Anonymity & the carnival of the fakesters


Many of my readers have a fairly ‘meh’ approach to old media – they’ll read the Metro if they find it on their bus/tube seat, they may enjoy the weekend deforestation editions as an excuse to lounge at the weekends – they’re mostly too connected to actually just chew over their toast & stare into the distance – and fill up their recycling boxes. They’ll happily hijack the odd Daily Mail readers poll. They’ll follow their favorite tech writers & journalists in Twitter. Mainly they get their news from their network – which means in practice a mix of online newspapers & services, across a range of sites where people may be paid to research, reflect & write, but mostly aren’t.

Who do I know that reads the Telegraph? Off the top of my head, no one, although there must be a couple of you who have. New Telegraph tech bloggers Paul Carr & Andrew Keen have been link/troll baiting this week with a couple of posts about the undesirability of online anonymity – Carr’s takes massive chunk of Schopenhauer out of  historical, cultural and technological contexts, And Keen’s verges on Brass Eye territory so much (110%, in fact) that all that’s missing is the poll made up of foxes heads on sticks. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that effectively removing internet anonymity, even if that level of authentication was remotely possible, might cause a few more problems for everyone than it solves for a couple of disgruntled tech journalists.

One of (the many) objections to the Ministry of Anonymous but Authenticated Names approach is that one of the best things about the internet has always been the opportunities it provides for play. Mediation through avatar, text, and all the other internet props can obviously be misused, but it also enables a creative exploration of identity, representation, engagement. When I first started hanging out online in the 90s, in the days before meeting up and eventually marrying people you met online was the norm, I just assumed that everyone I met was probably a mustachioed Texan cop or a retired librarian, pretending to be a hot and overly intelligent seventeen year old boy.

Then blogging took off, and the internet as playground began it’s transformation into the internet as factory. The early insistence on transparency has been adopted by nearly everyone who has a professional stake in their online presence, and what has been variously named the link or reputation economy is critically an economy of trust – trusted connections defined within a dominant aesthetic of a particular kind of authenticity.

While I’m not arguing against the numerous benefits of accountability and responsibility, I do also miss the old internet, and I look for trusted connections with people who haven’t let the factory rob them of their sense of wonder, and even mischievousness.

It’s in this vein I’ve been on a mini-crusade to support the fakesters in my neighborhood, which at the moment is primarily Twitter. ‘Fakester’ is a broad term, covering any account pretending to be someone they aren’t. They could be pretending to be another living or dead actual person, or a fictional or personally created character, or the incarnation of a place, thing, time, organisation etc. So it includes historical, religious and cultural figures, as well as alternative persona, marketing scams and campaigns, God (well, a bunch of them) and the Mars Phoenix, NASA’s celebratory robotic lander.

Following complaints and a proposed lawsuit Twitter recently began to introduce verified accounts for the Twitterati & the popularly impersonated celeb member, “people who deal with impersonation or identity confusion on a regular basis“. However, their Terms of Service only disallow users to impersonate other Twitter users. This doesn’t help Kanye West out much, but it does encourage him to sign up to twitter & I bet it gets the Twitter staff a fair few celeb lunches too.

Personally, I’m not that interested in following celebs via Twitter, although I can understand that there’s a lot of (potential) money and (actual) publicity at stake. I’ll also be clear that I am obviously not in favor of illegal or malicious impersonation, a topic which I’ve engaged with quite substantially in terms of my work for the UK government on cyberbullying. I’m keener on those more imaginative misuses of twitter, many of which have educational potential and application, but regardless of that, make life more interesting 🙂

danah boyd wrote a defence of fakesters way back in 2003 – about a hundred years ago in internet terms. Her early work tracked the presence of fakesters on Friendster, drawing attention to the blurring between the authentic-inauthentic-constructed lines fakester accounts throw non-fakester accounts into, the way that fakester accounts challenged social (network service) norms, and the fact that the fakesters were often the most interesting accounts to connect to.

So who’s faking it on Twitter?

One of the most beloved of the Twitter fakesters has to be @darthvader, self appointed Evil Orphan Annie and geek magnet. Recent #imperialedicts have included “Open more Starbucks” and “Continually raise the price of stamps without warning”.

@MarsPheonix, NASAs account for a mission to land a robotic craft at the North Pole of Mars was so popular that Wired ran an epitaph contest for the lander.

Many fakester accounts basically just publish the text or quotes of the persona they assume. The ultimate fit-for-purpose example of this has got to be @JennyHolzer, the American conceptual artist who is most celebrated for her public displays of aphorism, perfectly suited to her anonomus Twitter account, where HABITUAL CONTEMPT DOESN’T REFLECT A FINER SENSIBILITY and MONOMANIA IS A PREREQUISITE OF SUCCESS.

Jenny Holzer isn’t on Twitter, although if she were I’d like to think she was @fakejennyholzer – shouting SUFFERING IS CAUSED BY ATTACHMENT AND NAIL GUNS and THE CAPS LOCK KEY IS REALLY STUCK ISN’T IT at us. 

One of my favorite fakesters has got to be @palmer_eldritch, a title character from the Philip K. Dick novel. as well as Phil Dick related comment & content, Palmer has recently transformed into a veritable mecanical turk of an auto-bot, selectively re-tweeting related content from around the twitterverse, including “@tanuki0: I’ve read too much Philip K Dick, I’m starting to doubt the nature of reality.” and “@FatherRoderick: Getting ready for Mass. Still very sleepy. Shouldn’t have watched that Blade Runner documentary late last night.”

Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom, Data Sharing Czar, aka @sirbonar and his Whitehall musings on the surveillance society pretty much leads the field in fakester political satire. “It seems some
hobbyist suffering from Aspergers has done a stunt for the news media
in which he appears to clone a British ID Card” and “
If only we could
achieve total fusion of all possible data, I think we could at last
feel secure. I wonder how much data that is?” are amongst his recent musings. You can also catch a video of him addressing Open Tech 09 on Data Sharing here.

I’m a big theory fan, so I follow a bunch of would be swafty-philosopher fakesters, including @zizekspeaks, who purports to be Hegelian philosopher and Lacanian psychoanalisist Slavoj Zizek. “Interested in Deleuze & Twitter? If so, you’re probably misreading Deleuze.” Is he real or not? Perfectly, for a Lacan follower, it doesn’t really matter