The Space of Embodied Anonymity

Posted on Sunday, April 26th, 2009 at 11:34 pm by Jeremy in process | 2 Comments

The problem is: How can networked communication — specifically social media — be better designed in order to strengthen and foster civil discourse within these networked digital spaces? We have proposed to discern what makes a viable commons, or public space, in the conventional sense so that we may begin to envision more appropriate spaces created by social media. On the one hand, we have public and quasi-public spaces where citizens may brush past each other (or ignore each other), converse, organize assemblies, share information, ideas, snacks, play games, shake hands, exchange glances, smells, and be together in physical and temporal proximity. On the other hand, we have the spaces defined by communication networks and social media where “users” can connect to friends, acquaintances, and, more often than not, strangers via image, sound, and text both synchronously and asynchronously and not bound by (but potentially reinforced by) physical proximity. Framed in this way, I find an inherent paradox in the attempt to hybridize these two very different spaces, where the anonymity and insecurity of the vastness of networked communication space opposes the intimacy and exposure of public space.

The fact of being physically in proximity with others in a public space heralds a fundamental degree of exposure (dare I say vulnerability) that charges my potential interactions with others in that space. My name and other biographical details may not be known on the surface but other characteristics about me — overt and more subtle — are readily discoverable. As are those of my fellow citizens. Potentially revealed are gender, station in society, ethnicity, physical (dis)ability, and other superficial signs. More importantly, though, to interact even on the most basic level with those around me — “hey pal, where is the nearest coffee shop?” — is to engage in a complex subtextual dialogue that allows us to quickly negotiate the terms of our interaction. This is the inflection of a voice, the gesture of an arm, a quick frown, a nervous tick, a roll of the eyes, and so much more. We may technically be anonymous in such situations (e.g. not identified by name) but it is an embodied, conspicuous anonymity.

And this is quite different from anonymity in digital space.* We construct and reconstruct our identities in digital space according to the parameters and terms of the networks in which we circulate. Some networks require authenticated usernames and profiles (i.e. Facebook — and their terms of service specifically prohibit fictitious users); some merely ask us to create temporary, even non-unique usernames (i.e. 4chan); others don’t require any registration at all. We’ve been spending a great deal of time using Omegle, which forces anonymity as a baseline for 2-way instant messaging between strangers (the nomenclature is “you” and “stranger”). To assert one’s identity here is a delicate proposition as one balances the safety of online anonymity with the vulnerability and exposure often necessary for meaningful communication. As simple as Omegle is (and excepting the occasional sexual trolls and spambots), what is exciting is how close the framework comes to allowing the kinds of chance encounters available to us in public space. We digital pedestrians walk through Omegle, bump into each other, engage or ignore, and are presented with the potential for meaningful conversations. But the wired anonymity and lack of collective public audience here is still open to the kinds of abuses and behavior that make many digital spaces insufferable for civil discourse.

What is so interesting and challenging about this problem is how difficult it really is to delineate between public space and digital space as I’ve attempted above. There’s just so much slippage! For example, online anonymity is complicated by the fact that one’s device IP address is technically a unique, traceable ID that can precisely locates a user device (and the user by proxy). Or, face to face interactions in public space can be quite psychically and physically imposing to a degree that silences dissenting or minority voices, thus negating the democratic possibilities of such spaces. These spaces overlap, and furthermore are increasingly integrated with the rise of ubiquitous computing and situated technologies. I’m convinced that a productive trajectory for our project is to experiment in this messier zone where public space and networked space overlaps (which truthfully was not readily apparent at the start of this research). My hope is that we can design a hybrid public space/networked space that capitalizes on the richness of embodied anonymity and the expansiveness of atemporality and distal relations.

2 Responses to “The Space of Embodied Anonymity”

  1. # On April 28th, 2009 at 7:06 am Jethro Heiko wrote:

    I am fascinated by the hybrid public space/networked messier space. Such a result of our work to this point is inspiring and gives me a lot to think about.

  2. # On April 28th, 2009 at 7:28 pm Alie wrote:

    I completely agree with Jeremy about the cues that are present in real world encounters and seem to be impossible to replicate with any success in the virtual world (due almost exclusively to the fact that it would require voluntary action to expose that an involuntary action has taken place.) A blushing emoticon really doesn’t have the same effect as true blushing because of that. I have had similar thoughts regarding that disconnect, but I haven’t been able to articulate them.

    I could use a little clarification on what “embodied anonymity and the expansiveness of atemporality and distal relations” would entail, however, it does indeed sound messy!

    I would like to assume I have some idea about the sort of crossover you’re talking about though. At least, I find relevance in that idea simply because that’s where my thesis project continues to push. I know Jeremy is familiar with Will’s thesis project, but to clarify (as best as I am able) for everyone: he’s creating an on-line networking tool to allow makers (woodworkers, techies, knitters, designers, etc.) the ability to connect in real spaces within Philadelphia. I’m making use of it for my own purposes, by trying to expand that potential network through the creation of educational forums and practical applications between users. What I’m trying to do really would not be possible without the kind of tool Will is creating. Or at least it would happen much, much more slowly.

    I bring this up because I really see this being the directions the commons could go in my ideal world, at least. The whole facebook, myspace, twitter thing is really not engaging without some connection to the real world. I don’t talk to anyone on Facebook that I don’t regularly or (at least have the desire to regularly) interact with in real life. I know people get lost in things like Secondlife and World of Warcraft, but I think that’s because it offers them possibilities reality doesn’t. However, merging the virtual and physical extends the abilities of the individual in a much more significant way. (Using craigslist to find an apartment in another state / Viral political/activism campaigning / Accessing lectures from other Universities / etc.) After all, as much as one invests in any on-line activity(?) one still has responsibilities in the real world, if only to their bodies.