwhelming resistance coming from consumers. This said, demand for transparency and clarity about how personal information is both protected and used will deepen.
In the net's early years, the Double You phenomenon spelt fun for many. It was a way of talking discretely about yourself or others, getting to know new people, sharing your daring opinions, letting the avatar instinct inside you find colourful expression in relatively harmless ways... Though still true, this story and this attitude seem to have become just too disruptive (certainly to businesses) in the developed West.
Potentially, regulation could strengthen in favour of limiting the right to anonymity when users are found to be abusive/threatening in online communications - or merely when they thus damage commercial interests. There has always been a tension here - the desire to say absolutely anything we want (behind a mask of anonymity if we so desire) and the desire to limit/control the actual volume of disclosure we make. It is growing ever harder to hide.
For more, please contact:
Richard Nicholls - 020 3008 6103 / firstname.lastname@example.org.