I’m no man

August 7, 2011

During the last few days, two articles that generated some buzz were published. The one that came out as first was written by Danah Boyd, the second one was written in response (the view was of course contrary, at least in terms of spirit).

Both of them are about the strange relationship between anonymity and the web, particularly about using real names on social networks. They made me think about the old times (yeah, you know, internet moves fast), and I’d like to share some thoughts about.

The first time when Literature writes about anonymity is probably captured by the Odyssey, within the episode of Ulysses and Polyphemus. The tale is notorious, in those pages a blind Polyphemus tries to warn the other Cyclops that Ulysses is escaping. The clever Ulysses never revealed his name to Polyphemus, telling him he was “no-man”. This made any warning attempt of the not-as-clever Polyphemus doomed to fail, causing the scream “no man is murdering me by treachery” to fall unheard.

This short and well known tale, even if filled with imagination, gives some perception of how anonymity can be powerful.

Ten years ago the internet was different. The main social network was probably IRC, and I was completely part of that “nickname” generation. Most of my friends used to call me using my old nickname for years, some of them even today, even when we were not divided by a screen. Using a nickname was part of the attempt for hiding something of us, just like a mask. When you wear a mask, some people know who you are by owning the information you are hiding (the connection between you and your disguise), some people don’t. This confers you the power of choosing when and how to disclose anything, putting a strong filter straight in your hands.

This is also source of mystery and fascination.

There are many personal reasons why I love those years, so much filled with emotions and personal memories. One of them is about how content was important.

Since the baggage of reputation attached to your nickname was by far weaker than today (no photo, no video, no previous log attached), what was most of the time truly important was what you had to say. Being anonymous was simple, reachable by changing the nickname or by joining unknown channels. It was like owning the skills of the fascinating Proteus, sea god coming from the Greek mythology, able to transform himself into any animal, rather than answering the mortars’ questions.

For a whole year of my life, when I was sixteen, I’ve been daily spending part of the night talking about poetry and literature with strangers. This forced me to wake up sleepy dozens of times, some of them with the burden of getting up earlier to study, but it was extremely beautiful.

None of those unknown chatters knew my last name, but what matters is that there wasn’t any need to reveal that information.

Anyway, these are just memories, the world is much different compared to ten or even five years ago. I’ve changed too, things have changed, lot of water under the bridges.

I firmly believe that the choice of using real names led Facebook to drive a revolution, that decision was simply visionary and made any of us truly realize that internet is made of people, that it can be seamlessly integrated with our life, even a natural prosecution.

Like any revolution, this changed everything, introducing new opportunities as well as new threats. Real and Online life are becoming the same thing, one is the mirror of the other. Humanity never experimented a world without oblivion, and the web is a mirror unable to forget most of our daily feeding.

Life in this world is still possible if we preserve full faculty on that mirror, faculty to choose between real name and nickname, faculty to erase our online past in any moment, if we are willing to.

In the end it’s matter of “choice”.
Privacy is not important. Choice is what really matters.