Unraveling anonymity and identity

Identity itself is an outdated concept. We are not some static and immutable list of descriptors and qualities. We are flexible and under constant change—we’re all in perpetual beta.¹

Several weeks ago I made a very conscious decision to convert an avatar I had been using in the Tumblr community–which if you’re not familiar with, is a blogging platform that sits somewhere between WordPress and Twitter–from an “anonymous” image of the Three Jewels, which I also use here, to a personal photograph. I had already tested out the personal photo on Twitter, but that is a community I am less invested in–having only opened an account in November of last year. It came with some surprise that I received a lot of negative feedback for this action. Even as explicitly as, “Ahhh I miss the old sharanam icon! Why did I become so attached that I have a bad reaction to this person instead of the symbol it was previously?” Extraordinary (and unfortunately, more hurtful than I would have liked). On the other hand, it also induced a lot of curiosity in my Tumblr which hadn’t been there before. I’m not a total stats junkie, but as a way of understanding better the social component of blogging, I do keep tabs on where traffic comes from and what content readers are most compelled by. Changing my avatar to a personal photo drove readers who normally only look at my posts in a feed reader (or Tumblr dashboard) to my site and even further, to my WordPress blog for the first time really. This was equally fascinating, though more expected.

Blogging, tweeting, and social networking in general are inherently social. In most cases, people want to know about the people they are interacting with, in as many dimensions as possible. I had hung on to some thin veil of anonymity for a long time, as both a habitual holdover from early days of Livejournaling, etc., and as a defense mechanism–avoiding vulnerability. When I started this rather personal blog I didn’t really know who I was writing for (other than myself), but mostly it was intended as a way of explaining what was happening with me to those in my real life who were interested, since I made some pretty abrupt life-changing decisions. In the early posts, a few close friends and my family were the only ones reading. Now, the audience is entirely different. In fact, almost no one from my real life reads these days other than my sister (who’s grown into it as she’s seen my life change for the better) and my teacher. Attempted anonymity was a total joke when it was the first audience and now it just leaves a bad taste.

A post by Barry Briggs of Ox Herding really impacted me in this regard.

As individuals, we are responsible for offering genuine intimacy to the world. We are responsible for bringing our whole selves to each moment. We are responsible for insuring that others have the opportunity to perceive us clearly. We are responsible for the effects of our intentions and actions upon others. We accept these responsibilities when we commit to a path of awakening…Anonymity…undermines the work of responsibility – which is, after all, the essence of the Buddha Dharma.²

This made me think hard about the relationship between anonymity and accountability. I realized it was becoming more and more of a cop out to hide my name behind an online moniker. Certainly one of the reasons I’ve held onto a bit of anonymity here was a desire to hide in Google searches, in case old lovers were curious, a similar concern of one of the commenters at Barry’s post. But, what, do I not want to reveal…happiness?

Though it’s a work in process (still sharanam typing here), authenticity has become more and more the name of the game for me, and blogging and social media a form of practice–therefore totally inseparable. In the early days of social media, in my mid twenties, I took great pains to paint images of myself as witty or whatever it might be. Through a deep commitment to contemplative practice, those masks are continually being peeled away (with love and affection, as tinytruths reminds me), as are all the layers of false self that keep us from being who we really are.

In the mainstream social media world, there is a debate currently going on around an anonymous model and an integrated, authentic model of online identity. Facebook is leading the argument for integration–and clearly has a lot of vested interest in things continuing to move in that direction. Even Facebook’s subtle shifts and changes have affected my behavior online. In particular, I saw how a new option to interact with people who “like” my Facebook page as me, the individual, was something I genuinely welcomed. Similarly, Facebook’s efforts to streamline information in the news feed (what they deem relevant based on shared friends and interests, as opposed to real-time), and the plethora of business pages in my network, have enabled me to be more and more specialized–because the technology itself is helping to bring me together with those who are genuinely interested in what the other is sharing.

