Saturday, March 28, 2009

Your (Typing) Hands are Tied: Lessig’s Constraints

For anyone who truly believes that cyberspace is well and truly free, I have four words for you: your hands are tied.

We all like to think that we can at any moment type in anything we want in a web browser and get some information on it. We can play games, watch movies, do research, and communicate with friends. From esoteric to illicit, most anything we could possibly want to know or do exists somewhere one the Web, just waiting for us to get off our butts and look it up.

But is it really so simple? Can we really do whatever we want online?

Noted American academic
Lawrence Lessig says no. In fact, he proposes four constraints on behaviour in cyberspace.
  1. Law—Despite problems in how to go about enforcing laws in cyberspace, they do exist. They treat topics as diverse as copyright and child pornography, software piracy and user privacy. While we don’t often think about them, cyber-laws often dictate what we can and cannot do online.
  2. Social norms—We all know that there are certain things you just don’t do online. Or if you do them, you don’t talk about them. For example, while pornography is technically not illegal, it is frowned upon by a large portion of society. Downloading music is not yet illegal in Canada, but it’s not exactly de rigeur nowadays, either. The force of society’s disapproval is often enough for people to avoid doing certain things online, even if they couldn’t technically get in trouble for them.
  3. Market—It’s a fact of life that money talks, and it has a large effect on what we can do online. If you can’t afford Internet access, it’s obvious that the market has prevented you from doing as you wish in cyberspace. But what if you have access, but not the means to pay for, say, your own domain name, or some upgraded service, or even for Internet access that has more bandwidth than dial-up? You obviously can’t do everything you want if you don’t have the money to pay for it.
  4. Architecture—Another thing people rarely think about is the architecture of the Internet. Lessig looks at computer code as a type of architecture that constrains behaviour. This is mostly to say that the way in which the Internet is designed limits what we can do. For example, you can’t read my email because you don’t know the password to my account.

Looks like cyberspace isn’t as free as we thought.

It’s my contention that these four constraints also apply to online identity. Laws regarding copyright and intellectual property ensure that we can’t pass of the work of others as our own. We must therefore build authority online through our own thoughts and ideas, and through careful citation of other people’s work. Social norms dictate that it is bad form to get caught passing online. Online friends may feel betrayed or uncomfortable to learn that you are not who you say you are. It’s also considered distasteful to look at illicit materials on the Internet, and to
do so creates a negative association with one’s online identity. The market may determine the formation of your online identity, such as with Second Life, where it costs real money to customize one’s avatar. The architecture of the Internet ensures that only certain identities are possible. Consider creating an online profile where you have to select your gender. You’re given the choice of “male” or “female” but what if you don’t identify with either one of those?

This is all to say that the Internet itself affects who we are and who we can become online.

Maybe all those science fiction films are right. Maybe computers really are taking over.

After all, they’re creating us just as much as we’re creating them.

Who Are You? Anonymity and Identity

If there’s one thing the Internet does better than other communications media, it’s making anonymous communication possible. But what effect does this anonymity have on our online identities?

The whole idea of identity on the Internet centres on anonymity—it almost presupposes it. Imagine firing up your web browser and having every site you visit know your name, address and phone number.

Hate to break it to you, but…We can do it. We have the technology!

But the key here is that most of us don’t know that. We usually feel pretty secure in our anonymity online, and that’s what allows us to feel like we can experiment with our identities. We have the (somewhat mistaken) impression that we can do what we want online with relative impunity.

Well, that sure explains the preponderance of porn sites online.

To some degree, online identity is anonymity. At least, that’s what we think. So what does it mean to have an identity of anonymity?

It means a decrease in inhibition and shyness. It allows many opportunities to experiment and play. It changes the way we interact with each other. It even changes the way we think about ourselves. If we look at our identities as being the result of our performance, then our performances online are no different than our performances in real-life. They all affect the way we think and act, it just depends on the medium we use to do so.

