On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Dog

When I first started getting online (“online” meaning “logging into AOL”) in 1994, there were some pretty basic Internet Safety Rules for teens, but really, they were applicable to anyone who didn’t want to get Eaten by Actual Trolls.

1) Never give out your personal information to strangers

2) Don’t post any sexy pictures of yourself that you don’t want getting posted to porn sites

3)The person you’re corresponding with may not be who they seem to be. In fact, the person you’re corresponding with is most likely a 47 year old guy

This was BASIC internet stuff back then.

See, the world was not all Facebookery oversharing grow-your-personal-brand. The Internet was a place to go to be somebody else. You could be some fat dorky kid and no one knew it. Though, of course, there were so comparatively few people online then that most of us were, in fact, dorky kids using the internet forums as text-based RPG’s, whether we were pretending to be vampires or tavern brawlers or jocks or teen girls. Of course, a good many of those were also old dudes pretending to be angsty teenagers. Or acting like them.

I never told anybody I was a 15 year old kid. In fact, for six or eight months, I corresponded with folks on a message board as a 19 year old guy. I found that it gave me the confidence to say things and join discussions that I otherwise wouldn’t have joined. This stopped when I ditched my boyfriend at the time and finally gained some of my own confidence. But for a while, it was a wonderful escape from the real world. It was fun to be somebody else. And it helped me develop a voice. It was like an extension of my fiction writing, all grown up for the interwebs.

But. Well. The internet has changed. Expectations have changed. Diary-keepers have become bloggers. Bloggers have become “journalists” (a term I use loosely these days). And everybody’s online – not just the dorky kids and the 47 year old pervs – but everybody from your grandmother to your 6 year old niece to your ex-boss to your new girlfriend. More diverse people means the landscape has changed. The culture has changed, and now we expect “truth.”  Absolute truth. And we approach every single blogger we encounter now as if they were an actual journalist.

In fact, most of us are closer to James Frey than Christina Amanpour. What we do and do not choose to record and the way in which we record it doesn’t even try to be objective. My background is in history, and when you major in history, you have to take this class that is basically about how to judge the actual writers of history. How to pull apart their arguments to try and glean facts out of their subjective accounts – because, of course, there are few things so obviously subjective as history: the selection of what to record and what not to record is always at the victor’s whim. Every single one of us has a worldview that’s shaped by our own biases and experiences, and the biases and cultural norms of our time.

We are not out here writing objective truth.

The trouble is, we’re trying to teach people to read it that way on the Internet. And though that is a fun idea, it’s terribly dangerous.

People who are still reading the Internet like it’s Objective Truth from say, a 19-year-old college freshman guy who says he loves SF/F or a Syrian-American lesbian… are going to be endlessly betrayed and dissapointed. And by forcing social networks to conform to some hazy agreed-upon “truth” about who we are, what our identities are, we’re just continuing to offer folks a false sense of “truth.”

So now there’s a generation of young internety folks running social networks like Google+ and going, “Hey guys, enough is enough. The only people using pseudonyms are creepy guys pretending to by Syrian lesbians and RPG’ers, and the first sure isn’t kosher and the second can go find some appropriate place to enact their tavern-brawling fantasies.”

Trouble is, of course, the Internet is a big place, and it’s full of scary, crazy people. Many of them even folks who use their own names and post their own manifestos before they go on a shooting spree (for all the good that did in helping those incidents get prevented). Stalking is infinitely easier now, as are scams, hoaxes, identity theft… the list goes on. And about all you have to protect yourself from the Crazy is to use the same tactics as the “bad guys.” You obscure your actual identity.  And if you’re a woman active online, I’ll be the first to tell you that you can expect a lot of creepy sexual threats, particularly if you’re opinionated, pretty, or ugly (or some combination).  So it does behoove you, often, to find some kind of protection that allows you to speak your mind without getting creepy death threats. Those few months pretending I was a guy online did wonders for the way I was able to express myself (and deal with hate mail) later on. Forcing people to conform to an identify online might sound like it’s the safest thing – but in fact, it’s incredibly limiting and inspires a lot of lazy reading.

