(Cartoon by Peter Steiner courtesy of Wikipedia)
Ever since I began talking about studying the Internet, I’ve had people quoting that phrase to me: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” They quote it when they complain about spam from India; they quote it when remembering remarkable episodes of “To Catch a Predator“; they quote it when talking about cybercrime and cyberbullying. Since this phrase was unfamiliar to me, I found it fairly laughable but it was always stated with nothing but the gravest of conviction. This motivated me to look it up and, no wonder I hadn’t heard of it, this phrase was born in 1993 with the cartoon depicted above. During this early period of the Internet, while I had been filling up my LiveJournal and tending to my hotmail account, the grown-ups were absorbing political commentary on the dangers of this new technology. My boomer acquaintances have simply been passing along to me a historical artifact that clearly illustrates the transformation of the Internet over two decades.
The reality these days is that on the Internet, more often than not, EVERYBODY knows you’re a dog. Most people have begun putting the details of their lives online, which is the only way to maximize its usefulness offline. In order to friend people we know offline, we need to create some sort of recognizable identity on Facebook. In order to build up professional credibility, we need to put our real work experience on LinkedIn. For the Yellow Pages to move online, for online maps to be effective, for the coordination of community groups in a world where people rarely pick up their cell phones anymore, we have to release information into the World Wide Web. This, in turn, has made for a more personalized online experience that, through the use of ‘always-on’ mobile devices, is pretty much essential to daily functioning.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still platforms that use pseudonyms or avatars, but these are sites where we want our information and activities to be contained online without any spill over into our offline lives. Benign examples include online gaming and individuals who blog anonymously because they have an occupation in the public eye. However, I would argue that much of the time, individuals generally want their identities protected when they’re committing questionable behaviours, such as participating in Reddit flame wars, leaving opinionated responses on news websites (or not) or engaging in illegal or ‘morally questionable’ activities. Even then, with all the debates over privacy and with governments threatening to change laws, being ‘anonymous’ might keep the average person from knowing who you are but it still doesn’t change the fact that your actions don’t disappear into cyberspace when you close your browser.
In my opinion, the Internet is largely a public space, and going online is like leaving your home: you can cover up your face, enter buildings or engage in activities where you are never identified by others, but ultimately you take your identity with you wherever you go. You might be anonymously hanging out in a back alley, but there’s no assurance that someone (or even some webcam) isn’t catching your behaviour. As a sociology major, of course I’m going to tie this into Foucault’s idea of the panopticon. If having online ads tailored to my preferences has had any effect on my browsing, it has caused me to further internalize the idea that anyone could be watching my online activity. Therefore, I self-police, usually not even consciously, and my online behaviour is shaped by the idea that I could be identified at any given moment.
While the early Internet carried along with it all the risks posed by anonymity and the creepiness that you could be MSN-ing with a dog, the present Internet poses the complexities of navigating our public identities online. There is no longer an online/offline divide; the alluring concept of escaping real life to create oneself anew and omnipotent on the Internet has been replaced by the benefits of having a stable identity across communication media. Individuals should be aware of the risks of being identifiable on the Web. They should know the boundaries of their (ever shrinking) private space online and understand that when they step out into public realm of the Internet, they are subject to the same norms, laws and consequences as are applicable to public life offline. And yes, it’s true that there are issues with a self-surveillancing society, such as the question of whose standards of ‘appropriate behaviour’ we are internalizing and what oppressive ideologies might be built into them. However, I do believe that understanding the Internet as a public space is more reflective of present day reality and it is likely to make us smarter online citizens in our interactions with each other.