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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Whose Online Identity is it Anyway?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

My recent posts have had something of a common theme to them, as they have in part been musings about the way the online environment forces you either to assume different identities for different audiences, or to bare all in photographs, blogs and forums as you take the same username across different platforms.

In my previous post on Graduate Junction, I noted that it is particularly important to keep your professional life separate from private life, if your existence in the former depends upon the trustworthiness of your voice and character. In my case, I need to keep my academic self distinct from the "Ishmael" self who pseudonymously writes this blog, since the former writes in a considered and carefully research way, whilst the latter often splurges any old rubbish that springs to mind.

And today, the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones exemplifies what happens when you forget to assume the right mask for the right circumstance. Last week, Cellan-Jones wrote a light-hearted post on the BBC Technology blog about Facebook's removal of Scrabulous. Soon after it was published, he received a message from a "friend" on Twitter, asking why he had not mentioned the existence of Wordscraper, the renamed, rebranded but still unlicenced version of Scrabulous. Cellan-Jones replied "cos I couldn't be bothered."

Unlike Facebook, Twitter allows anyone to become a "friend" without your authorisation. Cellan-Jones, in this off-the-cuff comment, let down his guard, forgetting that your online identity and real-life self may not be identical, presenting the same subject to the same circle of friends and readers. A real-life friend, knowing Cellan-Jones has a propensity for sarcasm (I speculate here), might be aware that this is just a throwaway remark, and the sort of brief message Twitter encourages with its 140 character limit. But on the Quaequam Blog (a blog with a name almost as impossible to remember as The Pequod), his interlocutor, James Graham, took Cellan-Jones more seriously, introducing a post about Scrabulous by saying:
When I twittered Rory Cellan-Jones to ask why he didn’t mention Wordscraper in his blog post about Scrabulous, he replied "cos i couldn’t be bothered!" Years from now, when British journalism has finally breathed its last, this phrase will be engraved on its tombstone.
Ignoring the what-rubbish-weather-and-weren't-things-better-before-the-war state of the nation hyperbole (which, so Graham says in his follow-up post, was simply satirical), this is a really interesting case. Although in his follow-up post Graham laments the fact that Cellan-Jones lacks any sense of humour in his "pompous" reply, Cellan-Jones has very acutely used the case to highlight the serious dangers of controlling identity online:
Now I write in a number of voices online - very straight and BBC in news pieces for the website, a rather more relaxed tone for this blog, and a downright shoddy, ungrammatical, and sometimes incoherent voice in places like Twitter. But perhaps I can no longer afford to be quite so careless. There is the option on Twitter to "protect" your updates - in other words to control who can see what you are saying. I haven't yet done that - it seems to go against the spirit of openness - but may need to consider it.
There have been numerous cases in the news recently about data loss, identity theft, phishing scams and the like. It will not, I hope, be too long before along with multiplication and learning how to spell "alcohol," children are also taught about IT security as a matter of course. But, though it is far harder to teach, the ability to control identity, presentation and voice online is also an important one, as this case indicates. Who will be able to teach this soft skill? I call forth the English Literature, Language and Drama teachers. For what is a book or a play, if not the expressions of different characters in a different medium, whose opinions may not be shared by their author, or whose opinions may be shared but presented in a different way? As I see it, the ability to control identity online is essentially a linguistic one; it is no coincidence that I find all the metaphors I invoke when I think about this topic concern fiction: costume, mask, voice and so on. If only we had T.S. Eliot around, showing us how to do the police in different voices!

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Posted by Alistair at 5:42 pm

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