Facebook Comments and the Authenticity of Multiple Identities

The lines between our public and professional identities and our private and social ones continue to blur.

Steve Cheney has noted the proliferation of Facebook-based commenting on sites across the web. He’s troubled that Facebook is killing our authenticity.”

This latest push by Facebook to tie people to one identity across the interwebs is very troublesome.

The problem with tying internet-wide identity to a broadcast network like Facebook is that people don’t want one normalized identity, either in real life, or virtually.

People yearn to be individuals. They want to be authentic. They have numerous different groups of real-life friends. They stylize conversations. They are emotional and have an innate need to connect on different levels with different people. This is because humans are born with an instinctual desire to understand the broader context of their surroundings and build rapport, a social awareness often called emotional intelligence.

In the beginning, Facebook catered to this instinct we all have. But FB in its current form, a big graph of people who may or may not know anything about one another, does not.

And forcing people to comment – and more broadly speaking to log-on – with one identity puts a massive stranglehold on our very nature. I’m not too worried about FB Comments in isolation, but the writing is on the wall: all of this off-site encroachment of the Facebook graph portends where FB is really going in pushing one identity. And a uniform identity defies us.

Face it, authenticity goes way down when people know their 700 friends, grandma, and 5 ex-girlfriends are tuning in each time they post something on the web.

Don’t believe me? Go to TechCrunch and count the comments on last week’s posts. Better yet, go read the comments. They suck. They’re sterile and neutered.

The nature of commenting on the web needs to feel organic and fluid, just like it does in real life. And even anonymous if necessary, though that’s not at the core of my argument.

I’m somewhat amused by the notion that maintaining multiple identities, wherein one pretends to be someone different in front of the boss and grandparents than one’s close friends, is somehow more “authentic” than being yourself all the time. But, regardless of whether “authenticity” is the right word here, Cheney makes a good point. Most of us are complex individuals who wear psychic masks in public, revealing our core personality only to a very few.

There’s a longstanding debate on the Internet, and on the matter of blog commenting specifically, about the effects of anonymity. There’s little doubt that the conversation is substantially more coarse when people are unfiltered by social norms. People who are generally well behaved in real life can be real jerks on the Internet, since they’re unlikely to encounter the people they’re interacting with in real life. And that’s especially true if given the additional cloak of posting anonymously or pseudonymously.

There are advocates for requiring people to comment under their real names. The argument is simple: people will behave better if forced to stand behind what they write.

The counterargument, put forth by Armando Llorens and others, is that anonymity allows unpopular ideas and more honest discourse to flourish. If people are allowed to comment only under their public identity, they will either hide what they really think–as Cheney argues above–or simply not comment at all. And that would privilege the views of the powerful.

When I started OTB a little more than eight years ago, I consciously chose to write under my own name. Once the site gained a readership, it became a substantial part of my public identity: a lot of people that I run into in “real life” know me because of the blog. And, while I’m honest about my views here, I’m certainly aware that my reputation–or, as it’s increasingly known in social media circles, my “brand”–is on the line every time I hit Publish.

I wonder whether a single online identity isn’t inevitable. Spammers and trolls are a real scourge and site owners have strong incentives to make their lives harder. And, as the lines between social media and traditional media continue to blur, people will expect to be able to comment on anything they read, anywhere. Rather than having to create separate logins for each site, it would be far more efficient for a single login to work most everywhere. So, there’s pressure on both sides pushing toward an inevitable conclusion.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JD says:

    “There’s little doubt that the conversation is substantially more coarse when people are unfiltered by social norms.”

    Attack of the homonyms!

  2. john personna says:

    In the old days, if you met someone at a (big city) breakfast counter, and started to chat over your coffee, you might safely talk about the trouble your brother is in, safe in the knowledge that your brother isn’t going to be embarrassed or “linked” by the discussion.

    Anonymous net conversations are like anonymous big city discussions. I certainly think people can be more free, tossing into the conversation what their boss, their friend, their brother thinks, without all those necessarily looking in.

    I’m sure that “named” authors self-censor about things “unnamed” authors do not.

    Basically proponents of one-name want the small town metaphor for the web. That is, everybody knows everybody’s business, and that guy at the breakfast counter already knows all about your brother.

