Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2013/ Identity


The first incarnation of this website was called "Demons in My Head", which was a play on the UNIX concept of daemon processes, and a comment on the inconsistency of my opinions. I believe in contradictory things and act in contradictory ways, and I thought that by mapping those contradictions out I would discover the underlying coherence. That has not happened. As I grow old my beliefs are growing more inconsistent (and incoherent), not less.

I do not remember whether my website's title was intended to plagiarise Walt Whitman's famous quotation, or whether I was ripping him off unconsciously. But the quotation certainly resonates with me:

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I am certainly large (and certain bathroom scales will attest that I am getting larger), and I certainly full of contradictions. Sometimes this is a problem, such as my endless selfish hypocrisy: espousing some virtue in public to look good, and then behaving inconsistently with that virtue whenever it is convenient for me. I lie. I cheat. I steal. I preach compassion and practice cruelty. The list goes on and on.

But I do not think I am alone; most of us behave differently in different contexts. That is a form of inconsistency too, and we treat it as appropriate. I will talk about different things, use different language, and make different jokes depending on whether I am at work, drunk at a bar on Saturday night, participating in an internet forum, or writing a blog post. The aspects of personality that I reveal in these different contexts may be different. In some sense these are different identities, even if one uses the same identifier ("Paul Nijjar") for all of them.

Sometimes I even find myself switching identities within a single context. This can be catastrophic: losing my temper 5% of the time means that people are afraid of me for the other 95%. Sometimes it is helpful: demonstrating more energy and enthusiasm when lecturing to 100 students than when tutoring a struggling student one on one during office hours. Some people find these shifts jarring, but they are all representations (perhaps equally false representations) of the bag of contradictions that is my self.

Personally, I feel much more comfortable compartmentalizing my selves rather than integrating them. I try to keep my work life separate from my personal life separate from my online life, and I fragment my online life to suit different audiences. In general, I dislike when these compartments bleed into each other, because then I have to manage potentially conflicting aspects of my projected identity for different audiences. Not only is that emotionally and mentally taxing, and I am not sure it is either helpful or necessary.

This is how Facebook and Google' "use your actual name" policies get things wrong. They both want you to use your "real name" for everything, and then layer on some promises that different compartments ("circles" in Google's terminology) will not bleed into each other. Their public reasoning for this is that attaching all of one's online actions to their "real names" means that people won't troll; they will not choose anonymous identities that are used to harm others. Reducing trolling (and online harassment in general) is a worthy goal, but I oppose their approach of associating identities to "real names" and I think their security promises are nonsense.

One problem with "real names" is the "drunk pictures on Facebook" issue. In some contexts of our lives it is fine to go to parties and get drunk. In other contexts (such as job searches) it is frowned upon. Now when people find a job they have to hide whatever identities are not socially acceptable in the most lucrative (read: employment) context. That, in turn, means that there are honest and valuable aspects of personality that people do not share. There are situations in which drunken partying may affect work performance, but there are many cases in which it does not. Grant Fuhr was a great goalie for the Edmonton Oilers even during the period he was using cocaine. From what I understand, he did not let his actions in one sphere affect the other. One can argue that there are no circumstances under which one should use cocaine recreationally (especially given the societal damage of producing that recreational cocaine); but one can also argue that what people do in their off-work hours should remain independent of what they do on the job. Furthermore, people can do good work on the job even if they hold some identity traits that are offputting.

Secondly, using "real names" constrains our abilities to explore our identities and make mistakes online. Every mistake might be documented for all time, so we limit ourselves to the bland, super-optimistic, no-personality personas you see on LinkedIn and "professional" Twitter accounts. As Google and Facebook get their claws deeper into our identities, our abilities to express ourselves openly (and thus to make mistakes, and thus to learn valuable and difficult lessons, and thus to grow) is constrained.

Believe it or not, I curate the online identity I associate with my "real name". There are other identities I have online in which I express myself more freely; every time those identities are linked to my "real name", I lose that sense of play and freedom. And certainly I have made mistakes (a lot of mistakes) associated with my "real name". I have also made mistakes (a lot of mistakes) associated with my unreal names, and in those domains I only have to pay the consequences within that limited context, not for every aspect of my life ever. Unfortunately for me, as my online (and offline) identities bleed into each other, I find myself more and more reluctant to express anything.