All this time we’ve been talking about how real-life identities affect our online ones, but what about the ways in which online identities affect real-life ones?

Maybe the lessons we learn online do have some real-life consequences.

The times, they are a changing. It used to be that the best conversations always occur when the lights are out. Now maybe the best conversations occur when the computer’s on.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Social Media Wrap-Up: Jumping on the Bandwagon for Change

We’ve looked at blogging and emails and surfing and chatting,
Gaming and YouTube and SecondLife and passing.
But do you recall…the most famous social medium of all?

Facebook the popular website
Had a very big fan club
And if you ever saw it
You would join it like a shlub…

Honestly, everyone, I think we’ve talked a lot about
Facebook. But a parting shot is necessary, I think, to bring the whole social media craze together.

That’s right, ladies and gents, it’s a social media wrap-up.

This is where I finally give Facebook credit for something—it’s ability to reinvent the social networking site all over again. Truth is, Facebook isn’t all that ground-breaking. You might recall its predecessor,
MySpace, or its forerunner, Friendster. I’m told no one ever uses these social networking sites anymore (usually in a slightly puzzled and often deprecatory tone of voice) because they’re just “like, so last week.” Not so with Facebook.

Or is it?

I stumbled across a
hilarious little video which seems to capture the spirit of the age of social media. It seems to suggest that Facebook, like MySpace and Friendster before it, is on its way out, soon to be ousted from online supremacy by SecondLife.

Whether this is true remains to be seen, but it brings up an interesting point when it comes to identity: mutability. Really, it’s just a fancy-shmancy word for change. Hey, Obama advocated it, David Bowie sang about it, and no one ever has it for a five dollar bill. Must be important, right?

Here’s the deal. As human beings, we’re always subject to change. Every experience we have, every choice we make, and every person we meet has some influence on the way we do things. The changes may be big or small, but the fact of the matter is, your identity is in a constant state of flux that can change at any given moment.
The same is true online. Our identities change with the times. The you represented yourself on friendster might not be the way you represented yourself on MySpace, or Facebook, or SecondLife. This not only reflects the differences in your chosen medium of social networking, but also the differences in you as a cyber-presence. You’ve grown and matured online just as you’ve grown and matured in real life. Your tastes have changed. You have new friends, new influences. You’re a new you.

Maybe we shouldn’t look at the constant mutability in social networking media as a bad thing. Maybe we should see it as progress. Maybe we should see it as a reflection of our growing maturity and sophistication online.

Or maybe, just maybe, we should see it for what it really is—change for the sake of change.

What do you think? Are social media reinventing themselves because of demand, or are they in pursuit of the Almighty dollar? Leave a comment and let me know.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Ethics of E-dentity: The Language of “Ought”

Ah, ethics. Those pesky things your mother tried to instil in you at a young age. Those things keeping our civilization from turning into a giant free-for-all. Those things keeping us from indulging in our basest desires at the expense of the rest of the world. Yeah, ethics.

In case you’ve forgotten, the language of ethics is basically one filled with “ought tos” and “should dos.” It concerns itself with determining how people ought to behave in a given society.

We can consider cyberspace to be one vast society in which people must negotiate acceptable behaviour. How we choose to present ourselves may have something to do with ethics, with a feeling that we should be a certain way online.

There are several different approaches to ethics that we can use to look at ethics in cyberspace. A few we can think about are:

  1. ethical egoism—this approach suggests that some behaviour is ethical as long as it results in some benefit for oneself. The ultimate “centre of the universe” mentality, it does not take into account the effect of one’s actions on others.
  2. utilitarian—this approach suggests that behaviour is ethical that results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This kind of ethicist uses “ethical calculus” to determine whether the ends justify the means.
  3. deontological—this approach suggests that behaviour is ethical if there is some logically implied moral duty to commit the action. This kind of ethicist doesn’t consider the consequences of one’s actions but rather the intentions behind them.

