Persona vs. Accountability (the Facebook* cultural black hole)
The Emperor of America walks into his favorite local haunt. Wearing his crown and carrying his staff, he approaches the bar and sits down. Carrying no money of course, being Emperor, he asks the bartender for a vodka and soda. The bartender, seeing the mandatory name tag on his shirt that immediately identifies him not as the Emperor but instead as “Joshua” , pours the drink and asks him for 50 cents. The waitress, recognizing the Emperor from a distance across the bar, reminds the bartender of his greater than royal presence. “Nah, that’s just Joshua. I went to the same school as him. Everyone thought he was a nutter back then, too. No money, no drink.”, he replies and moves on to the next customer before taking the drink from the Emperor’s hand.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Facebook and Google would like to call this “accountability”, but for the most part it’s purely (in my humble opinion****) and simply “party-pooperism”. And if you examine it even closer, it begins to take on a very sinister tone. Google in particular has made it fairly clear that it values what it’s calling accountability over anonymity, persona and ultimately privacy. If you go to the 21 minute mark in this ***DiggDialog interview with Marissa Myer (VP of Search and user experience at Google) from July, 2009, you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. She says:
“I think the trend that concerns me most, now, on the Internet, is the concept of anonymity. Right? (Kevin nods and smiles, phht! I mean, I get it man, it’s an interview and you’re doing the ‘right thing’, but ..WOW..it felt out of character for you to not address this properly.. it felt like you dropped the ball ) And I think that it’s, you know, I really feel that, the virtual world follows the physical world. Physical world has been around a lot longer, it’s gotten more of the kinks out, the virtual world is very young. And I think when you look at some of the systems, the closer it sort of parodies and follows that.. the memes that you see in the physical world the better off you are. And there’s very few things you can do anonymously in the physical world and I think that over time on the Internet, there will be less anonymity and I actually think that’s good, I actually think that’s good. I think it creates you know, more accountability, people acting more responsibly. And you know I really, I think that overall we all want the web to be great. Umm, and. Uhh, and I think that that’s something we really need to work on.” !!??!!
WORK on? The intentions are obviously good, but my experience with reading and hearing the words of corporate representatives and spokespersons has tended to lean toward “carefully worded” and intentional rather than “off the cuff”. Make no mistake. Google may enrich your life like no other company ever has. It may have .. strike that.. it HAS improved the world in ways no-one could have imagined even 7 years ago. But they are not your friend. Their policies will be shaped internally and ultimately serve the largest portion of their user base over the individual. Always. Unless the user base lets them know otherwise. Examples of this can be seen in the now years-long battles on YouTube to silence the atheist community(and others) using the tools made available (and far too easy) to employ by any user with the balance of action leaning heavily toward the users who complain, report and file legal notices, false or otherwise. In the case of YouTube, it is far easier to remove a user or a video that you want silenced than it is to counter that user’s video or point of view with your own content. (this principle produces another finding, of course.. that when you are unable to counter with a reasonable argument of your own.. file a complaint or a false legal claim and you win, brain power and reason not required) The algorithms in place to automagically deal with complaints have no counter-algorithm in place to protect speech. Of course, this is true in almost all Internet communities. It’s unfair to set apart and criticize Google/YouTube alone for this while the rest of the Internet behaves in mostly the same way. But the one concept I want you to take away from this is “balance of action“, since the Internet is brimming with “action” while most attempts or calls for balance are met with cries of “it’s just the Internet, get over it” (tell that to the RIAA/MPAA and we’ll talk) and “get used to it, that’s the way it works”. Well, while it’s certainly true in what we like to label the “real world” that fairness is elusive if not a waste of time to pursue, the Internet is one place left in our known universe where the rules are still not entirely written. We have an opportunity, like the forefathers of the American experiment did, to slip a little reason into those rules for once to balance at least some of said rules over to the side of fairness and freedom of speech over comfort and fear. And let’s face it, comfort is truly what most of this boils down to. Internet anti-bullying laws will not prevent bullying any more than anti-murder laws have prevented or even slowed murders of passion or revenge. In the “real world”, laws are created in most cases to sustain a certain level of comfort. And the “justice” system claims to strike a balance between our freedoms and our pursuit of happiness in that comfort. The ability to walk out the door every day and expect not to encounter a neighbor who has decided you will pay with your life for mowing your lawn 4 inches over his property line. The ability to assume the person you love and married will not come to an emotional conclusion that you’re cheating on him or her and kill you in your sleep. These are reasonable expectations even in a state of anarchy. Everything else is nuance, interpretation and “moral authority” (not available in some states, your results may vary, no C.O.D.).
