inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #0 of 53: David Gans (tnf) Fri 14 Jan 00 12:48

Date: Fri, 14 Jan 2000 16:32:56 +0000
From: Julie Ann Smith <>
Organization: Brunel University
Subject: Are online interactions idenity performances?

Hello their to the people of Well.

I am a student at London Brunel university investigating the use of
identity online.  I would be extremely grateful if the Well community
could give me some idea of the importance placed on the identify of
your members and to what extent you believe they are performances.  I
believe a personal view from those who use online facilities often,
will give my research a valuable angle. Your views on this subject, any
information or addresses of connected web sites that you are aware of
would be of help to me. I thank you for any information you provide me
with. If you are unable to help me, I appreciate your time and


e-mail address
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #1 of 53: David Gans (tnf) Fri 14 Jan 00 13:06

I posted the following over on DeadNet Central -- a very different, nocharge,
online community that suffers from drive-by viciousness quite a bit:

David Gans - 08:59pm Jan 10, 2000 PDT (#3810 of 3932)

I've been hosting online forums for 14 years, and I agree with wandy that
it's a great way to sharpen your communication skills!

I have watched the development of this forum with great interest over the
last few years.

One of the most important factors in keeping an online community reasonably
carnage-free is accountability. That means knowing who you're dealing with.
In my view, the most significant mistake that Hunter made in setting this
place up was the decision to allow anyone to register with any unverified
identity. That means anyone can go to and set up a false identity
(or create an ad-hoc screen name at AOL, another online venue that pays a
heavy price for allowing anonymity), register here with the knowledge they
can't be traced, and spew whatever nasty, ugly and/or defamatory crap they

I have been the victim of this anonymous posting thing, and it wasn't pretty.
I've seen all sorts of creepy stuff here and in other places where account-
ability is missing.

The "entrance" to DNC says it all -- the thing about how if you forget your
password, just register again with a different name.

If the sysops were to make one change that was intended to improve the
quality of the culture here, it would be to require that everyone who par-
ticipates here be accountable for his/her behavior. That doesn't necessarily
mean you'd have to use your "real" name here, but if the sysops were able to
contact the real person behind the user ID, then a lot of cowardly, destruc-
tive and hurtful behavior would be eliminated.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #2 of 53: thecapokid (thecapokid) Fri 14 Jan 00 16:45
For what it's worth, I've been online about 3 months, and in that time
have played with the Net obsessively, and in so doing have learned
quite a lot about "role-playing," etc. First thing I learned was that
real people are out there, regardless of their "identity," or "handle."
Second thing I learned was that, given a fairly stable personality, I
had nothing to "hide," and found liberation in dropping all masks and
simply pushing my words and personality into cyberspace. Conferences,
chatlines, whatever. No lies of commission or omission. It's sort of
like: in a world where everyone wears a mask, the best mask is none at
all! This is not to dis those who do. 

When it comes to "communities," I tend to agree with "tnf" above,
because the word community implies some inherent degree of trust among
the people who live there. Given my relative status as a net virgin,
however, perhaps "tnf" can enlighten me as to how such accountability
can be made, without recourse to credit card numbers and other
seriously private information. I mean, my candor in cyberspace is one
thing, OTOH I don't want to be stalked! lol 
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #3 of 53: (ideo) was I ere I saw (esau) Fri 14 Jan 00 19:02
This is the only place I've ever hung out online. It never occurred to me to
try to be a different person online than I was offline, and so this
experience has only served to shape what my one identity is, rather than
what performance I can put on.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #4 of 53: token beast (satyr) Sat 15 Jan 00 09:48
Opinions as to whether your online self is, or ought to be, strongly
identified with your real ("wetware") self vary widely.

Here on the Well, we tend to insist that there be a tight association
between the two, but I think posturing is far more common elsewhere on 
the net.

Judith Donath of the MIT Media Laboratory has done some work in this
field, including a paper called "Identity and Deception in the Virtual

inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #5 of 53: John Payne (satyr) Sun 16 Jan 00 14:30
    <scribbled by satyr Tue 18 Jan 00 17:26>
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #6 of 53: carol adair (rubicon) Sun 16 Jan 00 22:11
I have wondered about that here too. Whenever I've commented on the
on-line behavior of this or that person, especially if I've criticized the
tone of a person's post, I've always read, "Oh but s/he's very helpful and
kind in person."  Then I read how, when met at WOPs or business
institution, the person was not at all like his or her postings. As if the
person here is NOT the person off line.  This seems to be especially true
when the online behavior is vile. So what's up with that?  Are we or are
we not our on-line personalities? Can our "whole persons" be held
accountable for our on-line rudeness? Be praised for our on-line wisdom?
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #7 of 53: "Is that a British publication?" (jdevoto) Mon 17 Jan 00 02:02
I think that phenomemon is less a case of two "different personalities" than
the fact that what's said in person can come across differently than what's
said via text. It's a cliche that ASCII communication lacks cues such as eye
contact, posture, tone of voice, and so forth. I think this factor is not so
all-pervasive and determinative as it's often portrayed, and most people are
pretty much the same in person as online...but for some people, the
ambiguous elements of physical presentation do make a big difference in how
their words are perceived.

