'And the Word Was Made Flesh and Dwelt among Us...'

Towards Pseudonymous Life on the Internet

How to Cite

MacDougall, A. (1999). ’And the Word Was Made Flesh and Dwelt among Us.’: Towards Pseudonymous Life on the Internet. M/C Journal, 2(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1751
Vol. 2 No. 3 (1999): Flesh
Published 1999-05-01

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us, ... full of grace and truth. -- John 1, 14.

So you use the Internet. Perhaps during the course of today you have interacted with an individual with whom you have had no direct real life experience. In email, on ICQ, or within one of the Activeworlds, you may have come to understand and recognise the personality of someone with whom you interact regularly. Even though you've never met them in the flesh, they have a presence in your life. They may give no clues as to their location or hints at any form of personal identifier. You even accept what they show of themselves as a sort of truth, although it may be unverifiable. What else can you do?

In effect, you have been dealing with a pseudonymous individual. The use of pseudonyms "creates a context of 'managed ambiguity', permitting relationship, while offering an opportunity to actively conceal or reveal elements of real-life identity" (Chester & Gwynne). Pseudonymity differs from anonymity in that an alias is bestowed upon or chosen by the user, and used consistently over time. New technologies will allow this idea to be taken even further, with users able to construct untraceable identities for use online. These identities will be the "bodies", the new flesh, the vehicle in which users will conduct their online lives. Like Baudrillard's simulacra, this new flesh may even be a representation of something that does not exist in the real world.

The driving forces for Internet pseudonymity may include users' desires to play with the concept of identity and explore their own personalities. As Sherry Turkle notes, "computer-mediated communications can serve as a place for the construction and reconstruction of identities" (Turkle 14). With more and more of our everyday activities occurring online the opportunities increase for creation of an online identity that may be different to that presented in real life. Even in choosing a name for use online, we are creating the new flesh in embryonic form. For example on Internet Relay Chat, like many communication forms on the Internet, there is a lack of visual cues associated with participants. To overcome the lack of information which would otherwise be obtained by viewing participants face to face, a self-chosen name becomes the "only initial way of saying who we are, in literally one word or one expression" (Bechar-Israeli). Thus the chosen name becomes a very important token of identity, and may communicate a quite different picture of its owner than exists in reality.

However some Internet users lack the opportunity or inclination for this sort of "play". In particular, for many professional, academic and business users, "their institutional connection is a highly relevant fact" (Wynn & Katz). Conducting themselves pseudonymously would require a long period of reputation and credential building that would interfere with their purpose in using the Internet. Pseudonymity is thus unlikely to be an attractive option for these users.

However, out in the wider Internet community, another driver for the development of technological solutions to pseudonymity is a broadly felt concern for privacy on the Internet. In October last year a major survey of Internet users found that respondents ranked privacy as the "single most critical issue facing the Internet" (Graphic, Visualization, & Usability Center). Internet users need assurance that they may conduct online activities without fear of surveillance. The concerns about Internet privacy have expanded beyond the traditional fears of government intrusion to include fears about commercial interests reaching further into our private lives.

This latter concern may be best expressed in terms of the commoditisation of private information. Information about the behaviour and patterns of individuals is becoming increasingly valuable in our societies. If information about ourselves is becoming valuable, we hope to respond by controlling access to that information and even requiring something in exchange for its use. Think of a customer loyalty card on which you are collecting "points". In effect, the user has swapped their demographic details and a full purchase history for a prize, or a discount on some future purchase. This allows a commercially useful correlation between the individual and their personal situation, likes, dislikes, wants and needs, and behaviour as a consumer. At the same time the user has (hopefully) gained something from the exchange.

For commercial interests on the Internet, such an arrangement is unnecessary because the correlation of individuals with their online behaviour patterns is easier to uncover. One example of this is the recent move of database marketers onto the Internet. Last year IntelliQuest, owners of a large database comprising "over 50% of Internet-enabled households" (IntelliQuest), announced a plan to join forces with 24/7, an Internet advertising firm. Unless the user indicates otherwise, Intelliquest will collect demographic data when a software product is registered online. An identifying file (a "cookie") is placed on the user's hard-drive which can be "read" by Websites visited subsequently. 24/7, in cooperation with the visited Website, are then able to serve advertisements targeted to the specific user. 24/7 will track the movements of specific users, and can then "supply IntelliQuest with online surfing habits to supplement [Intelliquest's] demographic information" (Bicknell). In effect, the Internet user has given away their demographic data and a full browsing history for nothing in return.