And then you have to wonder what she was smoking when she said “And there’s very few things you can do anonymously in the physical world”. When was the last time you had to publicly announce or display your full name in a public space to all who enter that space? Because that’s what these companies are talking about. The equivalent of wearing a mandatory name tag at the mall! Does she live in a bizarro world where you have to wear name tags everywhere with your full name written on them? You don’t even have to do that at the post office, or the DMV. Not even at a police station. Not even when you’ve been arrested and you’re waiting to get booked. Your name is anyone’s guess beyond the arresting officer and the people in charge of booking you before placement into a cell. But these people want to give MORE weight and disclosure to your identity being attached inextricably to your presence in a place like a forum, blog comments space or YouTube comments page. NONSENSE. In order for your identity to be revealed in a public space, an act must be committed BY YOU that either harasses, endangers or causes direct harm or distress to others in your presence. An EVEN THEN… not to all who are present. Only the arresting officer or people within hearing range to eavesdrop will be given your real name. The actual truth is that there are very few places in the “real world” where you are NOT anonymous. How anyone can say otherwise with a straight face is mind-bending. Why not just be honest and say you want the rules to be different on the Internet. Harsher, more draconian than the “real world”. And while we’re on the subject, there’s a very good reason why the Internet is NOT considered the real world. Because although it’s a part of the real world simply by our use of it, the consequences of our “actions”(words, really, not actions), as long as they do not involve physical manipulation of real objects, people, private information or money… are minimal. Some hurt feelings here and there, sure. Maybe some frustration, anger, jealousy, embarrassment, even hate. But ALL without action. ALL things we are required to tolerate in the “real world”. Yet, many act as though in this magical, special place called the Internet, the consequences of our words have even MORE impact than in the “real world”. NONSENSE. As if the medium itself somehow amplified the negative feelings caused by an act that even if duplicated in public, in the real world would simply be tolerated. Except in cases where the response to having your feelings hurt would be to lash out physically against the person who hurt your feelings. I’ve always thought that was one of the BIG reasons why certain people almost treat words on the Internet more seriously than in the “real world”. Because on the Internet, they can’t kick your ass physically for saying something they don’t like. They must make the jump to the physical world to do that, so far. Do we REALLY want to shape our laws and our rules to cater to neanderthal bullies who are whinging over not being able to react violently toward people who say things that make them mad? I say make them use their brains and exercise the same freedom their “enemies” did. Maybe they’ll learn something. For once. Without having to be beat on the head for the lesson to penetrate. You know, like their childhoods.
And how exactly will this accountability make us safer or happier? Blizzard Entertainment, makers of the universally loved and addicted to World of Warcraft, recently announced that they were going to begin requiring people’s real names in forums. Some would argue this is their right since they own the forum and the properties being discussed on said forums. Of course it is. That doesn’t preclude them from being endlessly mocked and assailed by opinion for doing so. A program I listen to regularly called this a great idea because places like forums could use a little more of this “accountability” to reduce flame wars and harassment. But again they fail to remember that users are accountable already because the site logs the user’s IP address. In effect, the only thing this new accountability does is make it easier for people who basically don’t give a crap who knows what their real names are to identify and track the people they wish to harass and flame. Just as carrying an ID (driver’s license, state ID, Social Security ID card, etc) does not prevent those people from committing crimes. I believe I can safely say that nearly 100% of all murders were committed by people carrying some form of photo ID. (IN THEIR POCKETS!…well out of visual range) They say they want the online world to better reflect the accountability of real world public spaces. Well. Okay. .. When was the last time you were required to wear a name tag at the mall? On the street? At the DMV? At the grocery store? NEVER! Why? Because the idea is not only invasive and extreme, it would be utterly STUPID behavior. If someone plans to do something extreme to you, chances are they are passionate enough to NOT CARE if people know who they are. And how hard do the people at Blizzard think it will be for people to pretend to be someone other than who they are? The truth is, the only people to be helped by a policy such as this are people who will ABUSE it. While the rest of us innocent masses, smiling and handing over our real names (some of which are quite unique and easy to track to an address) will be VICTIMIZED by this “accountability scheme”.
Luckily, the users of World of Warcraft spoke up and forced Blizzard’s hand to back down on this proposed policy. It’s nice to know WOW users are smart. Maybe I’ll try playing it sometime. But if you read Blizzard’s post regarding backing off of Real ID requirements, pay close attention to some of the wording…
“Over time, we will continue to evolve Real ID on Battle.net to add new and exciting functionality within our games for players who decide to use the feature.”