In other words, when that happens I think it's a matter of the person
reacting, not the person doing the talking, being different online and off.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #8 of 53: blather storm (lolly) Mon 17 Jan 00 03:38
I think there's an additional element sometimes; for some folks the online
interactions are an opportunity to behave in ways that they would not, in
real life. Sometimes this is just a subtle difference, but results in a more
cavalier style here than in person. I agree that the greater differences
tend to be associated with the more abrasive (online) personalities, but
it's not always the case (for instance there are folks who are significantly
shy in person but who can open up here).
My own theory is that some of us think this is real, and others of us think
it's imaginary. This is also true out in the real world, of course....
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #9 of 53: David Chaplin-Loebell (dloebell) Mon 17 Jan 00 08:48
I'm less shy with strangers online than in real life or by phone.  I wish
it wasn't true, but there it is.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #10 of 53: Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 17 Jan 00 13:05

And, by contrast, overcoming my shyness online translated into overcoming
my shyness in person.  In most cases.  There are still times when I want
to die from being tongue-tied or feeling like I am expressing myself
ineptly, both online and in person.

I have to say that my online persona is pretty much indentical to my
in-the-flesh persona.  And being online helped me define myself in the
real world.  In many ways I am vastly different now than I was before I
got here in 1991.

But I am who I portray myself to be.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #11 of 53: token beast (satyr) Mon 17 Jan 00 16:21
The paper "Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community" which I
mentioned in <4> is cached on ...
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #12 of 53: carol adair (rubicon) Mon 17 Jan 00 19:12
Since Ms. Smith asked and since I always wondered this, I would like to
push it a little bit more. I agree with Jeanne that the absence of
physical clues does create a challenge for the reader, but that's so in
all written discourse. I question  something else altogether.

I've watched particular posters here on the WELL, and elsewhere, whose
online behavior would be thought appalling in any IRL adult group I know
about. I watched particular individuals launch into spews of adolescent
potty phrases whenever their viewpoint was challenged. I have read the
most disdainful and dismissive and insulting answers to what seemed simple
questions or remarks. I've witness simply vile behavior, and when I've
mentioned it, I've heard, "He's really very nice ......" And I wonder,
where's the "really". Are we all seen as "really" what we are here, or are
we really acting?  Should we dismiss online behavior as only that, or does
it demonstrate the character of the real person pressing the keys? It's
not the individuals I'm concerned about, but how we all see these
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #13 of 53: Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 18 Jan 00 07:31
I've never seen anyone behave worse here than they did at my schools. dominance
hierarchies aren't pretty.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #14 of 53: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 18 Jan 00 11:28
> I would be extremely grateful if the Well community
>  could give me some idea of the importance placed on the identify of
>  your members and to what extent you believe they are performances.

Julie, one thing that makes The WELL somewhat unusual as an online community
is that every WELL member must have his or her real life identity verified
before gaining admittance to the community. Taking that in conjunction with
the fact that most of the conversations here are readable long after the
conversational thread has waned, we are pretty much forced to be accountable
for what we've said.

If I were to post "puffball is a jerk," I couldn't later claim I didn't say
it (unless I scribbled the post, of course). My post is there, where I put
it, for all to see. Even years later, we can backtrack through topics to
read an old, interesting conversation or look for useful information or even
find an old argument we were involved in.

This construct is one that, for me, took some time to sink in. But in the
seven years I've been a member of The WELL community, I've learned to "think
twice, post once," especially if I'm feeling upset or angry by the

I want my online identity to match my RL one. I strive to be real and honest
in my posts, just like I do in f2f conversation.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #15 of 53: Daphne Merkin's spanking piece (chuck) Tue 18 Jan 00 11:44
A lot of people have trouble adapting to the accountability that the Well
entails.  There have been, in fact continue to be, users who deny their
prior words, even when those postings remain visible for any other user to
review.  I can think of one user who has been caught contradicting himself
at least once a week for five years or more, but he still posts as
irresponsibly as ever.

Knowing the true identity of the others in the conversation is very
important to me, and to many others on the Well.  Years ago we had an
experiment with an anonymous conference on the Well.  A special software
feature was created for this purpose.  It was a disaster.  The experiment
did not last long, maybe two weeks, maybe less.  Stewart Brand, one of the
co-founders of the Well, has said that the anonymous conference was the only
regret that he has had about the Well.  Our culture is so dependent upon our
true identities here that we couldn't cope with anonymity.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #16 of 53: token beast (satyr) Tue 18 Jan 00 17:25
Not every online forum qualifies as a community, but those that do are
rather like social clubs or fraternal organizations, within which
reputation counts for a lot, and which are, for the most part,
self-policing.  Of course criticism rolls off of some and sticks to
others, just as is the case face-to-face, and those who are less
vulnerable (and/or have a greater need for approval) are probably more apt
to spice their online selves with fictional presentations ... and I think
some do so as an art form.

