Obsessive about Real Identity?

The social web means… exchanging information about yourself

With the dawn of the “social web”, the humble web page turned into a blog, but also… into a RSS feed. Now people would not even tell their friends about the pictures they took when they were drunk on the dorm after a wild party, but all their friends would get notifications on the “news”. At the other end of the spectrum, matchmaking agencies thought that their services could not only be successfully offered through the Web (like FriendFinder, a dating service active on the Web since 1996), but marketed much more successfully that way, by enacting monthly subscriptions from their users. The idea was that if you wanted to meet someone, you’d be allowed to place your profile with an ad there for free. If someone wished to contact you, they had to subscribe to the service and pay for it. This is still a popular business model. Since placing ads is for free, these services quickly get tons and tons of “free profiles” from users eager to be found by their prospective mates. But to access that information, you have to pay for it.

So in a sense your privacy was guaranteed on those sites, since the business model was based on selling access to all those profiles. Sure, any client of the service could take a peek at all profiles. But the people posting their profiles did want to be found! Needless to say, they posted as much information as possible — even linking to their own personal blogs. Now a link was forged, a link that would only multiply over the years, binding “real data” to “online information”.

There was an “unwritten code of ethics” (probably dating from the time of the Netiquette) where people self-checked the amount of data they were willing to share. You never knew who was going to find you on a matchmaking service: so you kept your pictures to a reasonable level of decency. After all, who knows, you might be secretly planning a divorce and looking for a future partner, and your husband might log in to the same service and get valuable data for his lawyer to speed up the divorce process… or, well, the teenager that subscribed to such a service might just find out that their mom might be shocked at the kind of pictures you post there! Similarly, BDSMers might not be too happy to have their employers look up your profile on a BDSM matchmaking site and, well, fire you — notwithstanding the non-discrimination acts on most countries in the world. Or at least making your life in the office unbearable.

Matchmaking services also tried to screen the content submitted — not necessarily because they were prudes or suddenly got paranoid about their clients. No, they just wished to give their paying clients high quality profiles, to make clients would get good value for their money. A “fake” profile that just had a few pictures from a 55-year-old mom posing as a teenager supermodel (preferably one from a distant country) would just elicit strong complaints by the clients paying for the service and actually not getting what they had paid for — namely, real information about real persons. (Yes, I’ve seen dating sites posting pictures of models and actresses on their registration page in order to lure unsuspecting males to log in — who soon found out that that there was nobody listed in the profiles with those pictures.) Sites that were able to check their user’s profiles as much as possible would ensure a good quality of service, and thus become more popular; word-of-mouth from happy customers would spread quickly on forums, mailing lists, Usenet news and similar venues.

Still, the idea is that in a limited environment, for a specific purpose, the amount of real data published online would give the idea that the service had a higher quality. While this was limited to dating services, people were fine in publishing their data that way.

After the collapse of the dot-com bubble, Web 2.0 started pushing this notion to the limits. Why should only people with the specific need for finding a partner have their own profiles? Early social networking sites like hi5 or Friendster (both still active!) started to pass the message that everybody should post their pictures online. This is an interesting development, worth analysing from an anthropological point of view. Our society has slowly become more and more hedonistic, turned to narcissistic self-pleasure. “Slowly” is the keyword here: if it were too abrupt, we might have noticed it sooner. But it becomes pervasive and ubiquitous in a very gradual way.

I would place the start of this perhaps in the relatively early years of TV contests. They gave people this notion that just with a bit of luck, you could have your moment of glory, and be broadcasted live to an audience of millions. The pull from “fame & glory” would make people do sad figures of themselves just to get a few minutes of fame. You might never be part of the jet-set that gets invited by Oprah, but you could have a few minutes on Jeopardy. TV is just TV, after all. With the explosion of new contests, new channels, new reality shows in the past 20 years, this of course increased. “Being on TV and be seen by millions”, a mere dream in the 1950s, became ever so easier these days. I remember as a teenager thinking that it would be highly likely that I would never be on TV in my lifetime, not even for a second; I have no special talents or skills, I don’t know the right people, a lifetime of hard work and labour would never give me fame, glory, or glamour — and I’m too unlucky to be picked for a TV contest, even if I applied (which I never did). Since the 1990s, I think I was on TV a dozen times or so. I did absolutely nothing to be worth that “honour”: it’s just that “being on TV” is simply not as “special” as it used to be.

Still, that idea that you suffer for being part of the anonymous crowd of billions that never went on TV yet has driven people to the new media. You might not be on TV, but you could be… on YouTube. Or, well, on Flickr, on your own blog, on your MySpace page. Due to the way the snowball effect works on social media, if you get 50 friends linking to your “virtual presence”, these 50 friends might also have some other 50 friends, and so on — until, well, you could potentially get millions of people “watching you” — just like on TV. But it is far more easier to do so on the Web (or so it seems). All it takes is to fill a profile, paste a picture, and invite a few friends.

Granted, it’s not that easy to get an audience of millions on YouTube — you have to have something that interests people, and this “special something”, sadly, is not widespread. But that doesn’t really matter. Geeks, for instance, will have millions of geeks to follow them — the GeekWorld™ is not popular on TV anyway, but a geek can be a prima donna on any social website for geeks. Replace “geek” by any other label that fits your self, and it’ll work out for you, too. The Web is too vast, with too many people, too many interests — it’s so easy to find “a million people just like you” with relatively little effort. You can be famous among your peers, even if your interest is in doing Lego machinimas.

What social networkers found out — like bloggers before them; like Usenet posters even before that; like mailing list/BBC users even before that — is that the lack of quality of content can often be compensated with an increase of quantity. Thus, someone with a profile that gets few updates and has no pictures in it might be completely overlooked. Post a picture every day — or write something on your profile every day — and people will start to see new, fresh content. They will be dragged to something that updates frequently (one of the oldest recipes for success on the Web). No wonder, of course, that Twitter and Facebook, where people usually do hundreds of updates per day (if not more!!), quickly became the hub of Web activity. No wonder, either, that the first “updates” that people did on Twitter (and later on Facebook as well!) were just stupid, irrelevant things like saying “I’m in the bathroom washing my teeth.” or “I’m waiting for the bus to take me to school”. (I’ve done it too, so I’m as stupid as everybody else 🙂 … and I still occasionally do it as well 🙂 )

When we get to this point of sharing information to the utmost detail, there is simply no privacy at all, because people are voluntarily telling everything about themselves, even the most sordid details of their private lives.

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