understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Intimate Invasions: How Far Will Internet Users Push the Realm of Acceptability? or Have You Been Facebook Stalked Yet?

posted by:Kayleigh Platz // 11:59 PM // October 09, 2007 // ID TRAIL MIX

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I recently, for the first time in my life, set up my own wireless router in order to connect my laptop, as well as my roommate’s, to the Internet. This was not a user-friendly experience, and my stress level was heightened by my need to safeguard my wireless signal from outside intruders. I was creating a code of identity for my actions through my computer network: I had to name my signal and trust that it will safeguard my IP address which is now, through my actions online, an extension of my self and identity.

By giving a name to my Internet network, I was sending a secure signal of my own personal identity out into cyberspace. This is a name that anyone in my physical world close enough to pick up on my Internet signal will be able to see. The Internet, as a social system, is a lot less anonymous than many people seem to still think; whether consciously or unconsciously, we are constantly sending out signals of our identity online. From postings on a blog to a wireless network name, our physical life-based identities seep out to the cyber world.

It’s an alarming trend to notice how oblivious people are to their cyber identities, and how careless they are with cyber information that can have a massive affect in their physical world. The online psyche is now a permanent aspect of most people’s lives.

With such a plugged in world, people live and communicate endlessly via online routes. However, like an unguarded Internet signal, many people leave themselves open to cyberintrusions that endanger both their cyberidentites and their physical life identities. Two women have recently been in the news for such open intrusions into their private lives through seemingly safe online channels. Neither Jessica Coen, nor Allyson Stokke intended to victimize themselves through innocent online actions, yet both had their identities and privacy victimized and destroyed through the very avenues they left open to the cyberworld.

Jessica Coen is an online blogger who is now deputy online editor for Vanity Fair magazine. In a previous job, however, she was a popular blogger on the snarky Manhattan-based gossip website, gawker.com [I]. Coen wrote aggressive observations about people’s looks, loves and lives in New York City through the online medium. Coen wrote to receive a reaction, which she received in hordes. Emails, phone calls, letters in the mail, false email accounts set-up under her identity were just some of the reactions she caused from her caustic writing. All were, of course, anonymous. All were invasions of her privacy. None of which would have been so easily acted upon in the physical world. What was a wake-up call to Coen and her lifestyle should be a wakeup call to us all. Just because the anonymity of online actions makes it easier for many people to do or act in ways they are not comfortable in the physical world, does not mean the actions do not have an affect in the physical world. Voyeuristic tendencies have increased in popularity of negative online actions. The Internet has increased many people’s freedom of expression, both positive and negative. In this “me” generation, where the staged reality show, “The Hills,” is a hit, men and women not only feel that it is alright to comment and act as they desire in the online world, but seemingly get approval of their actions through physical world reactions such as media social relations. In today’s world, it is just as common to end a relationship through online or cellular means as it is in a physical world situation.

It is interesting to note that Coen is still active online. She is currently working online and still maintains a blog. A quick search on Facebook brings up a profile that appears to be hers as well. While Coen has been awakened to the threats that are online regarding her own privacy, as well as the malleableness of her identity in the online arena, she has continued to safely traverse the online realm as well as educate other women about both her experiences and her suggestions.

Allison Stokke is young woman with a similar story [II]. However, Stokke’s online privacy invasion began innocently with a sports blogger posting a picture of the young track and field athlete on his website. Rapidly, Stokke received an overwhelming amount of friend requests on her Facebook profile, and YouTube montages made in her honour. More online and even real-life harassment followed in the wake of that one posted picture. Today it is very easy to still find pictures of Stokke online, but not her physical cyber self. Stokke, as an individual, has all but disappeared online due to her experiences.

Online voyeurism has, I dare say, become more dangerous today than in the early days of the Internet when adults were arrested for meeting minors they had met online. You see, online voyeurism has gone beyond something that both appals and frightens us as it was in the past: online voyeurism has gone mainstream. While neither Coen nor Stokke were physically harmed by their attacks, not all individuals have been so lucky. Indeed, the separation between people’s physical world actions and their cyberworld actions is becoming more apparent by the more vicious people become online. Indeed, many people feel comfortable acting out online in ways they would never do in the physical world. As the cyberworld becomes more “real” in our daily lives, our ethics and responsibilities online must be reassessed. The separation of self and ethics must cease to exist. Verbally tearing into someone online may be exhilarating, but has “real life” affects on people’s lives. We need to keep in mind the humanist aspects of the online world. To continue to be wired we must keep it real.

In short, we must redefine the real to fit our new dimensions of our world. What is the real experience? How do we feel the real in cyberworld? How do we let the cyberworld fully compliment the physical world? Finally, how far do we let the two worlds go?

[I]I See Jessica Coen, Online Bullies Back Off. Glamour Magazine. Oct. 2007: 227-228.
[II] See Rebecca Webber, Give This Girl Her Life Back! Glamour Magazine. Sept. 2007: 80.


Kayleigh Platz is a Master’s student in Public Issues Anthropology at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Kayleigh’s interests range from on-line communication and social networks, the cyberworld culture, on-line voyeurism, tactical media, and Harry Potter. Kayleigh’s main research focuses on online social networks and user identities. Kayleigh will be speaking at the Student "I" conference at the University of Ottawa on October 25th.

Comments

Hi;

When configuring your wireless router, you can disable the broadcast of "the name for your signal". This is called the SSID, and you can turn it off so that casual wireless users will not see your network. It provides weak protection, and you can read more on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SSID

Of course, you should also being taking other security measures, such as using encryption and registering a white list of computers who can use your network. Check out the documentation for your router, and have fun.

Posted by: Andrew Patrick at October 12, 2007 12:46 PM

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