Thursday, May 19, 2011

Transparency and Anonymity: What's your digital persona?

I've been learning how to use the Internet lately. Or, to be more specific, I'm learning how to use the Internet professionally.  How does one craft a professional persona online? And what is the value of doing so?  In part, these questions have much to do with the transparency vs. anonymity debate that is becoming increasing pressing in our digital age. To what extent do we want to claim our online activities?

As a college instructor who teaches a course in professional writing, I often tell my students to be aware of their digital presence. What shows up when I google your name?  What does your public Facebook profile look like?  To what extent do our digital profiles shape our perceived professional identity?  It seems to depend largely on the availability and access of your personal information. Raising the question, what do you choose to share in the digital realm, and in what name?

Personally, my Facebook profile is very limited publicly.  Only friends can see my personal information, photos, status updates, and shared content.  I have chosen this social media platform as a personal identity, one that allows me connect with friends and family.  But, as I work on developing myself as a writer, I must consider how I use my Facebook for professional ends.  For example, this blog post will be shared online and published in the newsfeeds of my friends. Increasingly, I must recognize my emerging dual persona, as Lana, friend, and Lana Cook, academic and writer. I am accountable for what I say because my name is attached to it.   Facebook requires individuals to validate their real identity by providing their personal information.  According to their policy, FB "requires a real date of birth to encourage authenticity." Facebook requires a certain transparency on their site, so even if you change your display name to a pseudonym, the content is still linked with your real name. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg believes
 "History tells us that systems are most fairly governed when there is an open and transparent dialogue between the people who make decisions and those who are affected by them. We believe history will one day show that this principle holds true for companies as well, and we're looking to moving in this direction with you" (Facebook Blog)

Facebook's own transparency issues aside, I believe in this statement. There is a real value in holding individuals accountable for their statements and actions. We become more responsible citizens, more careful friends, and more critical scholars when we know our statements are being known and judged by the public.
I've chosen the path of transparency on Twitter and Reddit as well, using my full name when communicating and sharing information. But in this choice, I am very aware of how I must manage the use of these accounts.  I must consider how what I say on Twitter and Reddit shapes my professional identity, one that is very much tied to my real name and my emering professional persona.
The debate about transparency and our use of real names online arises out of the predominance of anonymous discourse on the Internet.  On forums, discussion boards, wikis, chats, we are often anonymous, using pseudonyms for our log in names (if we log in at all).  This anonymity allows us to view, comment, and share information without personal association. If transparency is on the side of democracy and a free and open community, where does anonymity fall?  Anonymity does not require us to be held accountable for our statements and actions online, which seems to have a dual effect. Anonymity gives freedom to both Internet trolls and whistle blowing activists. When I can post anonymously, I feel free to say whatever I want, no matter how potentially offensive, racist, bigoted, inaccurate or misleading.  But anonymity also means, I am free to protest and criticize without personal consequences. This freedom is especially important in repressive states where citizens are unable to criticize the government (or corporations in the global capitalist state) because of fear of persecution. Anonymity can be as crucial to the functioning of democracy as transparency. Consider collectives like WikiLeaks and Anonymous, they would be unable to promote state and corporate transparency without a necessary amount of anonymity. In the debate of transparency vs. anonymity, we need to consider these less as an either/or, but see the necessity of both.  Returning to the case of my professional identity, I'm beginning to increasingly see the ways I can use anonymity to share content and information that I may not necessarily want linked to my professional digital imprint, like my health, sexuality, religious or even political beliefs.  Whether posted in the name of Lana Cook or anonymous, I hold myself personally accountable for what I say (I don't want to be a troll).  As we increasingly share content online, we will need to address how our identities are marked online and the role transparency and anonymity has in shaping our knowledge and governing our communities.
For a quick (but too simple) breakdown on the transparency / anonymity debate, check out this graph by Namesake:
Transparency? Anonymity?  What's your digital presence like? Share your thoughts!

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