  3. I’m not sure you can be for freedom and yet be for this increasing push for a single log-on that works across the entire internet. I personally don’t care for holding back – everything I comment is either under my real name or under my “Superbus” moniker – so having things attached to my “real name” isn’t an issue. However, if people want to be able to comment in ways that more benefit their anonymity, they should have the choice to do so. Even if said anonymity makes them a coward.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s about getting one comment profile to keep people in line. Considering it’s Facebook, it’s really about getting one profile to know what everyone says and what everyone likes so that they can build a consumer profile. Facebook’s done what tracking cookies and multiple third parties who specialize in tracking trends never could do: manage to tie individual people to everything they like to target them and turn them into revenue. It’s why every single minor Facebook change opens up your profile to anyone that wants to see it; they want it that way, and I have to wonder if they make changes just to facilitate this. But a Facebook account is virtually necessary, mainly because of the stupid idiots in my life who would be useless without it. It gives me two choices: either make myself a hermit, or assimilate to be able to deal with the stupid idiots in my life who are too simple to think of another way to do things. Therein lies the problem.

  4. john personna says:

    “Even if said anonymity makes them a coward.”

    Not necessarily. If, for instance, they are anonymously treading lightly on their own accomplishments, it makes them humble.

  5. george says:

    There will always be a forum market for those of us who don’t use facebook, or who don’t want everything linked together. Even if this catches on, it’ll just split the net into anonymous and authentic logging on, and time will show which will have the most interesting discussions. My bet is on the anonymous.

  6. TG Chicago says:

    I’m somewhat amused by the notion that maintaining multiple identities, wherein one pretends to be someone different in front of the boss and grandparents than one’s close friends, is somehow more “authentic” than being yourself all the time.

    He’s not saying that being different around your boss is authentic. He’s saying that it’s inauthentic. But if your boss is potentially/virtually around all the time, then you have to be inauthentic all the time.

  7. tom p says:

    “Even if said anonymity makes them a coward.”

    Not necessarily. If, for instance, they are anonymously treading lightly on their own accomplishments, it makes them humble.

    Also… the reason I comment anonomously allows me to weigh in on some issues with first hand knowledge that if linked to me publicly would cause no end of unnecessary embaressment to people who don’t deserve that.

  8. john personna says:

    Since we are repeating themes that we’ve all writen in the last 1000 incarnations of this thread, let me add that people who post under their own name (with link back to their own site) are often brand-builders.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. Name as brand can be a very workable model (business and social).

    I think it’s apparent though that brand-builders lose empathy with non-builders as time goes on.

    That, when you slow down and think about it, is a little strange. I mean, who are they building “for” if not “us?”

  9. mantis says:

    I’m somewhat amused by the notion that maintaining multiple identities, wherein one pretends to be someone different in front of the boss and grandparents than one’s close friends, is somehow more “authentic” than being yourself all the time.

    He’s not saying that being different around your boss is authentic. He’s saying that it’s inauthentic. But if your boss is potentially/virtually around all the time, then you have to be inauthentic all the time.

    This is exactly right. Anything you put on the web under your own name is now part of your resume. I don’t want every conversation I have with a friend, relative, or complete stranger to be available for any potential future employer to pore over. When searching my name on Google, the results, other than that evil Blockshopper site, are all related to my work. That is by design. I’ve never signed up for any social networking, blog, or other registration-required site with my own name.

    I don’t want every comment I make or conversation I have to be “on the record” for all eternity. Does that mean that I’m not “being myself?” No, of course not. Unless you’re a robot or have personality issues related to autism or something, then chances are “yourself” can and does change according to the situation. I may have two very similar conversations about the same topic with my mother and with a friend, expressing the same exact viewpoint, but with different words, tone, and sense of humor. Which one is my “true self?” They both are. My “true self” is a person who knows to present himself somewhat differently as different situations warrant. Isn’t yours?

  10. James Joyner says:

    My “true self” is a person who knows to present himself somewhat differently as different situations warrant. Isn’t yours?

    I certainly do that–or at least try to. Most of us do and for good reason. But I’m not sure that I’d call it “authenticity” so much as self-preservation. I’d argue that our letting our guard down completely persona is our “true self” and everything else is a mask.

  11. Boyd says:

    I don’t think “internet identity” will evolve to either a single identity (login) everywhere or signing on separately on every site. There’s a lot of spectrum between those two extremes, and it seems to me to be highly unlikely that either end will be the ultimate result.

    And as strange as it may sound, I’m going to side with mantis and against James on the “authenticity” question, although that’s just a semantic discussion and we all agree on the underlying truth, regardless of what term we use to describe it.

