Identity Deception


Is identity deception "far easier when communicating over a very limited medium"?

Very limited medium, perhaps; but is CMC (MUDs, newsgroups, chat rooms, online auctions, etc.) really a "very limited medium"? I would say that this is a question that needs to be carefully considered, since it is not clear that identity deception on the Internet is necessarily much easier than in real life. There is also, of course, the necessary question of "what is identity?"; Identity is not necessarily easily to determine in real life, at least not after considering the issues that surround identity on the Internet. What we take for granted in RL as identity--the physical body--is perhaps just another "medium" as CMC is. Identity deception over the phone is a real and ongoing problem: There are many people who give away identifying information such as social security numbers to someone who calls them solely because the caller claims they are from some trustworthy organization and sounds authoritative claiming so. An article this past Sunday in the New York Times talks about how easy it is to pretend you are someone you are not by merely stealing someone's credit card number.

Deceiving someone about your gender in the real world is indeed difficult, and would seem to be far easier online, since the deceiver doesn't have to worry about having a man's voice or body. (Though I might argue that such a restriction doesn't necessarily exist in RL: having a gender ambiguous or gender opposite name goes a long way towards even RL preconceptions. I can't even count the times that someone assumed I was female. If I had been cross-dressing, then I could have fooled many people into thinking that I were really a woman.) This may not be the case. Though physical characteristics are no longer a boundary to switching genders, the important result of such a switch is that people actually interact with you as the opposite gender. Merely claiming to be female when in RL you are male, without backing up such a claim by following the pattern of social interaction that a female would follow generally precludes others from either believing you are actually female or from interacting with you since you are too far from the female norm. Indeed, in RL, if you look authentically female, then people generally interact with you as if you are female. Online, this equates to checking the "female" box on your online identity card. But to maintain such a claim, you must interact as a female, regardless of whether you are wearing a dress and makeup while sitting at your computer.

How does identity deception affect the type of society that evolves in a limited medium environment?

Of course, this question begs another one: what is identity deception? Is it as simple and basic as redressing oneself in an online description? Reid suggests that: "If many descriptions show exaggerated, even fantastical, attempts to indicate social acceptability, it is at least in part a reflection of the degree to which players feel it necessary to compensate for the lack of non-textual communication channels." Reid is talking about MUDs, though such exaggerations are seen (presumably) in any social setting online. Since this behavior is widespread and perhaps expected, then is it really deception? She goes on to claim "it is only where virtual existence holds close parallels to actual life that the possibility and accusations of deception enter the equation." So by calling myself a hobbit, I am not really deceiving anyone since such a thing is impossible. However, calling myself female, since I could very well be in RL, does open the door to identity deception.

Fundamentally, however, such a claim only means something in relation to another person. If I am claiming to be female, but am male in RL, and I have tinysex with a man who is heterosexual, then there is deception (whether intended or not) solely because of his expectations that I am female. Or is there? At what point does the real world physical environment decouple from the online world? I can be outgoing and have a strong personality online, yet be timid and shy in RL, yet this "face" that I am putting forward online is not considered a false representation of me. If I believe in my online identity (defined as not creating it solely for the purposes of deceiving anyone online), then mustn't there be some grain of truth to that online identity. Perhaps I was not born with the physical characteristics of a woman in RL, but there may be some part of me that identifies with a female viewpoint.

One reason why gender switching online resonates a dissonant chord is that (as claimed by O'Brien): "The proclivity for...lugging gender in where theoretically new forms of interactional categorization might emerge in its stead, suggests that gender is a dominant, shared social construction that constitutes a primary symbolic form around which we organize interaction." Try as we might, we cannot ignore gender when we interact with someone. Thus, in a society that interacts through a limited medium, every bit of information that can give us a hint about another person is important. We begin with our stereotypes and refine them as we gather information from our interactions. But online, we are given very little initial information, and some of it may be false. Unless the person claiming to be female actually acts as such, our entire set of refined assumptions about them may become incorrect. (And gender is an important piece of information because it is one of--perhaps the--defining traits of our initial stereotypes. Online groups for which this is particularly important, such as women's support groups, test their new members to make sure their claimed gender is their real one.