As an avid social media user, I can say from experience that it seems increasingly clear to me that I cannot have more than one online identity, and that it does not serve me or anyone to remain anonymous. Online, I am drawn to those who allow themselves to be vulnerable and to those who engage in meaningful, personalized dialogue, by way of comments in various platforms. Recently, I also noted how much more connected I feel when someone uses my first name–especially if emphasized, i.e., more than just in the greeting–in our interactions. And as a Buddhist practitioner, it has become virtually untenable for me to be anything but integrated in my online activities. Choosing to present myself, honestly, openly–weaknesses and all–is hard, and particularly when opinions or views creep in, things that smack of politics, I feel so vulnerable. Also, I could fear these activities will impact me professionally at some point, since there will be an archive of all these vulnerabilities. But honestly, I’m not worried about it. I’m more interested in being real. As the opening quote suggests–our “selves” are in constant flux. This doesn’t provide any more incentive to hide, in my opinion, only less. While there may indeed be a time and place for anonymity–as in Alcoholics Anonymous, or for teenagers who are struggling with their sexual identity and are looking for support–in the virtual communities I frequent and engage in, there is absolutely no argument for anything but authenticity and, as such, full responsibility for my thoughts, words, and deeds.

I hope I’m not the only geek around here. Please share your thoughts on this important subject!

1. Haydn Sweterlitsch,  “Authenticity vs. Anonymity: Users are who they are”, March 17, 2011

2. Barry Briggs, “Anonymity”, February 7, 2011

Additional mainstream perspectives:

Facebook, Discourse & Identity, Stowe Boyd, March 16, 2011

To Identify or Not to Identify–That Is the Question, Center for Democracy & Technology, March 8, 2011

Why Facebook Is Not the Cure for Bad Comments, Matthew Ingram, March 7, 2011

The Continuing Relevance of Online Anonymity, Joanne McNeill, September 19, 2010

Anonymity & Online Identity, from a website for the suite of courses taught by Elizabeth Stark and Brad Rosen, Yale Law & Technology

Some recent, relevant ruminations from the digital sangha:

EDIT 4/7: Jennifer Cobb, Can We Love the Stranger on Facebook? “The knowledge and expression of our most unique selves requires a commitment to authenticity, to knowing who we are in the most profound sense. This is hard work, even among friends. But it is when we encounter the other in their unique authenticity that we are enlarged.”

Marguerite Manteau-Rao, The Gift of Kind Authenticity, “What is the point of being untrue to oneself, and pretending? How can one relate out of a facade? How can one have a heart to heart connection when one’s heart is hidden by a camouflage of automatic behaviors? How can one live this moment, tied by concepts of how one should be instead?”

Kristen Stancik, Your Life As a Project, It’s simple: “Be present. Be honest.”

Lynette Genju Monteiro, Sentimentally So, “This is a personal space where I get to be a ‘me’ that is different from the hour-by-hour piecework shrinkology I am/do/be everyday.”

Jaye Seiho Morris, Efficiency and Authenticity, “It’s much more efficient to be authentic, rather than project something out into my life that’s an illusion and not who I really am.”

If you haven’t seen it yet, do take the time to watch Brené Brown‘s TedX Talk on vulnerability and authenticity. It’s great.

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  1. On line personas are fascinating, having been part of them since the DOS-days of user groups and later the “forums” of AOL and Compuserve. It always fascinated me – when I wasn’t being “flamed” – how a name or some revelation would repulse or attract people. I’ve tried to make a practice of choosing handles that are consistent with my reading of the safeness of the venue. Before social media really became social, as in agora, it was somewhat dangerous to reveal one’s identity and I know my choice of handles and identifiers reflected the prevailing situation. However, personality is not easily masked and I know those who had dual natures on/off camera were not people I trusted… that that reserve was almost always proven to be the best stance.

    These days it’s easier to be open, I think. But that raises other issues. I get frequent requests on Facebook to “friend” people who are patients. The request is not always a need to have a personal and intimate relationship with me; they just think it’s OK because Facebook, for example, is just what people do. I usually have to explain that boundaries are important everywhere and just as I don’t talk about my personal life to everyone, I don’t share many aspects of my life with everyone. So for me, FB is still a personal domain into which I admit a precious few who “feel” comfortable to share in my life with me. (I’m more discerning these days btw but too soft-hearted to cull my “friend” list.)

    Interesting that you picked the quote above from 108ZB. I have often wondered about it and what I may have meant by it. Transparency is an interesting call to action; but not a Theory of Everything. IOW, it is a practice of being true to what is and upaya would suggest it be used judiciously.

    At one level, it is true that the blog is a space where I get to vent, expound, explore, and otherwise be uninformed/silly/blind/etc. At another level, I still feel a strong boundary – which likely constricts my writing style – the divides the things to be shared and the things best left at the edge of my world. I don’t know that will ever change – perhaps because of “me”, perhaps because of the livelihood robe I have to wear for much of my day.