So, basically, they’ll be dangling carrots in front of users in order to entice them into revealing their real names in the game world. Why would they be pushing SO HARD for this “feature”? Any guesses? It’s clearly not to protect users. I’ve already spelled out how that makes absolutely no sense at all and will actually expose users to nutbags (or desperate, dangerous people)who are either using false names in the first place or are crazed enough to not only harass people and threaten harm, but are actually Ca-RAAAZY enough to be okay with the idea of people knowing who they really are. (how shocking!.. right?) So why push for it? Make their jobs easier? It would certainly make it easier for users to take in-game conflicts into real-world scenarios in order to lash out at people who “bother” them to frustration. Consider how some users cannot distinguish between being offended by another person’s opposing opinion and “intolerance” or “harassment”. These people predictably try to play the victim when people disagree with them and will often try to turn the tables on others and accuse them of being hateful, intolerant or any other buzz words they know will get a certain predictable reaction out of people or organizations. Or accuse them of attempting to ruin their “safe haven”. As well as pull the strings of those in the organization with “legal weak-knees”. Or could their reason for pushing this Real ID so hard be more sinister? You need only look as far as Facebook to find the more diabolical reasons for wanting people to identify online with their real-world names and even personal histories. Ad dollars. I’m not directly accusing Blizzard of this, of course(or Facebook, even though I cannot come up with a good argument against this already being the norm there). But in my opinion, it’s not off the table as a possibility until a few years have gone by and they still have not found a way to monetize user’s real-world identities and semi-private to private information.
It can be easy to forget that many things in our world can be made safe and comfortable without the presence of laws (see:moral authority and permissiveness as progress). Every time you walk outside and survive the day, proof of this is made real. But the laws provide us comfort and we have struck a deal with those in charge. The deal usually goes something like this: You pay them money to incarcerate or punish those who disobey the laws and hand this authority over to them in the form of power. In exchange, you maintain a certain level of comfort. You’re willing to overlook the fact that these people maintain the capability to do these horrible things to you. You’re also willing to overlook the concept that, in absolute fact, innocent people will pay and be punished for crimes they did not commit. And we are angered to the point of denial that this system of “justice” employs more punishment than justice, with a powerful leaning toward treating the incarcerated as though they ARE all guilty of their crimes. Consider it in the context of a class of kindergarteners. Little Timmy breaks a rule and everyone stays in for recess. The group is groomed to become the enforcer of the law or rule by the threat of the innocent being punished. In turn, the transgressor sees the group as the enemy, further deepening his or her disconnection from the society. In the grown up world, on some level, we remain the enforcers. Up to a certain point. We typically wish to remain anonymous if informing on someone committing a truly serious crime, especially if we’re not sure if our information is correct and this information could lead to an innocent being charged with a crime. If we feel there is no threat and the community or local peer group will predictably side with you, we’re usually more than happy to “de-cloak” and name ourselves as witness, judge and jury. I’m reminded of something Lenny Bruce once said about this kind of thing…
“Look. Here’s our problem, see, we’re trying to get some sleep and people keep throwing crap on us. Now we want somebody to throw them right in the crap-house. And I’m delegated to do the hiring here, and, uh, here’s what the job is. You see, they won’t go in the crap-house by themselves. And we all agreed on the rule now, and we firmed it up, so there’s nobody gets out of it, everybody’s vulnerable, we’re gonna throw them right in the crap-house. But ya see, I can’t do it cause I do business with these a$$holes, and it looks bad for me, you know, uh .. . so I want somebody to do it for me, you know? So I tell you what: Here’s a stick and a gun and you do it — but wait till I’m out of the room. And, wherever it happens, see, I’ll wait back here and I’ll watch, you know, and you make sure you kick ’em in the ass and throw ’em in there. Now you’ll hear me say alotta times that it takes a certain kind of mentality to do that work, you know, and all that bull$hit, you know, but you understand, it’s all horse$hit and you just kick em in the ass and make sure it’s done.”
You see, we’re all comfortable with these concepts unless it’s our asses getting judged, and we’re the ones forced to face people down or send them to the “crap-house”. We’re even comfortable with anonymity, completely, as long as it conforms to the process of “getting the bad guy”. Yet, we live in a society that claims there ARE no confirmed bad guys until we can prove they’re bad guys. What if we’re wrong? Then we’re right back at square one. The “snitch” should have no more right to be anonymous than the rest of us.
