In cyberspace, as the newly classic New Yorker cartoon says, nobody knows you're a dog-or a veteran journalist.
In April, Larry Matthews, a former editor for National Public Radio, was indicted for 15 counts of possession and distribution of child pornography. Matthews, claiming to be conducting research for a magazine piece on the child porn industry, walked right into the middle of "Operation Innocent Images," an FBI sting which involves special agents lurking anonymously in kiddy-porn chat rooms.
Despite journalistic "shield laws," which aim to protect journalists while doing investigative research, and Matthews' planned "free speech" defense, the fact remains that he probably committed federal crimes.
But that's not the reason I bring up this case. Rather, what we have here is an investigative journalist, a team of government agents, and presumably some real-life pedophiles, all hanging around and chatting about and sometimes trading child pornography. So even if their real life motivations were different, their online activities were essentially the same.
This leads me to a question, which more and more seems to be a central tenet of modern existence: What is online identity-and how different is it from "real life"?
Or, as postmodernist and cyber-culture maven Sherry Turkle puts it, "Who am we?" Some researchers go so far to say that a persona we create on a screen is no less real then the persona we present to our family, friends, and co-workers. The difference is that we have more control over our online selves. As University of Montana communications professor Bill Wilmot puts it: "The self is created by the relationships it has, AND the relationship(s) literally create the self."
So as you log on, presenting a certain image, the reactions you receive help define that persona. And if you begin by presenting a persona which differs from your real life self, some have suggested, that new persona is not so much a falsehood as it is a new facet to your collection of selves-the friend, student, offspring, etc., which defines so much of our behavior. Georgia Tech faculty and semi-famous Internet psychology researcher Amy Bruckman calls such identity morphing, a "workshop" to explore different aspects of the socially-constructed self.
There are occasions, though, when judgment in such matters appears to be lacking.
Several years ago, an online persona appeared in a few support group chat rooms, claiming to be a woman who'd been horribly disfigured in an auto accident. This elicited a flood of sympathy from the online community, and over the course of six months or so, the wheelchair-bound woman became a confidant to others who had been the victims of physical and psychological trauma.
She was well-liked and respected as a survivor, a brave soul in the face of adversity. Some even engaged in sexually explicit chat with her.
The only problem was that the wheelchair-bound woman was actually a healthy and mobile male psychologist. On one level, this psychologist was dishonest; on another, the bonds he developed were real and true. He helped numerous women through difficult situations.
Which depiction is true? Even with respect to the concept of the "real life" self, some Net-a-holics even ask, "Which 'real life' are you talking about?" To root out some less esoteric realities, I decided to get some concrete examples of identity manipulation from a couple of Net communities-a Java-based chatroom hosted by the Excite search engine, and a "MUD," or multi-user text-based adventure game.
In the first Java chatroom I encountered nobody responded to my query, "How often do you all think that people misrepresent their personal attributes in chatrooms like this one?" Then I logged in to a chatroom entitled "40ish," and asked people the same question. The humorless fortysomethings chased me out with a broom, claiming that they're all honest, all the time.
Next I logged in to a MUD that I frequent regularly and asked the same question. The general consensus was that misrepresentations and exaggerations are very common, and generally motivated by an urge toward idealized self-representation. In other words, people present themselves as they wish they were. I went on to suggest that some people might misrepresent their personal attributes in order to gain access to another gender, class, race or age group.
A few people talked about "genderbending" as a means to learn more about the opposite sex. That is, as a female persona, for instance, a man can "hang out with the gals." One person said that he regularly misrepresents his age to gain respect. While just 17, he told me that when people thought he was 35, "the effect was amazing... people would listen to you... and often would treat you better."
Clearly, deception for reprehensible goals is, well, reprehensible. But exaggeration and posturing are deeply engrained in our brain stems, and they ain't gonna go away. So while it's prudent to recognize that people may not be what they say they are-in the real world or online-it helps to remember that the peculiarities of the Net can act as psychological workshops for people in need of identity explorations, modifications and augmentations. Trust in cyberspace, meanwhile, should be earned as it is elsewhere in our lives.