    The name however is very real. Genju is my dharma name – preferentially my favourite. Using it is a form of practice. And that practice is to be transparent in the moment of what is being expressed.

    Thank you for being exactly who you are each time we connect. For that you are precious.

  2. aly

     /  April 6, 2011

    This is a really good topic, thank you for your thoughts on authenticity and anonymity! I definitely struggle with it, fear of the google search and vulnerability. I guess we all have our own way of navigating online social networks, and experimenting with the ‘performance of self’ in each venue. I appreciate online communities because we go to what we’re interested in and I trust that folks won’t be reading if they don’t want to hear what I have to say.
    Tumblr feels creative and fun to me. I like your new photo there and definitely feel more drawn to your posts because of it :) My blog is where I say things that I would not say to most people in person, and definitely would not post on facebook (at least, that’s the way it is now). Once I went way out on a limb and linked a Byron Katie article on FB and got a couple strongly negative reactions. Most people aren’t really interested in looking at their dissatisfaction :)

  3. I have to say– I was curious about the change of icon! But then again, whenever someone changes, I always am. It’s funny how– seeing all these posts of a person on the dashboard, it begins to reach the point when you start to see their avatar as an extension of their person. And when they change, it comes as a shock. You realise no, this is not what the person looks like– this is not who they are. It shows that you are online, and things will be different than in the outside world.

    I’m so glad you were able to do so though. I can understand some of your sense of vulnerability, however, with my posts it’s different in that I’ve never been anonymous– I’ve always had my closest friends (and not so close ones!) read what I post. This is both a good and bad thing– I was considerably nervous, in the beginning, of posting things that may affect how others perceive me. But, when it comes down to it, censoring my posts is like censoring a part of my person. I think honesty is important, even more so when it comes to writing your thoughts!

    Thank you for writing such an interesting post– and once again, I love your blog/s.

    • Kate, thanks so much for making the jump over to WordPress with your comment here. I appreciate you taking the time to reflect and investigate. You are one very authentic and thoughtful soul. And so lucky not to have the self-conscious trappings of most people your age! I too appreciate all you share in honesty. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for this beautiful rumination, Katherine. I’ve been struggling with a similar identity crisis (if you will) regarding my two Twitter accounts, where I am significantly more active than Tumblr. There’s @kstancik, where my “real life” friends, colleagues and food-related contacts follow my work/life/food adventures. And then there’s @verytinytruths, which came later and is specifically spiritual/Buddhist/inquiry-related. I want to merge them, but have a few fears: a) that I’d inevitably lose people from both groups, b) what on earth would the handle be?… but mostly (and this just occurred to me when reading your post) c) what would it sound like? In other words, what does my nondual identity look like as expressed to the social media world? I think I need to take a good, honest look at it myself first.

    You have given me much to think about, and much great reading to embark on—although I’d seen that BusinessWeek piece too and was similarly unconvinced. I am not a fan of Facebook, much preferring Twitter’s universal access and minimalist style, but I do admit it’s harder to hide there.

    Here’s to peeling the onion, tears and all!

  5. I really enjoyed this post! Thank you for sharing yourself ! I too am a geek that way LOL (Oh BTW this is Melissa Upasika, not being anonymous here..how vulnerable uugghh LOL) I sympathize with what you wrote here and am having the same conflicts. I have a few WordPress sites, Twitter sites and my Facebook and just added a new Facebook page today. I am struggling with whether to link them all or remain anonymous on each of them….however a clever person can figure out it is me on all those sites LOL…
    I thank you for this post , it came very timely and I will dig deeper to figure out why I have chosen to remain anonymous. I will let you know my friend what I choose to do and what I come up with ^_^ and I will read what others wrote above.
    With metta,
    Upasiika Melissa Schaid

  6. Brannu

     /  April 7, 2011

    Authenticity. Yes. Sooooooooo important. I think that the relevance of authenticity is becoming more important as social networking is becoming more and more of an intimate space … in the sense that people really take what you say, post, share, etc. … very serious. Maybe I send conflicting views when I post hardcore hip-hop followed by some spiritual philosophy about compassion, love, etc. Yet, that’s the flavor of my authenticity. What IS interesting is how I would post half-naked women with tatoos on my tumblr, but not on my facebook page … because of family and such. Only one person in my life follows my tumblr, and he doesn’t really participate much (neither do I).