One reason you all think my writings online are so ridiculously revealing is because I have made a decision not to censor myself solely for the sake of a job. I despise the paranoia involved with job searches. I despise the way that employers search and search for that one hint that a potential employee will be a bad fit (which just means they hire somebody who has a more polished persona). When participating in hiring I have behaved in this despicable way as well: I always spend a disproportionate amount of energy wondering what "the catch" associated with potential candidates might be. You know what? There is always a catch, and I have a profound talent for missing it. Even when job candidates reveal hints of "the catch" during the job application process, our hiring teams miss the importance of those hints every single time. And you know what? People often turn out to be okay (and good workers) despite having catches.

Any potential employer should know that I come with lots and lots of catches, because I am a deeply broken person. In fact, I come with more catches than most job candidates -- but once I am hired, people have seen that I got the job done despite (or sometimes because of) these quirks. The dance of employment searches is broken and phony, and I do not want to reward this broken system at the expense of censoring the things I would otherwise be willing to release into the public. If that means I never am employed again, then so be it. I have no dependents, so the consequences are minor.

The second aspect of "real name" policies that irk me is the way our feudal overlords promise us security settings that they are not capable of keeping. Take, for example, Google+, with its concept of "circles". The promise is that anything you reveal to that circle will only be known to that circle (and to Google, which will helpfully track this information and use it to separate you from your money more effectively). But -- as I have learned the hard way -- this is nonsense. Loose lips sink ships. The people in your circles do not sign non-disclosure agreements; nothing but social convention stops them from revealing information you reveal to them to others. Sometimes these revelations are not intended as malicious. Sometimes people in your circle may not realize that you want this information limited to members of that circle. Sometimes people in your circle get into internet fights with you, and judiciously use copy and paste (or screenshots) to make you look bad.

Incidentally, people who are shoulder-surfing (or just sharing computers with) the members of your circles do not sign non-disclosure agreements either. Neither do the script kiddies who pwn the computers and smartphones belonging to members of your circles. The promise that information revealed to your circle will stay within your circle is a lie. It is a platitude intended to get you comfortable revealing all kinds of intimate details on their platform, developing brand loyalty and giving Google more interesting information to track about you.

Facebook is no better. Neither is Twitter. Neither is a personal self-hosted blog. Neither are meatspace conversations. Anything you reveal about yourself -- online or offline -- can be spread and shared and ultimately used against you. The only defence is to be aware of this, and to share only those things that you are willing to stand behind.

That is why when I use the internet with my "real name", I make my content public. This has caused real problems for others in the past -- they interacted with me using handles they wanted to keep limited -- and I have caused a lot of unnecessary suffering as a result (and if those parties are reading this, then please know that I am sorry). But I find keeping secrets -- especially other people's secrets -- too difficult.

And that, in my mind, is the solution to the problem of trolling. Forcing people to use "real names" is an overly-constrained solution to the problem. We do not need to use "real names" that are tied to our many multiple identities. Rather, the identifier (aka "handle") that we use for each identity should be consistent. If I go by the handle "Hairy Fatso" in a particular context, then I should be willing to stand behind what "Hairy Fatso" says, and I should be willing to use "Hairy Fatso" consistently enough to develop a reputation, so that other people who interact with that identity know who they are dealing with and what to expect. Perhaps it should be expensive to create these new identities, but it should not be as expensive as associating our every action with our "real name" is.

My strategy of compartmentalizing different online and offline identities is becoming more and more ineffective, because online and offline tracking is getting better and better, and computers are getting better and better at associating different identities. This is going to have consequences, both for me (as I either become blander, or withdraw from posting anything of consequence on the web) and for society as a whole (especially if we expect our politicians and employees to have histories that are squeaky-clean). I do not know how things will shake out, but I worry. I have gained so much benefit from compartmentalized identities over the years. Having a place to hang out, vent, swear, and make inappropriate jokes before audiences of people I will never interact with in meatspace has been such a blessing. I'm going to miss that.