I’m not really an old-timer but I remember precisely the transition from hypertext web 1.0 (it was mainly text with the possibility of linking websites, that’s why we say hyper-textual link) to social web 2.0 or, in other words, from anonymity to digital (and not virtual) identity.
Let’s set the scene to this evolution. I remember my first 20-hour internet plan at 56k in 1998 when I couldn’t even use the phone while I was online. Few of us were then connected to the web: 360 million in 2000. In 2011, there are over 2 billion internet users. At the time, the principle inherent to interconnectedness was anonymity: a new, independent kind of web, as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee. The World Wide Web thus grew as a space parallel to reality. You could choose to be cutiepiebaby<3 just as well as TheD4rkLord0fEvilD34th. The main usage then was participation in forums, and actual peer-to-peer connections would only appear years after the Y2K scare.
Over those few years, a change in semantics took place which globally affected our approach to the internet. We switched from virtual space to digital space. Let me explain: something virtual is something that is not real, that has no impact on reality. Since the Internet is more than real, it becomes incidentally nor a virtual but a digital space. The first recorded example of this was a momentous event experienced by a member of one of the very first online communities: The Well. This member’s son had developed a serious case of croup and, with no one to turn to and unable to call paramedics, the father asked for help via The Well where a pediatrician showed him what to do and helped his son survive.
From the moment the internet starts affecting the life of its users, it becomes an integral part of reality. At the same time, the emergence of the social dimension of the internet renders necessary the identification of web users. Real names and profile photos are indeed easier to find than pseudonyms or avatars.
Let’s take a look at the question of anonymity and digital identity. As long as the internet is not considered real, we may inhabit that space as different avatars, but as soon as it becomes real, we once again become our own unique selves (for the sake of clarity, our identity is indeed unique but we may adapt to a different role or status). For instance, I will not be having dinner with my colleagues under my own identity only to then have a drink under the name 541LordN01rOfCr0ws4 and dress in shining armour. We fear the confusion between public and private spheres, which is understandable.
Nevertheless, we tend to react inappropriately to certain analogies: be it one’s presence on search engines or the publication of private content, this is a situation of crisis, of deep change concerning online confidentiality. The point is not to clam up like oysters or to give up on managing any of these new issues (nobody would display the pictures of their last party on their company’s bulletin board, right? Why then do it online?).
In short, it’s up to us to make sure our digital identity is close to our IRL (In Real Life) identity. Unlike Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, who once said,
if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, I would say instead: “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, make sure no one finds out”.
Awesomely translated from French by Pierre Bonenberger