    Another thought is, I think it’s really interesting how some folks use social media to let loose their hidden rage and anger. I have a friend that does that in political discussions. He uses it as a way to throw flames at conservatives and redirect his anger. It’s how he feels in some ways, but, he wouldn’t say it in real life.

    But … authenticity is the movement. “let it all hang out” mama … as raw as ever.

    At least that’s my approach. ;)

    … love …

    • B, I think that’s one of the dangers of anonymity — the flaming, rage, vitriol that ensues. Much prefer the love, even if it’s a little “shizoid”. So glad to have you here in this space, and just generally a part of my life these days. Thank you.

  7. Wow, thank you thoughtful readers for sharing your own struggles with this issue. The element that many of you address here is a certain need to segment different aspects of one’s personality, and to create boundaries–particularly in regard to family and professional life. I think this is very important. Especially for teachers and therapists–where it’s dangerous to have fully reciprocal intimacy.

    Being Blog published a highly relevant piece from guest contributor Jennifer Cobb today which discusses the limit of the same Facebook technology I extolled here…I believe we as individuals have to take an active part in shaping things, in making it relevant and meaningful, and in using the technology to assist us in both linking us to those who are like-minded and to those who may have very different opinions. Related to that, one thing that’s obvious in the comments here is that each of these platforms offers something different–but it is only together that they work in a way to really build community that may not be possible otherwise. Several of you know this by having become Facebook or Twitter friends, where once it was just Tumblr for example…and how that changes one’s perception and interest in what’s being shared.

    Kristen, about FB’s failings and its inherent conspicuousness, I think this was the fundamental breaking point for me–when more and more of my Dhamma friends became FB friends, I started to let down barriers.

    And to your point Aly, I use lists so that I don’t overload my childhood friends with posts on death and suffering but still give them a little stuff to chew on from time to time!

    Anyway, I hope to see more discussion around this subject. It’s an ever-shifting landscape of social media and communication, that’s for sure.

    Metta to you all. May you be your authentic selves, may we flourish in that together.


  8. One of the things that I had always found attractive about the Internet was that you could be completely anonymous. That seems to be a thing of the past. But privacy is an important issue for me and I view the ongoing erosion of privacy as a dangerous trend. For that reason, I was rather leery about joining Facebook. Even though I blog under my real name, etc., I thought FB might provide exposure beyond what I am comfortable with. Well, I did join FB and so far I’ve survived.

    Frankly, I wonder if it is possible to completely authentic online. On FB, for instance, people want to friend you and you may not know them or have any idea of who they are or may know them only slightly. Then you confirm the “friendship” and that’s it. There’s no interaction, no communication, they just go on your friends list. Why did they want to friend you? Just to add another name and photo to their list? What’s the point of being friends if there is no interaction? There’s something that strikes me as inauthentic about that.

    I was impressed with the role social media played in the Egyptian revolution, so I am convinced it can be a powerful and positive tool. I just don’t have a handle on it yet. I appreciate your thoughts on this subject and thank you for providing your insights.

    • David, thanks for your comment. Yes, what privacy, what anonymity? And authenticity? We can only try…there are so many layers to peel! Social media is in perpetual evolution, so not sure any of us has a handle on it really. The issue of friend requests–I always struggle with that one. People are probably used to the “follow at a click of the mouse” aspect of other arenas so they think, why not? I certainly want to interact in some way before I friend someone on FB. There is a level of intimacy there–or there can be (in my opinion, in its best form) depending on how you use the technology–so I think it’s worth being prudent with friend requests…

  9. I started blogging about a year and a half ago, and chose from the beginning to use my real name and to include my photo on the blog. I was saying things that I had been afraid to say for quite some time, and felt it was very important to say them as me. I don’t have a fan page on Facebook. Readers who want to interact with me there can friend the actual me.

    I have blogger friends who use personas. Many of them are ex-Mormons like myself who worry about the repercussions of family members’ reactions to what they have to say. I understand that choice as well. I’m always touched to get a message from one of them though where they tell me their real names. I’m always drawn to authenticity and names and real faces feel more authentic to me.

    By the way, nice blog! Found you through the Being blog. Will definitely be checking more out.