In terms of cyberspace, the ethical egoist rules. Due in large part to the amount of anonymity on the Internet, people can get away with presenting themselves in any way they want. This is one of the reasons why passing is so prevalent—Internet users see some immediate benefit to them, so they ignore the possible repercussions on others. They see an opportunity to try out a new identity, but don’t realize that the people they build relationships online trust in this online identity and feel betrayed when that identity turns out to be a sham. Ethical egoists are not unheard of online, but they are certainly not as common as utilitarians.

The utilitarian approach is the first one that comes to mind when thinking of ethics. Ihe Internet was largely build on utilitarian principles, such as the idea that information should be available to everyone so that everyone may benefit from it. While it is more obvious in real-life situations than in cyberspace, many still unconsciously adopt a utilitarian code of ethics when it comes to interacting with people online. Their identities tend to stay very close to real life, and they do not represent themselves as someone they are not. They avoid passing and misrepresentation in favour of the truth or the choice not to share some information.

Finally, deontologists are also quite rare online. They would consider actions to be ethical only if they can be logically maintained for everyone, which would be virtually impossible online. The Internet is such a vast, diverse community that no one could ever agree on what constitutes moral actions. Cyberspace incorporates many cultures with different values and beliefs—finding a way to determine ethical actions online using a deontological perspective would be very difficult.

The take home here is that there are several different ways of looking at what is “ethical.” Just because you don’t agree with some online behaviours doesn’t necessarily mean they are morally wrong.

Hey, with this system, you could even make a case for pornography! I’m just sayin’…

Friday, March 13, 2009

Get a (Second) Life! Part III: Avatar Identity Theft?

Type in “online identity theft” in Google, and you’ll get a slew of results geared toward people who want to protect their real-life identities during their online escapades. What you won’t find is a whole lot about people who want to prevent their online identities from being stolen.

This mostly just shows the syntactic pitfalls of the Google search engine, but it also provides another implicit conclusion: online identities are just not that important.

Even other bloggers, like Ben Yoskovitz in his Instigator Blog, treat avatar identity theft as a marketing matter, with the conclusion that stealing from another’s “brand” in just in bad taste.

That’s it? “In bad taste?” Anyone who has been following my blog can probably agree that his stance is akin to blasphemy!

Let’s look at the implications of avatar identity theft in virtual environments like Second Life.

According to Jeremy Duffy a “computer guy” with a citizen technology web site, avatar identity theft is a serious issue. He says:

If someone gets your SL password, they can log in as you, from any computer, and do all sorts of nasty things. Pay your L$ to someone else. Say bad things to or about your girlfriend. Ruin your reputation. Never, ever, ever give your SL password to anyone, not even those closest to you. Don’t use easy-to-guess passwords, and change them frequently. And don’t allow friends and family members access to your computer.
In the immortal words of The Joker, “Why so serious?”

Well, users spend quite a bit of time making their avatars look exactly the right way. They spend real money to buy their avatars clothing, jewellery, houses and property, and put a lot of work into creating a virtual personality with which to interact with other Second Life residents.

So what happens when someone gets a hold of your password and turns your avatar into a Second Life prostitute? What if someone creates a clone of your avatar and makes it dress in attack other avatars?

Aside from the requisite outrage, users can actually feel violated if their avatars are stolen and made to do naughty things. They feel as if they were the ones who were made to do those things. In part, this is because so much of one’s self is tied up with your avatar’s identity. You put in your time and energy, your dreams and your desires, your personality and your hobbies into your avatar, and when it’s stolen, it’s emotionally almost as devastating as if your real-life identity had been stolen.
But what about if it’s the Second Life team that’s doing the stealing. That’s right—like Facebook’s bedevilled privacy policy, the Linden Lab Terms of Service grant them the right to do with your avatar whatever they see fit.