Even Google’s Eric Schmidt, who blacklisted C-net for publishing publicly available information about himself, infamously said:
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, said this about how social norms are changing, in response to questions about recent privacy changes on FB:
“And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
Of course, he fails to consider that Facebook has very little if anything to offer people who wish to share personal struggles/stories with the world without the repercussions of those who would wish for them to be silenced. What I refer to here as “persona”, and what Google and others refer to as “anonymity”. Remember that thing I mentioned before, the “balance of action”? The only ways to preserve freedom of speech in the face of this balance favoring those who would prefer comfort and censorship as a means to counter those who disagree with them over protection of less popular or even NEW ideas are …. persona AND anonymity. Anonymity alone cannot challenge power without unjust repercussions, only persona can do that. The repercussions of powerful ideas must be addressed. And if permissiveness truly is progress (all indications in history point to YES), we must continually fight to maintain our ability to express ourselves in a society that is not prepared to embrace our ideas. Because we don’t live in societies that simply “frown upon” that which is not permitted. We tend, instead, to punish those who do things we do not permit. Sometimes simply for the act of saying it should be permitted rather than doing whatever sicko thing it is you think should be “okay” with us. (narf) You know, like suggesting that shelter should be a right in a society where only your government truly OWNS land. Where’s the noose?
Seriously. Let’s think about this for a moment. What, in recent history, that have we decided is permissible that was NOT before, would be acceptable to NOT permit now. Interracial marriage? Pre-marital sex? Drinking alcohol?(they tried that one, with absolute failure.. hey that’d be a GREAT Absolut ad.. a bottle with a notice of prohibition pasted on it and the words “Absolut Failure” under it) How about women’s right to vote? Yet, most people, at some point in time, never thought society(or THEY) would permit such things. Ever.
And that brings us to the concept of “safe havens”. Certain groups of people in current society are allowed to demand these “safe havens” without anyone questioning it, even going so far as to silence people who disagree with them on a given subject using the guise of “safe haven”. They avoid scrutiny and are allowed to converse in groups, free of the prying eyes and ears of (most) authority. As a matter of fact, even mentioning these groups in this blog post could expose me to their wrath, followed by accusations of hatred toward said group simply for being who they are. (religious? political? guess away.. I think you’d be surprised at what group is in my head as I write this and I can assure you the first 5, most popular guesses are wrong.. try in the comments and I’ll be honest about it, in a private e-mail, if you guess correctly.. and be specific) This couldn’t be further from the truth. I can even think of one I could find myself agreeing with almost completely on every publicly stated position. But even that group cannot reasonably argue that they logically deserve said “safe haven” more or less than any other group, no matter the level of public acceptance for their group. Simply confronting them with this line of reasoning would open me up to accusations of hatred toward them, which would be absolutely inaccurate.
Wouldn’t it be much simpler to adopt and embrace a concept of privacy, free speech and persona (OR at least semi-anonymity.. exposure only in extreme cases where abhorrent crimes are committed.. which already happens anyway) for all groups instead of just a few special, protected ones? Can you write a pamphlet and make 100 copies, dress in a disguise and place them in public spaces in the middle of the night, not ever being caught or detected/identified? Of course you can, if you plan ahead and pay close attention. Google would like you to forget this fact so that they could more easily comply with the more draconian nations’ demands of censorship standards. As well as the demands of big media who wish to have the ability to instantly identify and make an example of any citizen they should decide to choose randomly, striking fear in the hearts of the rest of us in order to maintain their weakening, desperate hold on broken and corrupt business models. We predictably accept the idea that making enforcement of laws and rules “easier” is a good idea. Well, what if said enforcement isn’t meant to be “easy”? What if the only way to live in a truly free society is to make sure that rule and law enforcement DOES take effort, scrutiny and real work? It is a misnomer that we must always “upgrade” our ways of enforcing laws when our ways of communicating are upgraded? If this were true, we would have lost our privacy regarding mail, telephones and other more modern means of communication long ago. A truth we like to forget is that effect and impact are important factors in deciding if a wrong has been committed. If, say, someone is being harassed and the primary means of harassment is texting, if we already know the identity and motive of the harasser, tapping into the mobile phone records of the entire neighborhood isn’t going to help to make it stop OR bring the accused to justice. What many people would like is the ability to essentially troll for transgressions in advance, no matter if an actual human being has come forth with an actual complaint of damage or discomfort. This is commonly referred to as cheating. For good reason.