  12. mantis says:

    But I’m not sure that I’d call it “authenticity” so much as self-preservation. I’d argue that our letting our guard down completely persona is our “true self” and everything else is a mask.

    I find this to be a very odd view of self. Can’t one be authentic and still adjust behavior according to the situation? Going back to my two conversations–one with my mother, another with a friend–am I being inauthentic if I present the same opinions and attitudes, but with my mother I leave out the casual swearing I might employ with a friend? I don’t think so. I don’t believe my true “self” must swear (or not swear) to be authentic. It’s simply a matter of choice of word and tone, and it is indeed my willingness and ability to recognize that different situations warrant a different approach, and to choose an approach based on that, that is much more a part of my “self” than which word I may choose in a given situation.

    Unless you believe you are somehow handed a “self” at birth which does not change throughout your lifetime, then this idea that you are inauthentic in most situations doesn’t hold up. I’m not saying that people never pretend to be someone they are not, or adopt personas they know to be completely unlike themselves (ahem, Mitt Romney…), but I would say that is unusual. The “masks” we wear, for the most part, are just different presentations of ourselves. Which one is the “true self?” I don’t think we’ve developed a distillation procedure to determine that. They all are. “Self” is not an element you can separate from the compound.

  13. john personna says:

    “I’d argue that our letting our guard down completely persona is our “true self” and everything else is a mask.”

    Well, say you are visiting a friend who is rolling off 99 weeks of unemployment. Which is true self, to talk about your raise, or to mention shopping for discounts?

  14. john personna says:

    (Or you might say on-line that 99’ers should down-shift seriously, setting up their future consumption to their “new normal.” You’d have to be a complete dick to say that to a particular 99’er, directly.)

  15. Franklin says:

    Say bye-bye to anonymous whistleblowing.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @mantis and @john personna

    Interesting points. I tend to think of self-censorship as both situationally good and somewhat inauthentic. Then again, there’s the Dave Chappelle “keepin’ it real” skits to demonstrate taking that to extreme conclusions.

    I do think that there’s a strong tendency to censor oneself in a way beyond mere courtesy and social nicety and into pseudo-hypocrisy. There are enormous pressures to mirror the prevailing myths of your current group, at least smiling and keeping quiet and not speaking up. That’s especially true if your every thought and action is public and permanent.

  17. Gustopher says:

    I think this bring us back to Mitt Romney again. He is the extreme case of adapting his identity to every group, but always speaking under his own name. Except in real life, and being tracked for all inconsistencies.

    A single login everywhere would make an online world where nearly everyone is a Mitt Romney.

  18. When I started OTB a little more than eight years ago, I consciously chose to write under my own name. Once the site gained a readership, it became a substantial part of my public identity: a lot of people that I run into in “real life” know me because of the blog. And, while I’m honest about my views here, I’m certainly aware that my reputation–or, as it’s increasingly known in social media circles, my “brand”–is on the line every time I hit Publish.

    Of course, you’re a tenured college professor, which makes it much easier to be openly controversial.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon

    I’m neither tenured nor a college professor.

    When I started the site, I’d just left teaching and moved to the DC exurbs for a job in the publishing industry. I’ve since been a defense contractor, a freelance writer, and managing editor of a foreign affairs think tank.

  20. Ah sorry, your post article bio needs to be updated.

  21. James Joyner says:

    This has been my bio for 3-1/2 years now:

    James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway and the managing editor of the Atlantic Council. He’s a former Army officer, Desert Storm vet, and college professor with a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama.

    The “former” modifies all that follows in the sentence.

  22. tom p says:

    Unless you believe you are somehow handed a “self” at birth which does not change throughout your lifetime, then this idea that you are inauthentic in most situations doesn’t hold up.

    30 yrs ago I had a conversation with a buddy of mine who held some rather homophobic points of view. I said, (rather strongly) “What do you care? It is behind closed doors and affects you not at all.” I never thought much about it again until 20 yrs later his wife said to me that it was a life changing converstion for him.

    We change over time. Things we beleive most fervently today, we will know to be the ultimate in stupidity in 15 yrs… but we should carry that cross to our graves?

    For myself… I feel that when one makes a personal attack on another: He “F’s” every whore in Seattle”…, it is requisite that ones own identity be used. “He is an idiot for beleiving this….” does not quite reach that level.

    That is how I judge what is said on the internets

  23. I had interpretted the “former” as applying only to “army officer”, mostly because “former Gulf War veteran” seemed kinda nonsensical.

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