    • Oh my Leah. I am so happy you made the visit. Very impressed with your writing and your courage to toe the line. Your sentiments re religion resonate very deeply, though because I was raised in a progressive Episcopal environment, never felt the need to give anything up or make the move to atheism. I consider myself a non-theist so as to differentiate myself from mainstream beliefs around God but…well, it’s so much more complex than that. And I struggle with identifying as Buddhist most of the time too. Anyway, more when I have a chance to really delve into your blog. Excited.

  10. I am completely with you, Katherine. Nothing to hide. What is the point? For me, that goes for both online and offline interactions. I also do not buy into a separation between work and personal life. I am one person engaged in a succession of moments, that’s all.

    One should look into the heavy psychological toll from putting up boundaries between carefully crafted personas. Life is just too precious to be wasting so much energy into this kind of rigid role playing. In that respect, I applaud Facebook for helping break down these antiquated ways of being.

    Of course, all of the above just one view, at this moment . . .

  11. Thank you for this rich exploration, Sharanam. And also thanks to the many thoughtful, stimulating commentators.

    As you may know, I’m on an extended break from online activity, during which I’ve thought a bit – although not very frutifully – about the performative nature of online expression (on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). I hope to return to Ox Herding in a couple of weeks – we’ll see if this hiatus has had any effect!


  12. So deeply appreciating your blog and the thoughtful discussion it generates, Katherine. Hope you’re having a fruitful retreat (fruitful? not even sure what i mean by that, but it’s the best i can do for now :), being as you are. Questions of online performance and authenticity are super interesting to me, too. You’ve laid out so many considerations so carefully, which I really appreciate.

    On the plus-side for online anonymity, as you mentioned, I do wonder about possibly undermining one’s employability — if one is seeking a job where that matters. In response to my parents’ ominous warnings on the subject, I’ve basically concluded for myself that if there’s a job that won’t hire me because of what I write online, then it’s probably not a job I’d be stoked to have. But that does point to my own privilege, perhaps, in feeling that I have some say, some selection, in which jobs I’m willing to take. If I were really hard-up for livelihood, and my online history blew my chances, I’d probably be singing a different tune. Then again, being hard-up for a job probably leads one away from professionalized work (more towards the service industry direction, in my case), and there, I think, employers are less likely to give a hoot about what you post on the interwebs.

    In his discussions on performativity (I think the book I’m remembering is Performance In Everyday Life, Erving Goffman talks about the different “fronts” we use to interact with people in different situations. I don’t recall specifically what he said, but I do remember getting the general idea that we use different fronts with our parents than we do with our friends, or our boss, or our ex-lovers. I recently had a pretty disastrous clash of fronts, thanks to a blog post I wrote that my parents probably shouldn’t have read. The fallout from that has got me seriously reconsidering what I will write about my own sexuality and sexual health, under my own name, online or in print.

    It is difficult for me to consider compromising and limiting what I say about my own experiences online, since my blog is specifically an attempt to engage autobiographical writing in an honest, transparent, social and engaged (dialectical) way. If I write about my thoughts on police brutality, and on solidarity unionism, and on the paramitas, etc., and how they all play out in my everyday life, but don’t write about my sexual life, I fear that I send an implicit message supporting the idea that sex is shameful, private, apolitical, and taboo. I hate to do that, and yet I also hate to cause my family pain. So, trying to navigate those clashing fronts.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts and opening yourself up, as well as generating a beautiful discussion. I don’t often comment here but I’m so grateful for your work. Thank you!

  13. Delayed replies to additional thoughtful comments here: yes, Marguerite, I am sure there often is a psychological toll to this kind of fragmentation (fragmented depending on who we are relating to)–in fact, I think we’d be hard-pressed to find any adult who didn’t have direct experience with the downside of such boundaries. However, as Katie points out, there are challenges to letting those boundaries down as well.

    I agree that probably any ill-effect of autobiographical sharing on the Internet from an employer perspective would preclude them being an employer I’d want to have, and of course that’s coming from a specific place of privilege…so it’s tricky. Ah, sex and desire, a topic I often think of discussing here but hesitate for all sorts of reasons. Katie, thank you so much for your welcome additions to this conversation. Glad you’re appreciating this space even if most often silently so!

    Barry, thank you too for stopping by and commenting. I find stepping back and taking complete breaks from technology to be highly necessary for clearing, reflecting, and ensuring that our intentions for writing and sharing continue to be rooted in practice as self-awareness and intimacy with others. I am getting caught up on your posts since you’ve been back just now. So much rich material there. Thank you.


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