In response to issues of this nature, researchers around the world are developing methods to separate the content of online communications from association with individual senders and receivers. An example is "Crowds", which "operates by grouping users into a large and geographically diverse group (crowd) that collectively issues requests on behalf of its members" (Reiter & Rubin). This prevents a Webserver from identifying the original user requesting a Web page. At the same time, the user could also employ the "Lucent Personal Web Page Assistant" which inserts randomly generated pseudonyms "into Web forms that request a user's name". The system is designed to "consistently use the same pseudonyms every time a particular user returns to the same site, but use a different pseudonym at each Web site" (Cranor). Although each Website may gain information about the browsing habits of a particular pseudonymous user on their own site, it is unable to cross-reference that information with other sites and databases.

Taking these and related ideas further is Zero-Knowledge Systems, whose unreleased "Freedom" product reportedly allows the user to create multiple untraceable digital pseudonyms. The company even states that using Freedom to create different pseudonyms gives the user the "opportunity to separately explore completely different areas of the Internet and avoid being profiled by Internet marketers" (Zero-Knowledge Systems).

As yet, all of these technologies are immature and often require a motivation and degree of proficiency possibly beyond that of many Internet users. But increasingly the trend is for the technologies to be built invisibly into the lower levels of Internet infrastructure, so that the user may only need to overtly choose who or what they want to be today. The technical details of presenting a consistent and pseudonymous identity will be taken care of automatically.

Pseudonymity, and especially anonymity, on the Internet are subject to abuse. Several anonymous remailers, forerunners of systems like Freedom, have had to shut down or restrict their services. In most cases this was not because of criminal or libellous abuse (which would be difficult to prove given the nature of the systems concerned), but because of mass email spam being routed through them. Authorities worldwide are naturally concerned that anonymising and pseudonymising systems may shield the activities of serious criminals. The Cypherpunks, a loose grouping of Internet cryptography and anonymity advocates, term this the "Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse" scenario. Cypherpunks see authorities exaggerating the spectres of "terrorists, paedophiles, drug dealers, and money launderers" ("Adam") in their arguments for greater regulation of the Internet.

Despite the hyperbole on both sides, these are serious issues over which debate will intensify. Up until now a deterrent to crime has been the possibility that a criminal might be held responsible for their actions and be bodily removed from society by being taken to prison. With a real life crime committed under conditions of untraceable pseudonymity, only the criminal's pseudonym may be identified. The pseudonymous identity may be removed from society by perhaps somehow being prevented from using the network. But the actual criminal is still free to create another pseudonym and resume activities. Thus, the pseudonymous identity is not subject to the same physical controls or constraints on behaviour as the bodies we use in real life. Perhaps even more alarmingly, the new flesh may still be subject to what could arguably be seen as derivations of real life crimes, such as rape.

By the same token this freedom from constraint could also be a positive thing. A person could choose to shape a pseudonymous identity quite different from their real life identity. They might choose a different name, gender, age, body or personality type; and if they are unsatisfied with their experiment, they may try another. Here, the new flesh allows changes in appearence and personality without therapy or surgery. Explorations of the possibilities inherent in the new flesh might help reconcile people to their problems with the old.

The improvement and eventual transparency of pseudonymity enhancing technologies will have wide ranging effects. David Post, of the Cyberspace Law Institute, believes pseudonymous speech "is valuable in a way that anonymous speech is not and cannot be, because it permits the accumulation of reputational capital and 'goodwill' over time in the pseudonym itself, while simultaneously serving as a liability limitation insulating the speaker's 'true identity' from exposure" (Post). Given enough time, we may come to accept and trust a pseudonymous identity without needing to question its real life owner. An individual may ultimately be judged less on who or what they are and more on what they are actually seen to do.

Pseudonymous life will permit individuals to take part in all aspects of Internet society, to build communities, participate in electronic commerce, and explore aspects of human existence independently and without compromising their real life identities. As the use of the Internet broadens we shall likely see not only pseudonyms in use, but also avatars, representations of a physical form that the user has chosen as their outward appearance. These may be seen now in some three-dimensional interactive spaces, such as Activeworlds, where the user can construct their own body. The avatar is "seen" by other users as the form and location of a pseudonymous individual.

One wonders if the new flesh will be a replacement for the old, rather than a sort of supplement. Certainly there is not the technology available now or in the near future for pseudonymous life as a full replacement for the real, The Matrix notwithstanding. Would anyone really want a full replacement which is technically inferior to the real thing? But perhaps without wanting to divorce themselves from the real world, users will still take up pseudonyms for varied reasons -- among them a desire for experiment, privacy, or simply because their Internet Service provider offers the facility. Stewart Brand once said "we are as gods and might as well get good at it". In terms of the Internet, the potential for an almost godlike power to create identities and appearances could lead to a virtual world of the word made flesh. This new flesh may not necessarily be full of grace and truth, but it will dwell amongst us.

Author Biography

Alan MacDougall