So why – if the Crazies posting under their real identity are no more or less of a threat if they did it under a pseudonym– is it so terrible to let normal people inhabit the Internet under whatever the hell name they want? Why is this something that needs to be regulated, like we’re all signing up for drivers’ licenses?

I may have a love of truth, but I’m not a journalist (I was going to major in broadcast journalism, but ditched that major after a semester and became a history major instead when I realized that journalism wasn’t about objective truth – it was about selling ads).  The Internet is not a place of Facts. It’s a web of opinions, drivel, spite, rants, diatribes, politics, and seething idiocy. Your job is to figure out which is which. Congratulations!

The push to make it into a Fact-Based Truth Center is admirable, but… and here’s the big “but”:

I write fiction. Why do I write fiction? Because it lets me explore actual truths by putting people and societies into different places, under different circumstances, and running an experiment about how it all plays out. It tells me a lot about what I think, how I understand the world, and often challenges my understanding of the world.

When, like Tiptree, you walk out into the world under the guise of someone else, it’s going to tell you a lot about yourself, too – and tell the people you’re interacting with a lot about themselves and their own prejudices during the reveal as well (I believe it was Silverburg who had the famous quote about how there was absolutely, positively no may Tiptree was a woman because “his” prose was so “masculine”).

At some point we need to learn how to read critically. We can’t rely on Google to do it for us. The protection of individuals who could lose jobs, family, or even risk death or dismemberment far outweighs, to me, everybody getting taken in by some fake Syrian blogger. The Internet may be a scary place, but it’s stuffed full of all the tools you need to figure out what’s reliable and what’s not. It’s an incredible tool for teaching people how to critically examine information. Every time my mother forwards me another crazy crackpot “beware, woman!” story, I immediately go to snopes.com and check it out. When I start posting links to photoshopped videos like they’re true things, it only takes about half an hour before somebody points out that it’s not real. The seething masses are not just great for taking stuff viral – they’re also great for debunking it.

Communities police themselves. If somebody’s talking shit, it’ll come out eventually, and when it does, it will challenge all of us as to why we were pulled in in the first place, and understand how it tapped into some of our own fears and biases. It will challenge us to read more critically next time.

Will there always just be crazy shrews using anonymity for ill? Sure. But do we destroy the safety anonymity gives others because we feel stupid that we get reeled in by fake bloggers? There’s a big difference between saying, “Hey, I use this pseudonym to protect myself” and “Hey, I really am a winged tiger named snuggles!”  (and really, who are we to say somebody can’t be a winged tiger named snuggles? Who is this hurting?)

Those of us who grew up with LJ handles and AOL nicknames are having a hard time stomaching the new school of “your name is your brand.” It provides a veneer of comfort to regular, non-internet savvy folks who think it’s going to eliminate all the Scary Things that Could Possibly Happen on the Internet. The trouble is, the focus on “well, only real names are used here!” brings false comfort to folks. Just because it sounds like a real name doesn’t mean it is, and we’re looking to train up a new generation of folks without the Three Golden Rules of the Internet. In fact, we’re telling people to overshare. That oversharing makes you trustworthy.

Instead of teaching people how to read critically and assume that nobody is who they seem to be until proved otherwise, we’re invited to be a completely open and unrestrained internet culture. That sounds nice on paper, but when was the last time you met somebody in line at a restaurant and immediately gave them your home address, phone number, and top three places you hang out on Saturday nights?  Particularly if you’re a woman?

I’m happy that folks feel free enough on the internet that they’re demanding we only use our “real” names. That’s nice for them. The trouble is, it comes from a happy utopian place where nobody shoots up a summer camp or blows up a building. I still live in a world where women are blamed for being raped or assaulted because of what they were wearing or for using their real name on a dating profile.

I like the idea of changing the world by acting like that world is already here. The problem is, for many of us, living that world before the world has actually changed can come at a very high cost.

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