According to a Second Life blogger, Linden Lab can hijack your avatar and force it to do anything from endorsing the virtual environment to hawking Pepsi.

What ever happened to games that were just plain fun and didn’t carry the risk of one's identity being roughed up, pimped out and emotionally scarred?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Get a (Second) Life! Part II: Identity as Escapism

It seems strange to articulate, but we use identity as an escapist tool. That is to say we use virtual identities as a tool to escape our real lives. But how is this possible? How can we escape ourselves by…being ourselves?

By now we’re all familiar with the idea of
multiple identities. Is it so difficult to believe, then, that we can use one identity to escape the constraints of another?

Second Life provides an excellent example of how Internet users can adopt identities as a form of escapism or fun in order to take a break from the daily grind. Let’s take a look at an example.

The irascible
Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) on NBC’s The Office is one of those characters you’d imagine is firmly grounded in physical reality. His obsession with beets and his refusal to show any kind of imagination in most circumstances cements his portrayal as a staid—albeit quirky—character.

A seeming contradiction is in his enjoyment of Second Life. He describes it like this:
Second Life is not a game. It’s a multi-user virtual environment. It doesn’t have points or scores. It doesn’t have winners or losers. […] I signed up for Second Life about a year ago. Back then my life was so great that I literally wanted a second one. In my second life, I was also a paper salesman, and I was also named Dwight. Absolutely everything was the same. Except I could fly.
As we can see, his lack of imagination extends to the virtual world, but having a Second Life avatar implies some degree of creativity. His ability to fly in Second Life is one example of this. Another example is in his ability to find amusement without competition.

His colleage,
Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), is another story. While he denies any enjoyment in Second Life at all, he obviously spent a lot of time on his avatar and gave it hobbies and employment that he would like to have in an ideal world. In Second Life, his imagination has fewer constraints, and he can explore (in a limited way) what it’s like to be the person he always wanted to be.

Let's take a look:

In a way, both remove themselves from reality by mediating their identities. While Dwight’s virtual identity is very similar to his real-life one, that doesn’t make it any less escapist. He can still escape consequences of certain actions, physical constraints such as the need for food and shelter, and to some extent the emotional complications inherent in physical interactions. Jim more obviously escapes his dead-end job by projecting his desires onto his virtual avatar.

In true Office fashion, Dwight invents a virtual environment within the virtual environment, which he calls "Second Second Life." Presumably for those people who want to be even further removed from reality.

It would be funny if it weren’t so damn true.

Images from:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Get a (Second) Life!: Too Free or Not Too Free? That is the Question...

Well, folks, there’s a new kid on the block when it comes to online interactivity. It’s called Second Life—because we all know that when it comes to chocolate and identities, why have one when you can have two?

Actually, Second Life seems to offer users things that their first lives don’t—freedom to represent themselves in any way they want through their
avatars or digital representations of themselves. And we’re not just talking gender or age or weight or race; we’re talking completely fantastical fabrications that cross boundaries regarding everything from cultures to species.

But does Second Life really offer so much freedom?

Second Life is the brainchild of
Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based Internet company founded in 1999. Developed in 2003, Second Life is a virtual world that allows users to relate to each other in ways that mimic—and enhance—real life interactions. It boasts everything from classroom environments in which professors from such hallowed universities as Harvard and Colombia conduct lectures, to trendy clubs, fashion outlets, and even a Reuters news bureau. Second Life even has its own currency, the Linden dollar, which users can exchange for actual U.S. dollars.

The effects on online identity are mind boggling. While proponents of the virtual environment would have you believe that you have virtually unlimited freedom in constructing the online identity represented by your avatar, there are several constraints that make this impossible.

1. Name—The most obvious limitation, and quite often the first you come across, is the ability to chose your own name. Oddly enough, Second Life only allows users to choose a name based on a set list of last names which can be combined with a first name to form your avatar’s full name. This constraint means that while you are technically “free” to choose your name, which you cannot typically do in real life, your choice is limited by the possible name combinations Second Life provides. In a way, this relates to Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s thoughts on ideology, namely that freedom to choose from that which is always the same is no freedom at all.

