The Internet as an Identity-Multiplying Technology

When I saw that a friend had shared this years-old post about Facecebook founder Mark Zuckerberg‘s infamous remark that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” I thought I’d chime in:

Actually, Zuckerberg’s is a common misunderstanding of telecommunications.

If you’ve done even a tiny bit of academic study on media you will have encountered McLuhan’s “The Medium Is the Massage,” which talks about the ways that many people “approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses of the old.” In other words, people treat the Internet like TV we can click on, just as they treated TV like radio we can see. This is obviously wrong, but it takes a lot of time for people as a demographic whole to approach new technological abilities in what we might call a “native” way. See, for instance, the entire discussion around “Digital natives,” of which I will note Zuckerberg is not.

What’s at issue in the “nymwars” (or “Real Names Policies”) is not integrity at all, but rather power and control. Namely, that of an authoritarian entity such as a government to have the power to legitimize what your identity is (your “real name”), and to control what you can do with that identity. Facebook has a cozy relationship with governments because the interests of both governments and Facebook are well-aligned with respect to how they would like people to use identities. This is why Facebook appeals to the legal system to enforce its “Real Names” policy, see specifically the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act clauses about “misrepresenting identity” for “authorized” versus “unauthorized access.”

In point of fact, however, identities are not inherently static things—there is no “real” you distinct from any other you, at least not any more or less “real” than any other (“part of”) you. They can and do change with time, space, and other factors. The physical capability of communicating to people far away from us therefore has a direct impact on the identities we hold, and subsequently, choose to claim, because that is a fundamentally different thing than speaking to someone who is next to you. This began with the invention of writing, not the telegraph. The telegraph simply sped up the process.

What Zuckerberg and many other people don’t understand is that the impact telecommunication actually has on identities is a fracturing and multiplying of identities. They are still stuck cognitively processing the Internet as a “window” through which you can “look at things” like “pages.” (Why do you think they called it a “Browser window”?) But what the Internet actually is, with respect to who we are (as opposed to we do) is very different. The Internet is much more like a ham radio than a telephone. Just as ham radio operators took callsigns when transmitting, so do we take “screen names” when writing online forum posts.

What this means in the Internet, a world with unlimited space distinctly unlike ham radio, is that an individual body can be influential in an unlimited number of arenas that may never intersect. And, given that, it means an individual body can have an unlimited number of distinct identities, each one time-and-space-sliced. There is a real, whole “identity” in each of these time-and-space slices of influence.

The Internet is therefore unique in that exactly contrary to Zuckerberg’s self-serving assertions, the Internet is an identity multiplexing technology. It is not, never has been, and I strongly argue must never be allowed to be an identity trunking technology.

End rant.

The interaction between telecommunication and identity, as well as this interaction’s effect on societal notions of safety and privacy, has been one of my primary philosophical inquiries. For more, see also: