thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Monday, September 11, 2006

What "lonelygirl15" tells us about identity and web2.0

A teenage girl who goes under the pseudonym "lonelygirl15" has become pretty famous on Youtube in the last three months. Now it turns out the whole thing was made up by some film-makers. They registered a dotcom domain for her a month before the first video was posted, and in a recent message "to our incredible fans" call it a new form of interactive art and storytelling. Fans and Youtube celebrities are outraged, about 20 per cent of them still won't believe it, the wikipedia community can not agree on anything yet, and the web watching mass media go crazy.

Of course, this reminds me of two similar video internet hypes: The Blair Witch project, where the web frenzy about some footage alledgedly found in the woods was part of the marketing plot for a cinema movie. The other one is Snakes on a Plane, where the web-based fan community even became part of the movie development and helped to re-write the screenplay. Lonelygirl15 combined both in the sense that the story started as a fake like BWP, and it reacted to fans like SOAP.

But beyond the marketing implications, Lonelygirl-gate can tell us a bit about online identities. After all, this whole thing perfectly illustrates the mantra of the Identity Gang that "the Internet was built without a way to know who and what you are connecting to" (source).

While this argument is normally made in the context of ID-theft and phishing, the story here is different. There was no fraud involved, no pretexting, no rip-off in the usual sense. It was just a story that too many took for too real. But why in the world would anyone expect that everything people post on Youtube is real? If there are Alternate Reality Games, why should there not be something like alternate reality storytelling or vlogging? So, do we really have a problem here? Maybe the biggest problem is that many online users are too naive and mistake their screen for reality - but this is something we already had with TV series before the internet was invented.

In fact, the story reveals how short the memory of the web community is. Blog commentator Kyle wrote in response to the Lonelygirl15-gate report in the NYT, "we’re exploring the territory between script and spontaneity". Yes, exactly, but we've already been there as early as 1995. Can't anybody remember the cartoon "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" or the books about "identity in the age of the internet" that made up much of the social science research output on the internet back then? We are seeing a similar development now with games like SecondLife (for good reflections on that visity my friend Rik Panganiban's blog). So, nothing new under the sun - only that Web2.0 for a short while made some people think everybody's MySpace or Youtube account was a reflection of reality.

Still - is it good or bad that "the Internet was built without a way to know who and what you are connecting to"? It depends on the kind of relations and transactions people have and make, and it does so online as well as offline. A few examples: There is a fake profile of our chancellor on MySpace. So what? As long as she can't command our troops from there, I don't care. If Lonelygirl15 sang songs in front of her webcam and sold the cd online like Youtube popstar Terra Naomi, I might even buy the music. The quality of the songs or the story is independent of a real person behind it. Of course, a lot of people feel betrayed because they expect to be connected to a real person, someone who is the "same" online and offline. This might be important for people like Terra Naomi who plays concerts, or for me who teaches and gives speeches, in short: for people whose public life also happens offline, at least every once in a while. But still, "Terra Naomi" could as well be a pseudonym as "lonelygirl15" (or "Bree", which is her "real name" in the story). So far, none of the people who invited me to speeches have asked for my passport to check if "Ralf Bendrath" is really my name. Also, Madonna has a MySpace account, but would anyone believe she is personally reading and replying to all the stuff people write to her there? In that case, "Madonna" is not the person, but a pseudonym of a whole enterprise behind that person. What about potential presidential candidate Mark Warner, who appeared and spoke in Second Life, but had an aide handle his avatar walking down the stairs? For most of the transactions, we only need to be able to reliably exchange opinions, money and goods, which can perfectly be done anonymously. For developing reputations and more long-term relationships, we need pseudonyms. These of course also exist in offline spaces. I mean - who ever thought Suzanne Vega was a real name? Or the other way around: Why could Superman not have his videoblog on Youtube? The confusion starts when people think that what they see on Youtube or in Second Life is real.

The lack of a fully fledged online identity-proof system even is good, I would say. The more we can do anonymously, the better privacy we have. The more we then use pseudonyms only if needed for long-term relations, and even have a variety of them for different contexts, the less can our actions be combined to a full profile of our personality. Identity - which in the end is linking actions and properties to one single physical person - is only needed in cases where the government interferes: Voting, speeding, paying taxes, running for an official office, etc.

This relates closely to the human body as the bearer of a person's identity. The government in the end is the only agent that has the power to take the body of a person and punish it by imprisonment or death penalty. The interesting question that follows - which, again, has already been discussed thirteen years ago - is: Is deleting a user pseudonym in an online space at all comparable to imprinsoning a person? Many Youtube users who felt betrayed now have demanded that Lonelygirl15's account be deleted. Youtube is of course not even thinking about this, as these are exactly the stories the company wants in the mass media.

Last question: In which way would an "identity metasystem" help us here? Or would it spoil all the fun, because we knew in advance what the real identity of Lonelygirl15 was?


Blogger rikomatic said...

All new media face crises of credibility and authenticity in their early days. Look at the hysteria over fake radio broadcasts like "War of the Worlds" or propaganda films of the WWII era or the first telephone scam artists.

When faced with a new way of communicating, whether it be YouTube or Second Life, we find ourselves in a seemingly new social terrain where we don't have the same tools for distinguishing the "real" from the scripted.

There was a recent story about a bunch scripted IM bots who posed as women and trolled Yahoo and MSN for horny guys, led them on with some pre-scripted sex talk, and then told them to "meet me" at a sex site. Nice scam that plays on the victim's libido trumping their common sense.

More commentary on scams in virtual and real worlds.

12/9/06 15:08


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