2. Appearance—While the possible appearances avatars can have seem virtually limitless, there are two very real constraints when it comes to matching your vision with (virtual) reality: online artistic ability and money. The simple fact is that, unless you’re an excellent graphic designer, you’ll probably have some difficulty trying to make your avatar look the way you want it to, especially if you’re going for a heavily customized avatar complete with wings and/or bunny ears. The other alternative is to buy “skins” which modify the appearance of your avatar from other Second Life users by way of Linden dollars. If you don’t have the cash, you’ll just have to be happy with what you’ve got.

3. Real-life constraints—As much as Second Life users like to keep their real lives separate from their second lives, to do so would really be impossible. Users are limited by the amount of time they are able to spend on their avatars based on real-life commitments such as jobs, education and families. Their personalities are also a factor, since it might be difficult for generally shy people to open up, even in a virtual environment. Finally, money is also a factor, since real U.S. dollars are used to buy the Second Life currency which allows users to shop, enter parties, buy real estate and so on.

We can see, then, that Second Life doesn’t offer the type of freedom that it suggests when it comes to identity formation. Rather, it offers only the illusion of freedom to people desperate to feel like they have some semblance of choice in their lives.

How a propos that there exists only an illusion of freedom in a place built as an illusion of reality.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Tube, You Tube, We all Tube for YouTube

At this point, I’m sure almost everyone between the ages of 13 and 35 has seen the insanely popular music video Here it Goes Again by OK Go. And the Crying Britney Fan. And Ninja Kitty. And countless other inane yet admittedly amusing videos that owe their fame—or infamy—to the ever-popular YouTube.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, YouTube is something of an Internet phenomenon. The video sharing website jumped into the cyber-scene in 2005 when three former
PayPal employees, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim founded the site. By 2006, with its popularity growing by leaps and bounds, Google acquired YouTube for US$1.65 billion.

The site’s popularity is hardly surprising when we consider two important facets of human nature:
  1. the desire for social interaction; and

  2. the desire to gain recognition by making an utter ass of oneself in front of an international audience.
But perhaps more important is what we can learn about ourselves as individuals through YouTube.

First, the site allows anyone anywhere to see playlists that you have made. The wackiest, most disturbing video you only added because someone dared you to is part of your online identity by virtue of the fact that your playlists are public knowledge. This not only tells others that you have interesting taste, but it also tells you that you have a propensity to be swayed by others. YouTube is sort of like
Facebook, then, since what you post can be affected by others’s perceptions and influences.

Second, YouTube taps into the desire for social interaction by allowing comments and giving users the ability to have “friends”—other YouTube users with profiles on the site. The number and type of these friends may indicate a friendly disposition, low self-esteem, the tendency to associate only with a certain type and many other aspects of identity. The ability to comment on videos adds an aspect of interactivity to the site as well as allowing users to create a persona through the choice of which videos they comment on and how they construct these comments. In this way, YouTube is like a chat room where the language you use says as much about your identity as the topic discussed.

YouTube also brings up issues of popularity. The number of views and favourites that a video receives goes a long way in manufacturing popularity. People are simply more likely to watch a video that many other people have watched, since the number of views seems to translate to an increased popularity. We can say that YouTube profiles are a bit like blogs, since the authority of the user often depends on others’ perception of what you say and what you like.
YouTube boasts many other features with diverse effects on cyber identities. While these are only a few, it gives us a good place to start when it comes to analysing such a complex medium. If YouTube is like Facebook, a chat room and a blog, all rolled into one, perhaps its success lies in its ability to combine aspects of other popular media and bring them all together in one friendly, easy to use service.

Or maybe it’s the appeal of sitting back and enjoying the show. With 200,000 of your closest friends.