For other types of identity deception, the solution can be easier to implement. Kollock's online markets use both positive and negative reputation systems to allow users to validate another's trustworthiness, and such systems claim to be very successful at providing both useful information, as well as incentives to be honest. For Donath's newsgroups, the solution comes from both the medium and the community. A person's post usually has enough information to validate the poster (though this information can be falsified, but not without great knowledge of the usenet system). Further, "reputation is enhanced by contributing remarks of the type admired by the group."

In the end, it seems that regardless of the type of online interactional system, communities online are more attuned to the possibility of identity deception, especially the falsification of those traits or information that most pertains to the type of interaction that exists on that system.

How is some notion of identity maintained in the absence of the body? How is this notion different from day-to-day experience?

Without real world referents, identity online is mostly a virtual thing. Even for an eBay user, though he necessarily interacts in the real world with a real person, most (if not all) of the interaction, from initial contact to post auction feedback, is with the online persona. In this case, the RL person may seem like the projection of the virtual person. But, on eBay and on newsgroups (in Donath), the reputation of a person on these systems comes from the experience of other people. There may indeed be better evaluation of expertise or quality online than in RL, due to the larger exposure one has to others experiences and interactions.

The identity of a user is wholly contained online. For Reid, "gender is divorced from the body, and given a purely social significance." Identity in MUDs is expected to come from both the description of the person, as well as the interaction that the person has on the system. "The speaker--or typist--textually codes for gesture, appearance, or proclivity, and expresses these as tokens, sometimes in no more than a smiley, and the listener, or reader, uncompresses the tokens and constructs a dense, complex interactive image." The online identity can be as real as the RL identity, though usually different. There is more work required on the part of the recipient of any interaction to imagine the other person from the very limited information about physicality given in such systems.

What effect do changes in the medium have? How is identity in a text-based world different than in a graphical one? In a synchronous vs. an asynchronous space? How can interface designers influence the way identity is established in an online environment?

The medium of any interactional system defines the abilities that we have to portray ourselves. If we have only text, then our descriptions, interactions, and portrayals are going to be limited to words alone. Reid succinctly states, "The social information usually spread out over several different sensual channels is concentrated into one channel..." This limitation doesn't prevent quite diverse and colorful representations of oneself, as Reid's MUDs show. Self-representation in such an environment can be quite imaginative. People also don't seem limited by textual descriptions when imagining other's representations. The lack of channels can have adverse affects, such as the enhanced ability to portray yourself as someone you're not. In Donath, Cheryl could (at least for a while) lead people to believe that "she" was an older woman with traditional values, at least where weddings were concerned, because "she" was hiding behind the textual medium. Were this a video system, then Cheryl would have been seen through.

In many respects, textual media are less limiting than graphical ones. On a fantasy MUD, one can take on the persona of any number of different types of genders. On a system like The Palace, such representations of self are impossible. As ingrained as gender is in expectations of pure communication, it is even more ingrained in expectations of visual portrayal. We are a very visual species in the real world. By putting a visual interface on an interactional system, we are grounding it more to RL than a text based system because of the expectations that go along with visual interaction.

The real influence of interface designers on identity formation online is in the basic affordances of the system they design. For text based systems, such dimensions as type of personal description, gender (male/female/none/other), and form of interaction. For graphical systems, the type of graphical representation can play a big role: are people abstract objects or are they icon? Are they animated? Do they move? Does everyone look the same? Can people make their own representation? One of the most important uses of identity online is as an identifier. If everyone looks the same, then graphical representation becomes useless in distinguishing friends from strangers. But of course, any affordance put into the system by the designer can and usually will influence how people perceive others. This is only half of the story, however. Identity is also formed by people's interaction, and people will always find ways of being expressive, regardless of the medium.

page last updated 3/27/2001