Tuesday, July 13, 2010

on the refolding of identity

Scandal this week as huge online multi-player game World of Warcraft decided to introduce their forums to real name culture. The predictable outcry masked a broader anxiety about the brave new world of total connection. Now that the entire world is online, will it have to become less free? Or, put more simply; are most people really idiots?

World of Warcraft backed down, of course; several days of female roleplayers gently sharing with the site organisers their extensive personal experiences of being stalked, threatened and harassed did the trick nicely. But Facebook, the native home of the real name culture, is alive and well and winning the internet.

The internet started out as a pseudonymous culture. Faced with character name limits, people created aliases. Realising they were different people with different groups, they made multiples. Feeling the need to escape in an overpoweringly male-dominated world, women went male, or gender neutral. People put on imaginary bodies and made strange worlds. They met strangers and found out new ideas, explored new territories of identity and expression. They were able to switch and change to meet new challenges and rest from exhausting interactions. It was thrilling, empowering, exciting.

Compared to that, the real name culture of Facebook feels like being a pop-up gopher in the hammer game -- the same friends, the same connections, the same short list of faces/friends/family, chattering back endlessly. It's quite nice, but also quite boring. You respond to someone, you see more of them. You ignore someone, they go away. It simulates the experiences of popular kids everywhere, which is fine, I guess; but if you only stay in your own pretty playpen you're kind of missing the point of going online.

For anyone who read about online freedoms and felt a sinking sense of horror, you're absolutely right. While you can engage with this freeedom creatively, make interesting content, have fun, make new friends and generally have a brilliant time, of course many people take the other route. They grief, flame, stalk, harrass, break and vandalise things. They do appalling things almost unconsciously, without a second thought; and their excuses are very simple and very clear. It is easy to do, anyone could do it, lots of people want to, and nobody's stopping me.

Are they right, though? Are they really now the dominant online group? Or, to put it another way, are most people really idiots?

If what's predominantly happening is that most people are routinely thoughtlessly acting out without worrying about consequences because there are unlikely to be any bad consequences and it's just so easy, yes, some form of unique registration might have an effect. However, if what we're seeing is an aggressive minority indulging in deviant behaviour because that's what they want to do, then it seems likely that people will get round the checks and blocks and continue with what they're doing because that is what they do when they're online.

World of Warcraft's forums, for the moment, are continuing to allow their users fictional creations their voices. But if the moronic and monotonous sock-puppet slaggers outnumber the real and honorable interactions, what conclusions should we draw?