There is NO reasonable argument in favor of looking at an act that can legally be performed in the real world (like the anonymous flyer mental exercise mentioned above) as “more dangerous” simply for having been done on a network of connected computers.
We can ONLY assume that any argument in favor of seeing it as “more dangerous” sees it as such simply because they believe that a single human being with an idea reaching an ACTUAL audience is a bad thing. And that, my friends, is reprehensible. Disgusting. Backward. If the idea itself is dangerous (“let’s bomb ___next week”), it is just as dangerous for having been seen by a single set of eyes as a million. To suggest that we surveil the entire population in public, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to make sure no-one ever whispers, no-one ever writes a note that could be dangerous. So that no-one writes a pamphlet, a book, a flyer that we would consider dangerous… is to suggest living in a world that never changes. Never innovates. Never takes risks. A population that never moves their chins off their chests for fear of being identified… THAT is a much more dangerous world than the one with a few dangerous ideas. That is a world that exists on this planet, now. In many places. Places that do not innovate. Places that do not progress. Places where huge swaths of the population are horrifically oppressed. Where the “economy” is controlled by a rich, elite, tiny percentage of the people with few if any of the riches “trickling down” to the slums. This describes so many places, I’d place a bet that a few of you think I just described my own country.
Then STOP being EVIL!
I don’t agree that “don’t be evil” is a “load of crap” as someone famous reportedly said. I believe that Google means it. I really do. I have no logical reason to do so, it’s just a feeling I have. The question is, will the definition and responsibility surrounding the words as they relate to Google change in the future? On one hand, “don’t be evil” could be seen as a statement in regard to respecting user’s privacy. On the other, it could just as easily be used as an excuse to invade user’s privacy to avoid being complicit in activities society and culture could devolve to see as evil or even simply “discomforting” or against the norm. (see *** note below for more detailed analysis of what some would call relativism). I really think the path Google is on is paved with good intentions. I truly do. But as we all know, that road can sometimes lead to unexpectedly warm places.
Accountability sometimes comes with a cost far greater than the sum of the original indiscretions or infringements. Take, for instance, drug use and drug laws in the US. If all drug users were held accountable to the laws regarding their self-medication and the resultant penalties were applied, the administrative costs alone would be destructive in ways we cannot even imagine. Imagine anyway an economy based almost entirely on the prison and court systems, legal defense and offense, parole systems, policing, etc etc, and you can begin to see the kind of world we’d live in. Unsustainable, creating all kinds of new desperation leading to revolt, uprising and maybe even new terrorism. After all, isn’t all affordable defense against oppressive power now considered terrorism? Any and all revolts would be labeled accordingly. This isn’t a slippery slope argument, simply a logical regression. Desperate people have no respect for law, authority or life. Perfection in the enforcement of inhumane laws will lead to the ultimate human suffering across all classes(and yes, perfection in ENFORCEMENT can be achieved.. it’s perfection in JUSTICE that is unattainable). And once the institutions are in place to keep this insanity going, they will fight to the death to maintain their jobs, positions and authority. Does anyone think for a moment that we will someday just come to our senses, suddenly, and shut down an institution like the DEA? Even if we begin the process of decriminalization, seriously, right now, it would take decades to dismantle the institutions who can no longer justify their value to society. Even if it’s shown that their very existence is a large part of the reason why the problems they claim to be trying to fix exist at all.
The more we focus, as a society, on the negative elements, the less we invest and focus on the future and positive possibilities. This can be seen in states that spend more on enforcement/prosecution/incarceration than on education and development. Sure, we may save money on pink underwear and expired, green baloney (or is it bologna?). But when fear wins, progress stops. When pessimism takes over, growth and prosperity halts. Except, of course, for the manufacturers of pink underwear and those who save money by feeding prisoners expired, potentially dangerous food. And while we sit back in our couches to enjoy the dog and pony show, losing real focus, real crime continues in other areas and people suffer. These efforts always come across to me as more of an escalation of the culture war, an attempt to “cleanse” the world of types that don’t “fit in” or play by traditional rules. Rules, not laws. Have you ever heard anyone say that laws are made to be broken? Probably not. But it’s quite common to hear people say that rules are made to be broken. And for good reason. They are. They are also made to be changed. Far more often than laws are. The jails of our country are filled with those who are simply different, whose “crimes” harmed no-one, in many cases not even themselves. In a world approaching justice, fewer laws are simply rules converted to law. As the world edges closer to INjustice, more and more rules become laws.
