Usernames are people, too

Anonymous by Matt Westervelt, on Flickr

If you haven’t read Ernest Cline’s fantastic sci-fi novel Ready Player One yet, hang in here for one hot second while I explain it to you:

It’s the year 2044. The vast majority of human interaction takes place inside a lush virtual reality called the OASIS.1 OASIS is essentially a cross between the internet and the most souped-up haptic multiplayer video game that you can imagine. Every day, millions of people log onto OASIS and become their online alter-egos. You could conceivably go to school, get a job, shop, make friends, go out — all under the guise of the username you’ve selected, your appearance a carefully chosen mass of pixels on everyone’s screen.

As a reader, I found the possible future laid out by Ready Player One intriguing. But when I looked closer, I saw that this depiction of the future is not much unlike the world today. We may not have technology like OASIS, but we can live much of our lives online. We can get a college degree through internet coursework, for example, or buy new shoes on Zappos. Or meet our next husband on OkCupid.2

One of the major differences I could spot between Cline’s world and our own was in the way we treat online identities. In general, we don’t accord anonymous usernames the same level of status or respect as real people. (For the purposes of this post, I’m going to call people in the world “real people” and people who exist behind a username “internet people.” So, for example, my “real people” name is Aviva. My “internet people” name would be something like dabestwriter34.) When, in Ready Player One, the main character becomes a major player in a national mystery, he attracts plenty of attention from reporters eager to score an exclusive interview with the protagonist’s online alter-ego.3 But, I thought to myself, such things would never fly in the real world, where internet identities are treated as accessories to our true selves.4 

However, when Jay Caspian King wrote about reddit’s role in the Boston bombing investigation in this week’s New York Times, he proved me wrong. It seems like internet people are totally game:

“When asked why he, a graduate student in sociology, felt the need to play breaking-news reporter on the Internet, _supernovasky_ said, “We get these upvotes — these worthless points that go by your name to show how much you’ve contributed — and I guess I just wanted to keep my contributions going.” [article]

_supernovasky_ is quoted several times in the article, but never identified. Neither is Jackal, one of the minds behind the @YourAnonNews Twitter account. The two are introduced with the same amount of fanfare as any other newspaper interviewee. And there’s no indication to the reader that King has insider knowledge of their real names — this is not a Deep Throat situation.

In many respects, The New York Times defines the trends. Reporters look to it for indirect confirmation of what is and is not acceptable journalistic practice. So I was stirred to search for other examples:

  • The Daily Dot, a website about internet news, quotes from internet people freely.
  • New York Times Magazine 2008 feature on /b/ included a lengthy in-person meeting with a man identified only as Weev.
  • NYT also interviewed the person behind @GSElevator via email to protect his/her anonymity.
  • Gawker interviewed an anonymous web admin in their 2011 expose of Silk Road.
  • Many publications will quote internet people from established online exchanges, e.g., @so-and-so said this on Twitter at this time. (That being said, most don’t conduct any actual interviews with the figures themselves.)
  • Our own Hannah Cheng points out that the Nature paper on Foldit gave credit to user’s avatars.

Would be curious to see if readers could come up with any other examples.

Ultimately, I can see two possible interpretations of this change in journalistic practice:

(a) Internet people are gaining more mainstream acceptance. As people have gotten more comfortable sharing their personal information online, so too have they acclimated to according pseudonymous internet users a certain level of respect. Journalists can interview internet people. Under this line of thinking, usernames can’t even really be considered to be anonymous or protected, because online identities are robust enough to stand for themselves.5  You can trust an internet person, after a fashion. You can hold them accountable for the truth.

(b) Internet people can no longer be ignored. We don’t want to accord them the same status as real people, but we are forced to, because we live in a world where online identities are too powerful to be ignored, too challenging for even an accomplished journalist to sidestep.

Or maybe those explanations are the same thing.

1. Stands for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. In case you were wondering. 
2. Fun fact: Studies show that couples who meet online are more likely to have long-lasting, happy marriages. Also, here’s the requisite link out to Felicia Day’s Do You Wanna Date My Avatar?
3. Similar story in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, in which the main character maintains his anonymity by holding a press conference in the middle of a pirate-themed online game. “You could easily tell who the press were: they were the noobs who played their characters like staggering drunks, weaving back and forth and up and down, trying to get the hang of it all, occasionally hitting the wrong key and offering strangers all or part of their inventory, or giving them accidental hugs and kicks.”
4. This seems to be echoed in some of the drama around doxxing. Doxxing = to “drop docs” = the controversial practice of exposing the real identity of an online figure. The most notorious example in recent history may be when Gawker reporter Adrian Chen revealed the identity of reddit admin violentacrez. There is a hunger out there, in those like Chen, to hold people responsible for what they do, even when it’s done anonymously.
5. You can kind of see this echoed in throwaway accounts on reddit. Users who want to share an embarrassing story will create a one-time-use name that they can then “throw away.” This way, their primary username isn’t tarred with the shame of whatever they wanted to ask or confess.

Aviva Hope Rutkin is a science and technology reporter in the Boston area. She currently writes for the MIT Technology Review. Follow her @realavivahr.


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