Thursday, June 24, 2010

Identity is relative on the internet

We tend to think of ourselves as "real". But once you question that notion, you'll find that you *were* real when you woke up that morning, but once you got online you probably assumed a different identity. And while your real identity might be reasonable well documented, your online identity is far for secure.

For example there are several Tobolds on the internet. The Tobold on Twitter isn't me (my fault, I had that name and stupidly deleted my Twitter account because I don't like Twitter). There is a Tobold posting stuff on the Boardgamegeeks forums, who isn't me. As I "borrowed" my name from Tolkien, there are references on the internet to Tolkien's Tobold Hornblower, who introduced pipeweed into the Shire. And apparently in the real world there was a doctor named Tobold, who invented a tongue depressor. Tobold the Hamburger King is a main character in the book Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal. And so on, and so on. By the way, that wouldn't change if I used my real name, somebody else has the same real name as I do, and has it registered as a domain.

So yesterday I kicked a troll who called himself AndruX from the blog, and then somebody else who also called himself AndruX turned up and complained. Well, sorry, I only banned the *troll* AndruX, not everybody else calling himself AndruX. Who am I to say who of the two is "real" and who is "fake"? Apparently faking other people is all the rage now in blog comments, we had fake Gevlon, fake Nils, fake AndruX, and for all I know there is a fake Tobold out there somewhere trolling syncaine's blog. It isn't really a problem for blog moderation, as comments are deleted one by one, and I can't really "ban" a specific name or IP address from commenting.

I find the subject of identity on the internet fascinating, and once stole Gevlon's identity as a joke to make a point. I really loved the people argueing that if I was also the author of Gevlon's blog, then they would stop reading what I wrote on this blog. That clearly demonstrated the unhealthy fascination people have with identity. Apparently many people are unable to read a text and form an opinion about it *just based on what is written*. They need to "know" the "identity" of the author, and would judge the exactly same text differently when it was written by me, than they would judge it when it was written by Gevlon. So when Paladin Schmaladin "Ferarro" turned out to be several persons using fake photographs and invented details of fake real lives, many readers went bonkers, as if the identity of Ferarro had any effect on the validity of the texts written under that name about paladins.

Basically the problem is that many people are too lazy to think, and take a shortcut called "trust". Hey, I trust that guy, so what he says must be right, and I don't have to engage my own little grey cells to ponder the question. That approach is already not great in the real world, and on the internet it is downright foolish. Why on earth should you trust a guy who calls himself after a hobbit from Tolkien, and who you never even met in real life? I deliberately post fake news sometimes, to get people to think, but there are always readers whose trust in me overcomes the unlikelyhood of the posted fake news, so they end up believing it. And even if I don't do it deliberately, I'm wrong often enough, e.g. I missed several details on RealID yesterday because I hadn't read the FAQ, and even misspelled RealID in the title (fixed now).

Trust is actually a problem for me. What I am trying to do in this blog is keeping up an intelligent discussion, and that requires all participants to think. It doesn't require everybody to be right all the time, or everybody agreeing, but it requires people to read what I (or other commenters) wrote, think about it, and post their own thoughts and opinions on the subject. If my readers have a completely false vision of me as infallible pope Tobold pontificating from his blogging throne on some subject, the intelligent discussion doesn't take place. And then I get nasty comments from people who had that vision, and got disappointed because they realized at some point that I'm only human, and make mistakes as often as the next guy. If you expect a blog to have the same resources for research and editorial staff as a professional newspaper or magazine, you're bound to get disappointed.

So I would ask all of you to mistrust me. I make mistakes, I sometimes deliberately post fake news as a means of making a point, and I mostly post opinions, not deeply researched facts. Engage your brain, think for yourself, and form your own opinions. Putting your trust into strangers you only know by their fake identity isn't safe. And if you disagree with that, well, you can use the donate button up there to the right to start bidding on that Golden Gate Bridge I have for sale.

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