Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Great Divide: Welcome to the Ghetto

Anonymity (sometimes expressed as its more euphemistic and "nuanced" cousin, Privacy) is a major pulse point of the Great Divide between digital native and immigrant, the very essence of the Web 2.0 concept itself.

For many of us who were already well into adulthood when the personal computer itself was the ultimate in ultra-new gadgetry, our pre-Windows Era hearts openly aflame with glee and a soft secret center of awe as we leapt delightedly into the marvelous BBS culture, and when the day came that we first typed those magic strings, and through the miracle of raw telnet, the world was suddenly - and literally - at our fingertips!

Anyone who tells you that they did not feel a visceral and primordial thrill of history, a profound sense of promise at once exultant and solemn, the first time a line of text appeared on their monitor, a line of text being typed by someone on the other side of the planet, talking to them is either lying or missing a helix somewhere.

For the first time in the history of our species, anyone - who had access to a computer and a modem - could talk to anyone else - anywhere, in real time, with whom they shared any common language, and programming languages count.

To my mind, this was the single greatest achievement of mankind, and I sincerely believed, and still do, that it has the potential to make right many, many wrongs.

From this could come peace.

To be among the first generation to do this, be a part of it, was and is an honor so immense, so humbling, that if there are words to describe it, I do not know them.

We had the ability now to communicate with our brothers and sisters -mind to mind, essence to essence, pure thought to pure thought - without the barriers of age, of gender, of geography.

Anonymity was an integral part of that. We could create and develop, to the extent we wished, all the personas that we cared to, limited only by our imagination and desire - and all quite apart and separate from our offline selves, our "real life."

This fundamental philosophy of "cyberspace" could, I suppose, be compared to a core belief/value system in what we lovingly called "MeatSpace."

As that raw telnet evolved into AOL and Compuserve, and all those little basement "service providers," selling various flavors of accounts that gave us monumental privileges - like bearing witness to the birth of yahoo, many of us went forth gleefully and reverently into the various parallel universes that came into being, our online personas, new and old coming into being with them, but all solidly and unshakably rooted in the awe of that anonymity, and something that many of us might keep even more secret than that awe - the hope that this pure communication between so many millions of people will produce an end result of peace, or at the very (and more realistic if less lofty) least, put a dent in the hatred by dint of born of Greed-driven marketing, thus leaving us to contend only with regular old hatred born of regular old anti-Otherness.

For the digital native, the existence of the internet as miraculous evolutionary milestone is a concept that, if present at all, is purely intellectual, comparable to the way we of the Old School, the digital immigrant, are likely to feel about something like radio. Or the telegraph.

The native sees it as a way to connect the entirety of one's offline self - not just one's thoughts - to the rest of the world.

In the ultra-pragmatic view of the native, the internet is the most basic and natural marketing tool, it's about resumes and examples of work, establishing a presence, getting oneself out there, the driving philosophy being that exposure to so many millions of people will produce an end result of receiving money.

Anonymity, as any native will tell you, would defeat that purpose.

And so here we are, native and immigrant, each with our respective perspectives, our very different cyber-worldviews, we smile at one another across The Great Divide.

Neither of us escapes trade-offs. For many of us immigrants, our core cyber-value/worldview may give us immeasurable intangible benefits, but we forfeit money.

Although being human, of course I cherish the hope, but realize that it is extremely unlikely that anyone is going to paypal any money to my email address. (Though if anyone might wish to, it is right there in my profile, a click away... )

The native is, by virtue of simply having been born in a different time and thus possessed of that pragmatic native cyber-view, very likely to be forever denied at least some of those intangible benefits, a circumstance that they are just as unlikely to even think of as a trade-off.

But their "real" tradeoff, the collateral and lateral costs of the forfeit of anonymity, will for many, involve sacrifices that they will, even if they do not today, consider "worse" than giving up money.

Another of my fellow anonymous voices touches on it, and with more brevity than I possibly could:

"Facebook and Myspace have been the downfall of many people. I know quite a few people who have lost their jobs over something found on Myspace or Facebook pertaining to them. Drunken or sexually explicit photos...things like that."

"Things like that" can include everything from opinions to an impolite retort or an unburdening of a troubled heart, the divulging of events, information, of an extremely personal nature, all typed without an overwhelming ever-mindfulness that it will be available for viewing by any and everybody forever, and without a fundamental and uncrackable anonymity.

Yet another Voice from the Wilderness elaborates:

"...same thing with blogs. and it doesn't even have to be anything explicit really.. i once had a grad school classmate who would put really personal stuff on her blog..amongst other things, fights with her thesis advisor. she would use his real name (!) and would go on at length how he was so rude to her, how he was making her life a living hell, etc. this was all hosted on her web account through the unversity network (which is same extension as email address) so it wasn't like she was anonymous. i talked to her labmates and they were all aware of what she wrote about on her blog (she gossiped about them as well). i'm sure her prof read it too and i imagine it only worsened the issues between them..."

And then makes a very interesting observation:

"... i guess to many people the internet feels anonymous even though it really isn't..."

It feels so to them sometimes, and in some cyber-places, even though they themselves have, by their own hand, driven by that native cyber-view, shut themselves out of the fortress of anonymity forever.

It can be done with just a few keystrokes, one time, and the gate slams shut, never to open again.

Web 1.0 may have been all about awe and reverence and hope and history, and Web 2.0 may be all about connectivity, about marketing, but one of the few statements in which the future tense does not necessitate the prudence of a "maybe" is this:

Web 3.0 is so going to be all about remorse - and vain attempts at damage control...

(I suppose the term "connectivity" could be said to be to marketing as "privacy" is to "anonymity," but that would, and probably will be, another rant).

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