Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Different sites-with different approaches to online identity-help us manage our personal, professional, and civic lives online.

Recently, I was in an auditorium waiting for a distinguished lecturer.  He came out to a standing ovation, and when everyone was seated, said: “Your applause is humbling; an hour ago my 14-year old daughter told me in no uncertain terms that I was cruel, unreasonable, and didn’t know anything about anything.”

A few weeks later, the founder of PopVox—a site where people can voice support or opposition to pending national legislation—related that comparatively few people log on to her site using their Facebook profile.  When I asked why people didn’t want to link their Facebook and PopVox accounts, she pointed a recent survey showing that about a quarter of US Facebok users defriended someone based on their politics.  “People seem to want to keep their civic lives separate from their social lives,” she said.

The idea that we want to keep our social, professional, and civic lives distinct—and that we can choose just how distinct we want them to be—is being explored both online and off.  Only two years ago, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the signatories of a public petition could keep their names secret.  Slate’s Dalia Lithwick wrote at the time:


Justice Antonin Scalia . . . says that "running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage." Some of his . . . colleagues spend the morning shuddering at the very idea of public scrutiny of political processes.


I had always aligned with Facebook and (until recently) Google+, which require members to use their real names online.  I felt that when people were commenting on public policy, they should be identifiable.  But there are two counter-arguments that have since swayed my thinking.  The first is that sometimes people’s “real names” are simply not how their known—especially online.  You can ask Gordon SumnerAllen Stewart Konigsberg, or, heck, even @digiphile.  What matters more than a “real name,” I now think, is one’s “persistent online identity.”

The second issue may be less common, is undoubtedly more important.  Sometimes people face severe adverse consequences for civic engagement.  This is what the signatories were arguing before the Supreme Court.  Imagine the case of a curfew that is meant to counter youth violence in a rough neighborhood.  A gang sends out members to take notes at town meetings, writing down names of people who speak in favor of the curfew.  The intention is clearly to intimidate people.  To take the example online, imagine a bill that would restrict off-shore oil drilling.  Would locals employed by a company that stands to profit from that activity feel free to use their real names in supporting that measure?

In both of these cases, however, it is important for the process that online personae can still be linked to real people—that is where the idea of a “persistent online identity” is critical.  As on PopVox (and Twitter) people can have a pseudonym that has a history online, but not connected to an offline persona.  While the very nature of Linked In requires people to use their real names (after all, people apply for jobs using their real names) and the rules governing Facebook hold the same standard (boingboing's opinions not withstanding), there are valid reasons to keep one’s online identity separate from one's offline life, and even from other parts of one's online life.  (NB: I'm not even going to discuss online anonymity, except to say that smart people disagree on the costs and benefits)

Even on sites that do require real names—Linked In and Facebook—people understand the need to present themselves in different ways to different audiences.  Though much of the same information (date and place of birth, employment history, perhaps even a twitter stream) can be posted to each, some information (pictures from a birthday party) may be confined to Facebook, while other information (recommendations from a supervisor) may be posted only on Linked In.

But neither place is really the best venue to manage one’s civic/political life.  Potential employers may not like either a particular position, or the adamancy of one’s political leanings (even if they share those leanings), nor perhaps the depth of engagement that a prospective employee demonstrates.  Likewise, friends may want to hear more about a person’s children, flower garden, or sculpture class, and less about one’s feelings on H.Res. 284: Honoring wild horses and burros as important to our national heritage.

For those people, PopVox is the place to go.

As in real life, where one can talk about politics at work, about their work at the dinner table, and about their family life in a town hall, one can share different kinds of information across different social media sites.  But as in real life, we are also getting to a point where we have distinct places online to bring to the forefront our civic, social, and professional identities and, at our own discretion, choose to reveal or conceal those identities to friends, coworkers, neighbors, and elected representatives as we deem appropriate.

This has been one of the promises of digital social media all along.  We are finally seeing that promise realized.