But what about a simple man or woman who wants a chance to re-invent him or her self. Just a few years ago, a person could do this just by moving to a new area, city or state without resorting to illegal activities involving fake ID’s and such. You could simply move, get a new job, and start over. With the arrival of the Internet, this changed in both positive and negative ways. It allowed for a new kind of re-invention. A virtual re-invention. A new place where a man or woman of any race, culture, religion, class or personality could be taken just as seriously and reach an audience just as large and interested in what they have to say as the most important men and women of society. Without the discriminations of their past following them around. World-wide, even before the web was around. At the same time, fears that a person’s personal information could be shared to millions of others without consent, grew. Examples of those fears being founded occurred more and more often. And it appears to be getting worse all the time rather than even slightly better.
“One man’s justice is another’s injustice; One man’s beauty another’s ugliness; One man’s wisdom another’s folly.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
People are forgiving while groups and society are decidedly unforgiving. In my “persona” public activities, I have what I can safely call a 100% credibility score**. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone without a specific agenda who would argue against this. However, in my personal life, the life tied to my given name, I have lived richly enough to acquire friends, family and acquaintances you could describe as adversarial. Actual enemies, I hope, are very few and far between with the exception of those whose temperaments are of a typically violent or extremely reactionary, contrarian nature.
I have sometimes said that to truly judge others with integrity, successfully, one must be both perversely ordinary and uncomplicated to the point of quiet, secret oddity.
Most of us, in my opinion, strive for the opposite of this if we are truly honest with ourselves, at least. The perfect judge as described here is someone whose life is typically free of innovation, curation, originality, diversity or invention not directly related to their judgments of others. You can find plebian examples of this in your own lives with people such as those who make decisions or enforce rules within a homeowner’s association, city councilpersons, human resources departments, middle management in general, occasional police officers and fairly everyone with a mean streak and the ability to exercise fleeting, small powers to complicate your lives. The kind of fear I mention above that leads to spending on unreasonable criminal enforcement and incarceration/punishment is the self-same fear that keeps these people’s careers going strong. I’m not a pessimist, but I find power uncorrupted a rare thing. And when I see a pattern of dismantling the checks and balances that keep this corruption under control, that’s when I feel a very real, well-founded, constructive fear.
Accountability is something that we should always reserve for actual crime, not for unpopular (or even abhorrent) speech.
A persona can allow a person to go on living their “normal” life while curating, inspiring others, creating freely or criticizing culture/government without fear of retribution or revenge because of that criticism. Some may argue that criticism can cross the line into libel and that libel without accountability is dangerous. But that just depends on what you value. You cannot have both. You cannot have a free society with truly free speech AND a society that is safe from libel and slander. I use the term persona rather than anonymity simply because an anonymous individual does not have the ability in most cases to effectively respond to their own critics and opposition. A person can respond and defend his or her position, identified as the persona, leading to a sort of accountability. And in cases when it really counts and a law was broken leading to damages, the means to identify this individual are ALREADY in place. No special “upgrades” needed.
How about looking at it from a purely practical perspective? If your name is Joe Smith, your chance of floating to the surface on a Google search for your name approaches zero. But with a persona, whether or not it’s “connected” to your real name and history, your chances improve exponentially based upon how original and uncommon your persona/nickname of choice is. Otherwise, it would be nearly impossible for the hard-working, accomplished, creative and responsible Joe Smith to set himself apart from the sex offender Joe Smith with an affinity toward petting zoos and free-range farms.
I think it’s very important to remember that we already have a certain accountability. And if you think this is about anonymity, you’d be wrong. There essentially is no anonymity. This is about persona. You do something wrong or in some cases just *bad* and you’re held accountable. Do it on the Internet and they will track you down. That has not changed. But here we have large groups of people talking about this sudden importance of accountability, almost an urgency about it. Why? At the same time that companies are playing with our privacy as if it’s a game of “let’s see how far we can push it” every few days. At the same time that the process of interviewing for the most plebian of jobs becomes more and more obtrusive, using what in the real world would be considered stalking behavior. But THEY get a free pass. Yet here we are, being told that we should be more open. I think the goal instead is to make people as bland as possible. All while espousing this inclusive tolerance line of near-inclusiveness and near-tolerance. They get to look into the semi-private, public aspects of our lives with no backlash. No requirement for them to explain themselves. Yet when an individual would try to enjoy the kind of personal freedom that comes with having a kind of persona, we act as if we fear that person would be “running wild in the streets”, avoiding any and all accountability for his or her actions. It’s simply not the case, and I think people are forgetting just how easy it is to track a person down, or to track and attribute an action to a person/user. There’s a huge difference between someone with a Livejournal account where they use the name “CuddlyBear” to talk about their furry fetish and someone using a persona to harass or stalk someone. Essentially, WE are expected to live without persona and be “accountable” while those who are in a position to judge us for our differences are NOT accountable for PEERING into our lives. I know, life isn’t fair. But only because we let it be that way. If the world wants accountability, let them have it. But for EVERYONE. Including the ultra-rich, the ultra-connected and the ultra-hermits. You will find that many of the people who want YOU to be accountable have already accepted that their lives must remain dull, sterile and flaccid in order to avoid scrutiny OR would fight to the death to keep every detail of their actions and thoughts completely private. Even while they expect us to reveal all.
