Fri May 14, 2010

Actually, having one Identity for yourself is a Breaching Experiment

This should really be a comment to Henry’s post, but I have the keys to this car, so I’m going to drive it, too. We have Zuckerberg’s remark:

“You have one identity,”… “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Michael Zimmer and danah boyd comment. As danah says, “This isn’t about liberals vs. libertarians; it’s about monkeys vs. robots”.

“Identity” is a slippery word, and there are ways to read Zuckerberg that makes what he’s saying trivially true. But those would be perverse ways, I think. I could go on at length about that, but I won’t. I’m also (luckily for you) fighting off the urge to write a few thousand words on the sociology of privacy. Instead, I just want to add two things. First, an idea from sociology. Having a single identity on display to everyone seems less like the definition of integrity and more like the procedure for a nasty breaching experiment of the sort that undergrads sometimes propose, and that as a responsible professor you talk them out of, on the grounds that they will get beaten up at some point during their fieldwork. (“Hey, I want to present the same public face to everyone, and see what happens! My hypothesis is that people will freak out and maybe some bad things will happen!”)

Second, an idea from psychology. Having an identity and having a secret are in fact quite closely related, and not just for superheroes. Here’s a piece from the Times from the pre-FB era that makes the point:

“In a very deep sense, you don’t have a self unless you have a secret, and we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we’re losing ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody apart,” said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. … Psychologists have long considered the ability to keep secrets as central to healthy development. Children as young as 6 or 7 learn to stay quiet about their mother’s birthday present. In adolescence and adulthood, a fluency with small social lies is associated with good mental health. … The urge to act out an entirely different persona is widely shared across cultures as well, social scientists say, and may be motivated by curiosity, mischief or earnest soul-searching. Certainly, it is a familiar tug in the breast of almost anyone who has stepped out of his or her daily life for a time, whether for vacation, for business or to live in another country. “It used to be you’d go away for the summer and be someone else, go away to camp and be someone else, or maybe to Europe and be someone else” in a spirit of healthy experimentation, said Dr. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, she said, people regularly assume several aliases on the Internet, without ever leaving their armchair …”

You can still do that, of course. But maybe not from within FaceBook’s walled garden, where a peculiar definition of integrity looks set to rule.