“You have one identity … The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” – Zuckerberg, 2009

danah boyd plucked out that incredibly irritating and irresponsible point Mark Zuckerberg made last year while expressing her anger against Facebook’s newest privacy changes announced at the F8 Conference on April 21st in her “rant,” “Facebook, Radical Transparency and Privacy: It’s Not Just the Techies Who Are Mad.”

These recent Facebook platform changes are looking more and more like they might be for many users the final straw to  prompt them to seriously consider: What am I getting out of my involvement in Facebook? And is it worth it?

Zuckerberg thinks that people who have integrity have one identity. I’m going to write that again because I really want to hammer it home. Zuckerberg, the creator behind the platform that holds the contents of 400 million people’s lives, the guy who decides what is morally right and morally wrong to do with this content of 400 million people’s lives—believes that people who have integrity have one identity.  Before I rip this point apart and call Zuckerberg mean names lets reflect how very far social networking sites have come.  A complete 180.

In the mid-80’s Sherry Turkle (of MIT) wrote extensively of multi-user domains (MUDs). The forefather of Facebook, if you will. MUDs were popular and so were other earlier forms of social networking (AOL chatrooms, SIMs) because they allowed users to escape reality. Through Turkle’s work in the 80’s and 90’s she continues to bring the reader back to the separation users envision between the “real” world and the “virtual” world. And the idea of escapism. Escapism was seen as the draw that brought people online to play out easily manipulated, annoyomous (if you wanted) online lives. I should say online “roles,” not “lives,” because the roles were mostly temporary escapes.

During this wave of research it was accepted that the majority of users who employed social networking sites (which were not called that, but were essentially platforms for users to interact with other people online)—users were doing so to escape a part or parts of their “real” lives (Turkle 1984, Robins 1995, Heim 1991, Laurel 1991). The thing is, I guarantee Zuckerberg was among this crowd of confused young people navigating through AOL chatrooms in a really embarrassing way. I mean, I did it too but when you become a rich (white) guy at the center of the world, you know, you can forget where you started.

At the time, the idea was that networked publics like MUDs were areas where users could experiment and then abandon different identities. Users were allowed to “open up liquid and multiple associations between people and create spaces of concealment and masquerade” (Plant 1993). Some people thought this was bad because people were escaping reality into fantasy. This was similar to panics brought on by once new technologies of the past like TV and the telephone, some social observers fretted that ICTs would exterminate face-to-face relations (McLaughin et al. 1995). This argument is still active and alive today (think teens hyperactively texting, amongst a million other nervous tech/kid articles.)

But a lot of people, especially the users themselves and especially the users who exist on the outskirts of their society’s social norms saw the opportunity of social networking sites as an essential positive. So did Turkle who noted, “The possibilities that ICTs offer users to access information and communicate with whom they want, freed from the material and social constraints of their bodies, identities, communities and geographies, mean that these technologies are regarded as potentially liberating for those who are socially, materially, or physically disadvantaged” (1995).

Imagine you are on the outskirt of your society’s social norms. What do these online social platforms allow you? In my thesis research, the participants who felt they fit this bill at one point of their lives or another thought social networking sites were vital because they presented the opportunity to:

  1. Realize you are not alone! By discovering likeminded people and recognizing that though you may be different “here” (“here” as in your town, your school, within your religious affiliation, etc.) you are not different in other places and to other people
  2. Further realizing and learning how to articulate yourself to the “real” world. Gaining confidence to be who you are in the “real” world because you have realized you are not alone

If you don’t think this is an important process to go through, especially for marginalized young people, you have your head in the sand. Kids kill themselves because they are different, because they can’t find a community. And this is what having a place to anonymously (if you want) connect with likeminded people online allowed, when it was private. When you weren’t worried about your actions being recorded, or how far your invisible public reached, or how your boss or classmates or parents could find you—maybe not that day but maybe in the future, someday how somebody—everybody—could find you.

This is the root of it. Before, you were allowed to escape.

A 26-year old male from California tells me about growing up with former popular online social networks in the mid-90’s for my thesis research last year. He says:

“I think it’s worthy to note that my generation has had access to [online social networks] since we were pre-pubescent. When I was 12 a friend showed me how to change my AOL profile so that I could pretend to be a girl and have cybersex. We realize immediately that we could suddenly be anyone, and could customize that person for who we were speaking to. It had no foot in reality, just words and in the end you signed off and it had no way of following you back into real life. Later, I would spend hours online talking to other guys who liked guys, some guys would go on every night, they had whole communities and friends there. In a reaction to repression and suppression it allowed them a safe place to develop their voice, they could be themselves or could see who “themselves” were.”

It’s starting to break my heart, to see what is happening. This is what is happening. It’s impossible to process the various forms of Publics—who can view the contents of my Facebook profile now and in the future. When I say “various forms of Publics” I mean Public as in my Facebook “friends,” my “friend’s friends,” my “Everybody.” I mean Public as in something recording the contents of my Facebook profile indefinitely. I mean Public as third-party machines that are pulling keywords and other data from my Facebook profile, and whatever other forms of Public I have yet to realize that are able to troll my Facebook profile now and in the future.

The average user (myself included) cannot process our Public and it’s scary. With fear there is silence. (And this is the complete 180 from where social networking sites started.) In our silence we cannot find one another, a community, or a safe place. A place to explore who we are, who we think we are, who we want to be, who we can become.

And now I’m coming back to it: Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity. What an asshole thing to say! Or, as danah boyd said, what a luxury. A luxury to have an identity that is universally accepted. A luxury to have forgotten where it all started, where the basis of your golden ticket, Facebook, started. With a bunch of kids who were embarrassed, ashamed or afraid of their one identity in the real world, who were afforded the opportunity escape into the virtual to find out they are not as alone as they thought.

But really, what right do we have to bitch? We are essentially all just guests in the house of Facebook. We’re just renting rooms. Well I think the landlord is starting to get really irritating. I think it’s about time to pack up and move.

Knock, knock Diaspora*

Works Cited

boyd, danah. 2010. Facebook, Radical Transparency: It’s Not Just Techies Who Are Mad. BlogHer: Life Well Said.

Heim, Michael. 1991. Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Laurel, Brenda. 1991.Computers As Theater. Reading, MA: Adison-Wesley.

Plant, S. 1993. “Beyond the Screens: Film, cyberpunk, and cyberfeminism.” Variant (14): 12-17.

Turkle, Sherry. 1995.Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Turkle, Sherry. 1984.The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. Simon & Schuster, Inc. NY, NY.