[disinformation ed.'s note: the following is an excerpt from Deanna Zandt's book Share This!: How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.]
Thanks to social networks’ transparency, it’s also more important, and more accepted, to use your real name and identity. Identity is a key component of your work in the ecosystem. When you act anonymously, your reach is limited because you’re not leaving a record of your actions. When you participate publicly, your actions leave a public trail. It’s still fine in some cases to build your relationships and social capital under a pseudonym (and there are a few cases where it’s necessary). As divisions between online and offline life dissolve, however, it has become much more valuable to combine many of your identities into one powerhouse.
Contributing our opinions and experiences to public conversations using our real identities plants a stake in the ground, and on the public record, wherever it may be kept, that validates the identities we create for ourselves online. We’re still getting used to the idea of using our real names and pictures—it wasn’t that long ago that no one ever did that, and anonymity was all the rage—but by doing so, we’re able to use our identities to create trust with one another. When we trust the people with whom we’re sharing details of our lives or opinions, we build collective empathy. It’s easier to trust a person online with a real name attached to a screen name, a picture instead of an icon, and a running log of the person’s interests and comments. That trust and empathy creates the building blocks for wider change.
We arrived at this juncture of identity and trust as a result of gradual adoption of Internet technologies in our daily lives. But in the early 1990s, it was widely popular to claim that everyone online could pretend to be anything they wanted. The famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner featuring two dogs chatting about Internet identity (“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”) pretty much sums up the ethic: We can all hide behind the giant curtain of technology.
The Internet removed physical constraints that our silly human bodies put on us, as well as all kinds of social mores that prevented us from saying and doing what we wanted. But creating an online identity was still the purview of nerds and geeks back then. By the mid-’90s, more people were joining discussion lists and chat rooms, but mostly under assumed identities, with clever nicknames that represented slices of their identities—GiantsFan4Ever or KnitterManiac2002. Sometimes the nicknames represented more private desires and alter egos.
In 1995, during my college fangrrl days listening to the Barenaked Ladies (a band. Canadian. Humourous, with an extra Canadian u!), I became a regular participant in the BNL channel on Internet Relay Chat protocol, or IRC. The online chat service came out in 1988, making it one of the oldest online communication services in the book. My nickname, to the best of my recollection, was “deannabanana.” It was what my friends called me in jest; I felt like it was close enough to who I was but eased me out of the scary step of Revealing A Last Name.
By the early 2000s, more people were comfortable with using their real names, but privacy and security concerns remained. Never before had we experienced such unfettered access to other people’s lives, and no one knew exactly how it was going to play out. People were concerned with being “outed” in one way or another, so we still concealed the more personal and quirky parts of our lives. It was not socially acceptable, for example, to attach hobbies to one’s public identity. Letting people know that you were a fan of a sci-fi series or that you obsessed nightly over Japanese garden design was not necessarily a good thing.
As the Internet evolved, and as more people started using it for different purposes, some of the fear around revealing different parts of oneself lessened. Purchasing products online, for example, required a new level of trust when giving out credit card information and mailing addresses. Susan Mernit, a web strategist and founder of Oakland Local, suggests that online shopping especially helped build trust in the Great Big Ether: People gave their credit card numbers and addresses to systems online, and, largely, nothing bad happened to them. Additionally, businesses went to great lengths to ensure that people had a safe shopping experience and maintained control over their identities and how much personal information they wanted to share.
Our willingness to use our names is also accelerating a trend toward more authenticity. Sharing every last tidbit isn’t required (or even desirable), but there’s more opportunity to share information that previously might have been saved just for people we already know. We belong to numerous social circles—work, politics, hobbies, sports, religion, school, neighborhood—and now that everyone’s lives are overlapping, the overlap is OK because it’s happening to all of us at the same time.
If I were seeking to meet other BNL fans today, I wouldn’t necessarily search for a dedicated fan site. I’d start with an online social network I already belong to, like Facebook, and join a BNL fan page or group. The online network is already in place, and, more important, people’s identities are already validated by these networks. We are already participating as ourselves. No more “deannabanana” hanging out in the chat room; now it’s Deanna Zandt joining the fan page or friending the band.
Engaging with one another online has the wider cultural benefit of inspiring more civic engagement offline. Studies show that young people who participate in online communities are more likely to take part in offline civic activities later in life. This is the case even when their online interactions are purely social or for enjoyment (such as joining a Barenaked Ladies fan site). Even in these spaces, teens are developing real skills, including learning how to assess and share information.
Using your real name yields many benefits, starting with social capital. By associating your knowledge, opinions, and sense of humor with your real identity, you’re helping to build a profile of who you are. Many social networks get indexed by search engines like Google, so your posts will come up when people search for you or the topics you’re posting about. (Of course, you will still want to keep some things private, which you can do by investigating and adjusting your privacy settings.)
Developments in online security and privacy, as well as the normalization of a variety of Internet activities—such as online shopping, chat, and social network participation—have reached a point where folks are becoming comfortable with revealing parts of themselves. And our values are inherent in those activities we participate in, from the overtly political, like joining a Facebook Cause that all of our friends can see, to the more subtle, like complaining about working two jobs and still not having health care. Everything we choose to share doesn’t just represent those individual events, but also contributes to the larger picture of what our values and experiences are.
Those contributions create trust between the members of any given network, and the combination of high trust and valid identities enhances the depth, breadth, and overall health of the social media ecosystem. We start to share more of what’s important to us (as we’ll see in the next section), and through the trust we create with our real identities, we foster empathy and understanding.
Deanna Zandt is a media technologist and the author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking (Berrett-Koehler, June 2010). She is a consultant to key progressive media organizations including AlterNet and Jim Hightower’s Hightower Lowdown, and is a Research Fellow at the Center for Social Media at American University. Zandt specializes in social media, and is a leading expert in women and technology, and is a frequent guest on CNN International, BBC Radio, Fox News and more. She works with groups to create and implement effective web strategies toward organizational goals of civic engagement and empowerment, and uses her background in linguistics, advertising, telecommunications and finance to complement her technical expertise. She has spoken at a number of conferences, including the National Conference on Media Reform, Bioneers, America’s Future Now (formerly “Take Back America,”) Women Action & The Media, and provides beginner and advanced workshops both online and in person.
In January 2009, Deanna was chosen as a fellow for the Progressive Women’s Voices program at the Women’s Media Center. She also serves as a technology advisor to a number of organizations, including Feministing, The Girls & Boys Projects and Women Action & The Media.
In addition to her technology work, Deanna writes and illustrates graphic stories and comics, and volunteers with dog rescue organization Rat Terrier ResQ.