Then again, there's the question, in particular cases, of whether a
performance is more deceitful or revelatory.  For instance, I might
pretend to be a secondary teacher, even though I've never taught a class,
and misled by my pretense, your estimate of me might nevertheless be more
accurate than if you knew my real history.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #17 of 53: thecapokid (thecapokid) Wed 19 Jan 00 01:49
One aspect that hasn't been touched upon, I think, but which relates
to the "perceived" identities we have of each other, whether we're
performing or trying hard not to, is the literary. Online, still
learning, I've become sensitized to another's style and tone; I test
it, as if to compensate for eye contact, touch, body language. I think
we all do this on some level, whether we do it to separate the cliche
from the cliche, or to hear what we want to hear.

Morally, I've come to the usual ambivalent conclusion. Of cowards who
need masks to injure and spew ill-will, I feel like I want to dent the
First Amendment. Of the truly imaginative ones, who find in performance
some expansion, and who are convincing, I feel I should applaud them
as I do the contrivances of a good novelist. Maybe even find them a
good agent. 

inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #18 of 53: Daniel Lynch (ndjd88) Wed 19 Jan 00 10:53

How about the ones who use "performance" and feigned "imagination"
as masks for an inner vapidity?
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #19 of 53: thecapokid (thecapokid) Wed 19 Jan 00 15:40
Dunno, though I think you're moving into a metaphysical realm. (Who is
the "real" me, etc.) I've spent most of my life in the arts, with the
emphasis on books and writing. Artists tend to understand the
difference between "the real me" and the "me in the poem, the play, the
song," etc., and they're forever trying to convince their audiences
that the two simply ain't the same. The qualifying phrase in my comment
is "convincing." To that extent, I'm not sure that an interiorly
"vapid" person can, say, write a good poem or novel. No doubt writers,
actors, can be boorish, cranky, shy or just plain mean, but I've never
met an artist worth his/her salt who was vapid, in the sense of
emptiheadedness. I might not have liked them, personally, but they had
energy nonetheless. 

Out here, online, I find myself interacting with sensibilities, not
bodies. Those sensibilities are revealed to me through the words people
use to create their online personalities. Writing and teaching
writing, I'm convinced that when people sit down "to indite," few
seldom achieve "subjective objectivity" about themselves. Or really
want to. Among the worst are memoirists. That is, some--in fact most, I
think--try to put their "best foot forward," when they write, eager
for others to like them. Others may take the opposite tack and be nasty
and curmudgeonly, but their need for attention is the same.

I guess the upshot for me is that the longer I'm online, the more the
"division" between virtual and real diminishes. I encounter Janus-faced
mountebanks, fools, cranks, pretenders and "liars in public places" in
cyberspace, and am learning to deal with it just as I do on the
street. I keep my antennae up and try to read between the lines.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #20 of 53: token beast (satyr) Wed 19 Jan 00 18:07
Of course pretense isn't limited to cyberspace.  People pretend to be
someone other than who they really are in all sorts of circumstances,
sometimes creating imaginary persona, sometimes infringing on others'
identities.  The limited bandwidth of cyberspace (as compared with the
information available to you when standing face-to-face with someone
else) just makes it easier.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #21 of 53: Homo cervidae (satyr) Sat 22 Jan 00 17:49
There's a Virtual Society bibliography on "Identity and deception" at ...

... which begins with this introduction:

"Embodiment is fundamental to our ordinary notion of identity. Thus, the
online world raises a number of questions about the nature of identity and
how it is transformed in an immaterial and intangible environment. Many
writers (e.g. Reid, Turkle) claim that identity is very fluid in the
virtual world; others (e.g. O'Brien) are more skeptical. Certainly,
identity deception is far easier when communicating over a very limited
medium. How does this affect the type of society that evolves in this
environment? How is some notion of identity maintained in the absence of
the body - and how is it different than our day to day experience? What
effect do changes in the medium have - how is identity in a text-based
world different than in a graphical one, in a synchronous vs. an
asynchronous space? How can interface designers influence the way identity
is established in an online environment?"
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #22 of 53: thecapokid (thecapokid) Mon 24 Jan 00 16:58
Thanks, satyr, the MIT reading list looks good. Turkle the only one
I'm familiar with, and certainly looking for other perspectives.
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #23 of 53: Homo cervidae (satyr) Tue 25 Jan 00 18:59
You may have noticed (and shame on you if you haven't) that responses
(posts) here are sometimes accompanied by what appear to be real names --
just ahead of the account names (in parentheses) -- and sometimes by
expressions that are obviously not real names.  That field is called
"pseudonym", or "pseud" for short.  While that might seem inconsistent
with what's previously been said about the WELL insisting on real
identities, from the inside it's a simple matter to find out a user's 
real name.

And, in conferences where the feature is enabled, which includes this one,
if a response is scribbled, that pseudonym field reverts to the name under
which the author opened the account from which it was posted.

Like so ...
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #24 of 53: John Payne (satyr) Tue 25 Jan 00 18:59
    <scribbled by satyr>
inkwell.vue.62 : Identity and "performance" online
permalink #25 of 53: David Gans (tnf) Tue 25 Jan 00 20:10
Good point, John.


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