Rumors are now spreading that Google will be launching a Facebook competitor called “Google ME”. (the bulk of this article was written months ago) But what will be the level of revelation required by Google in order to participate? Will THEY need your full name, address and phone number? Will they force you to reveal it to the public? Will you have to verify yourself with a phone call? Why? It’s a social network, not a country. As is the case with Facebook, the only people who benefit immediately from these types of rules are stalkers and people who wish to pry into the corners of your personal life in order to make absolutely sure the people they work with are as bland or as similar to them as possible. All because they CAN. We let them do it, so they do. It will always be that way. We may not even realize it, but we are accidentally creating a very bland world. One with differences that fit into nice little comfortable boxes, tolerance with strict limits and contradictions, and pasts that cannot be escaped no matter how many years have gone by. While being judged and sussed out most of the time by people who rose to their positions not having to live up to the same standards they apply to us.
We are seeing the first signs of a backlash against this situation we’ve created for ourselves in the form of organized revolts like the infamous “Anonymous” movement. If you push and repress speech a little too far, it will push back. And if you think “Anonymous” is sinister, think again. This is just the beginning. While we debate the issue, people are out there creating tools, starting networks, making connections. You cannot give the world a taste of true freedom and then rip the plate from the table and sit there finishing the meal in front of them. You can also expect that the country that allows it’s citizens true freedom of speech will have certain economic and cultural-social advantages. Some look back to the beginnings of the Internet as we know it as the “wild west” days. Some of those same people deny that this aspect was even part of why the Internet had (and has) such a huge cultural and even huger financial impact. Those people would be dead wrong. Real freedom of speech, real persona,and a little anonymity here and there coupled with unlimited, un-metered access at a reasonable price in the early days led to the world-wide-explosion of the world-wide-web. Without any single one of those things, events may have turned out very differently. Just think of how the tiniest of things could have changed the way the Internet and the web grew so fast, exponentially. What if Xerox PARC has decided to hold onto and monetize the inventions of it’s labs instead of letting them go out into the world free of monetary restraints? What about ARPANET, the early days of what we now call the Internet? What if at some point in the development of what became TCP/IP someone decided instead of keeping the protocols and technologies open, they would be closed, monetized or patented? What if someone looked into the future, theoretically, and thought that what this network could BECOME might end up being dangerous rather than liberating? Ignore the realistic and obvious barriers to this ever happening for a moment though. Things could have easily gone a different direction in the days of Berkeley labs and the code that was originally owned by AT&T. Just as easily, we could have stepped into the world of the Internet from day one with the requirement that all people identify themselves with every activity, with their real names rather than just an I.P. address that could be traced back to them. Does anyone really think the Internet would have become what it is today with all the economic and societal advantages it’s provided if things had begun that way? I mean with a straight face. Doubtful. It would have had a chilling effect. Every technological advance that threatened the status quo of any established money-making venture would have never even got off the ground. The overall sense that the Internet was an “anything goes”, “the suits aren’t even paying attention” virtual world allowed for new, exciting and sometimes slightly dangerous ideas to take root and grow based not on what some corporation did or did not want, but rather based on what the people actually wanted!
But after going over all of this, I have to ask who else but just “regular folks” are going to be held accountable in this brave, new accountable world we seem to want the Internet to be simply because it’s new, fast, and slightly dangerous (virtually.. we must remember this.. VIRTUALLY dangerous.. it’s still not possible to reach through the screen and strangle people no matter how hard we imagine it on certain message boards and certain TV networks that rhyme with POX ) There will be repercussions. People will always find a way to get freedoms back. Whether their task is difficult or easy may determine our cultural and financial futures, just as what must have been seen as nonchalant decisions back in the 80s regarding the openness of certain bits of software allowed for the explosion of the Internet a few years later. But the truly sad part of it all is that we will soon have a new generation of human beings who have no idea what things were like before it was all taken away. Our task is to tell them. Remind them. And show them what it was and what it WILL be again.
