Wednesday, 27 June 2018

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog (unless you tell them)

Our series of explorations into what it means to be a digital citizen continues with Stephanie Jesper pretending to be a dog...

A cat hiding behind a pole

As Peter Steiner’s 1993 cartoon for the New Yorker put it: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The internet only knows what you tell it. And what you might want to reveal may vary according to what it is that you want to do. There is a long tradition on internet forums and bulletin boards of using a pseudonymous screen-name or handle. In a large part this was a mechanism to permit discussion of ‘sensitive’ subjects: an alias is a very simple way of distancing your online profile from your off-line one, be it for social, professional, or even legal reasons. But choosing an amusing or clever name can also serve as a fun means of expressing a persona. What is more, pseudonymic screen names can facilitate objectivity in a discussion: social factors such as gender, age, location, education and race may be obscured (partially or entirely), reducing the impact of preconceived biases. A screen name can also allow a user to experiment with or hone their identity (for example in the trans community), and may give confidence to those who might, under their real name, feel socially awkward for whatever reason. This confidence boost can be double-edged, of course: hiding behind a screen name may give you courage to express yourself and your opinions and to explore areas of society and culture that you may otherwise have been too afraid to examine (be it a question of taboo, reputational risk, a fear of failure, or some other impediment), but it can also give you the courage to test the limits of your powers, to be abusive and to threaten other users without fear of recourse. At its most pathetic, this is manifest in Wikipedia vandalism and childishly disruptive behaviour in internet forums; at the other extreme lies persistent trolling, bullying, and even death-threats.

By using an online pseudonym, we make it intentionally difficult for people to connect our online activities to our real-world persona, which is fine unless we actually want that association. We may be looking to promote ourselves, and to connect with people we know, used to know, or want to know in real life, in which case a pseudonym is probably going to get in the way. This is why Facebook and LinkedIn operate real name policies: they’re geared around people finding other people. The problem with being findable, however, is that you can’t especially control who can find you. Having a potential employer find your LinkedIn profile might be a positive thing (assuming it’s an attractive profile); having them find your Facebook profile might be less positive, depending on what you’ve got on there and how locked down it is.

There’s a tradeoff to be had between self-promotion and freedom of expression, and many approaches to take. You could lead a completely uncontroversial life, online and off, and have the tenacity and resilience to be able to cope with any unwanted intrusion. You could live entirely under the cloak of anonymity, but then you may find that you’ve relinquished control of the top search results for your real name, which may not necessarily be a favourable state of affairs. A better solution is to conduct your social activity under one name, and your professional activity under another: some people, especially on Twitter, make use of two accounts – one professional and one social – and Twitter’s own mobile apps support switching between multiple accounts. But in many professions the social use may actually prove a professional advantage, and separating the two can be both a difficult and a false dichotomy to make.

The information trail we leave online isn’t just a reputational concern. We can give away a lot of personal details, and while for the most part this will be just noise in the internet, it is information that can be used against us.

The TV series Hunted provides an effective (and indeed entertaining) illustration of how our online activity can betray our movements, our intentions and our personal networks. In some cases, confiscated devices, phishing attempts and hacked passwords are used as a means of gaining sensitive information, but all too regularly the clues hide in plain sight: on open social media accounts that any of us can see.

If you’re posting in an open forum, anybody can access that information. Tweeting something like…

Holiday! Just hope my new bike can bear 2 weeks without me, languishing in the backyard of 12A The Grove, Chepstow. Forgot to chain it. Oops

…is obviously a bad idea. But communicating even snippets of such information has risks (as we explore on our Subject Guides) because snippets can build up into a larger picture about you and your circumstances.

It isn’t just what we post that poses a potential risk. Our accounts themselves may be sharing more than we might think, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has demonstrated. If you’ve ever seen your Facebook profile picture staring back at you from the comments section of a blog post, inviting you to participate, or if you’ve seen adverts targeting your interests, you’ll have an idea of the kind of thing that can get passed around. It’s a good idea to go through your social media security settings with a fine-toothed comb every now and again, to lock down as much as you’re able, but inevitably there is a tradeoff between security and functionality. As with so much, it’s a case of striking a balance and being aware of the risks involved.

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