**** This word, humble? After over 8000 words, I’m starting to think it does not mean what I previously thought it meant. Back when this was going to be maybe a 1000 word article at the most.
*** Marissa Mayer is a competent, like-able, informed representative of Google. And I also urge anyone reading this to watch the entire interview so as to put the quoted excerpt fully in context. While I do not believe this context will alter the main point of the quote, it balances those rather frightening statements with some very useful, innovative and user-oriented concepts. Google’s intention is certainly not to “be evil”, clearly. But as I have mentioned elsewhere here, the path to “do no evil” may at some point be paved by the unpopular ideas, opinions and speech seen at those times as the evil itself. And depending on who arrives at the end of said road, alive, with their ideas judged as “the good”, moral forecasting becomes a little bit more than a science and starts to resemble something more akin to astrology. This is why so many in the past have urged societies and governments to respect absolute freedom of speech rather than controlled forms of the beast. It’s important to note here that I hope you, the reader, would not confuse this with what has been called “moral relativism”. In most definitions of this, the concepts of different cultures and time periods having widely varying ideas of what is moral, it is assumed to be an opinion of sorts. This is not the case. This aspect of the concept is solidly based in absolute reality and could never be argued against reasonably. It’s my opinion that moral relativism itself is harmed by its title, being an absolute, by allowing it’s detractors to define it otherwise. Imagine the idea of temperate relativism, being a way in which people describe the hypothesis of temperatures fluctuating. In other words, while you’re in the metaphorical frying pan of a certain cultural morality, of course it’s expected that you would view detractors as being “followers” of this airy concept of “moral relativism”. As if it were at all possible to admit that a differing morality even EXISTS. While it may be possible to take this stance a billion times, you could not say it and be correct even once, ever, because it isn’t even remotely “airy”. It is solid truth. Denying it would be equal to denying the warmth of the sun or the dampness of water. While they both have levels of warmness and dampness, they remain on some level both warm and damp. And if not, they are something else. Oh sure, matter is “relatively” solid. But maybe you could demonstrate this some time utilizing your “relative” head and a “relative” falling brick aimed directly at it. That would be good fun and I’m sure we would both come out the other side of that experience having been educated and amused. Well, perhaps only one of us would be both.
**This is not a brag. As a matter of fact it’s quite easy to reach this level. Don’t spam people if you make money off what you’re doing and when possible don’t take money at all. Which is the case when it comes to me. If you see ads in this blog, it’s WordPress’ ads paying out to them. Within a few days, or perhaps already by the time I publish this post, I will have paid to have all ads removed from this blog at the same time that I acquire a non-Wordpress domain. I love WordPress, by the way. I just would rather not have any ads here.
*Facebook alone cannot be set apart and blamed solely for these transgressions. Recent experiences with Google Buzz (my own as well as others) can testify to this. Countless other sites/services are looking at this “new Internet accountability” thing like hungry beasts staring down a fresh, steaming kill just out of their reach. Facebook is simply the biggest one, making the most money doing it.
1st Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/indiamos/2634349125/
Special thanks to my nephew, Richard, for the inspiration to include the Emperor of America as an example of persona, to my niece Catherine for letting me bounce ideas off her (usually without knowing how much she really helped), and to Jaron Lanier’s interview on NPR for originally re-firing my synapses in regard to the subject of persona and how perceived “accountability” could seriously threaten its future. Or at the very least its future visibility. (sounds like a contradiction? it’s not.. imagine the world’s most famous semi-anonymous persona.. without access to youtube, e-mail, facebook, twitter, myspace, all the big blogging sites, domain registrars, etc etc.. and you start to get what I mean) Talk about a playing field that would not be level! If we want a level playing field so badly, why not start with accountability? OR persona.
Special thanks also to the always inspirational and informative TWIT network and all of it’s insanely smart hosts and guests. Many times over the course of writing this article (FOUR MONTHS and countless revisions), I had to go back, challenge my ideas and clarify my thoughts after listening to an episode of This Week In Tech, This Week In Law, Tummelvision(as of the completion of this article, sadly no longer on the network), Windows Weekly, Security Now, This Week in Google, or net@night. If this article makes its points clearly and concisely, even if only briefly, I have Leo Laporte and his merry band of geniuses to give at least half of the credit to. Thank you for all of your years of wide-eyed enthusiasm and help. My night job would be intolerable if it were not for you. May all your thoughts be cromulent and your bank accounts embiggened.
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