Anonymity And Urban Life, Ctd

A series of reader reactions:

Even taking ancient examples aside, from where does this idea that the city is the place of anonymity rather than the rural country come? I've lived in both rural and urban areas, and it seems to me that, no matter how hard you try to get away from people in the city, you are always reminded of their existence. You can never be fully anonymous, because you always run the risk of running into somebody you know. The photograph is only gives documented proof for the Gossip Girl to work her magic. Otherwise, she would just slowly spread rumors among your personal community.

The hermit in the city is an illusion and a fantasy. In a city, you are interdependent with your fellow citizens. The rural space allows for a household, removed from the cares and concerns of your "neighbors" who could be miles away from you. By living in the country, you can "unplug" from the wider community, if you so choose. The Internet, in this case, is like an enormous city.  The illusory comfort of anonymity you point to in the early Internet Age is the very same illusion that has lead some people to think that they could possibly be anonymous in the city. The only way to remain nameless is to unplug entirely.


The key is social norms. Small town social norms tend to reinforce knowing what your neighbors are doing - the Internet simply gives people already following established social norms additional avenues through which to discover details about (most being self-divulged) people they already know. On the other hand, city dwellers - who often know few of their closest neighbors - have little incentive to searching out the personal information of those around them. Besides things like sex offender registries, it's hard to imaging neighbors combing the Internet for information about one another in a major metropolitan area. In fact, it is unlikely that they would even know a name to search for without getting it at random off a mailbox.

So, in short - it's all about social norms. The Internet itself is not the factor since access isn't restricted enough to impact the urban disproportionately. People are likely to continue to behave in accepted normative patterns - so if that means getting into your neighbor's business, that's what people will do - and utilize the facilitatory power of social networks, public records, etc. If, on the other hand, the social norm is live-and-let-live, the likelihood that the Internet would change that is unlikely.

I agree that social norms are ultimately as important as the technology available to us – but it seems to me that norms about privacy and anonymity are changing very rapidly, both online and off.

Three more below the fold:

For me, the question isn't whether the internet has ended the anonymity of city life, but whether the internet has altered the meaning of anonymity itself. With facebook ("look at me!"), and twitter ("hear me think!"), and foursquare ("here I am!"), and all our new ways of seeing and speaking and interacting, we also now have a radically altered ability of creating a persona, or more likely, multiple personas, which will be broadcast whether we wish it or not, out into the stream of our lives.

How we craft those masks, or how we choose not to, is a massive experiment that has only just begun in earnest. That I may be less able to be a random stranger on the street (in a bar, at a club, buying sex toys, having an affair, smoking weed) without my grandmother finding out, is only a small part of the equation. And yes, it is still remarkably possible to remain anonymous in the city should you choose--it is just now an active, rather than a passive choice. Now, one must decide who they imagine themselves to be when they are online, versus elsewhere, and how the juxtaposition of those personae will affect themselves, and others.

To be anonymous in the internet age isn't to be a shadowy grey-suited figure on the corner of Broadway in a Dashiell Hammett story; it is to be untrappable by the confining definitions that others put on you, and instead to shape an illusion you may control of what they see--or what they don't. I know longer know quite what anonymity means in a world where I might see anyone, chat with anyone, but still not actually know who they are. In some ways, online activity provides an experience more akin to celebrity than to small town exposure: everyone knows of you, but very few know you. And no one knows for certain (pace, Andy Kaufman) who on earth you really are.

Yet another:

Besides my academic work, I also tend bar one night a week (in a saloon in the same neighborhood . . . ).  A year or so ago, this young 20-something woman was being very nosy: What's your name, do you own the bar, is this your only job, really grilling me.  I kept dodging, not giving straight answers, and her date (somewhat older, maybe 35) kept giving me this sympathetic "Sorry, man," look.  Finally, I told her that my other job was working on a website dedicated to maintaining your private life in the Internet Era.  She squealed that this was So Cool! and asked me for the URL.  I told her it was private and she couldn't have it.  She didn't understand, but her date did, and I wandered off to the other end of the bar with some of my anonymity intact.

And last but not least:

I live in Pittsburgh, the ultimate "big small town." It's large enough to have good cultural life, sports teams, and opportunities, but it's not so big that it's impersonal.  On top of that, people tend to either leave Pittsburgh or stay forever.  True anonymity is difficult once you've lived and worked here for a while. I'm constantly running into former co-workers, old neighbors, fellow professional society members, ex-classmates, etc.  New job?  One co-worker coached my son's kindergarten soccer team, another worked with my dad back in the day.  My kid joins a sports team?  The coach knows my mom because both work at the same hospital.  New neighbors?  One was my sister's friend in elementary school.  And so on.  Nobody in my family holds a high-status job or is particularly well-connected, either.  We've just been around long enough to develop a dense web of social connections.    

I actually like this.  It makes me feel as if I'm a member of a community, not a lone, anonymous, replaceable resident.  The local culture fosters making connections with other people.  Non-Pittsburghers often comment about how friendly and polite the natives are, and I think this sense of interconnection has a lot to do with it.   There's undoubtably self-selection going on as well.  People who enjoy being impolitely anonymous may simply move elsewhere!  Same goes for those who want to reinvent themselves and make a clean break with their past.

Social media is turning the world into Pittsburgh.  It's allowed people to build and maintain the sort of connections that Pittsburghers get from living in a small city for a long time.  Sure, digital connections may not be as strong as the face-to-face variety, but they seem to be as dense and interlocking.  I think it's good for people to maintain positive ties with people from their past.   The big difference is that you it's harder to leave town because your digital reputation lingers forever.  Your past is not really past on the Internet.  Turn around, and it's there grinning at you in all its digital glory, asking you to Friend it or follow it on Twitter.  It can help you get a job, or cause you to lose one.  This persistence is what bothers me about the online social world.  In real life, people tend to forget or gloss over the embarrassing details.  On the Internet, they don't.  

Anonymity and privacy now have to be internalized.  I belong to online communities and use Facebook, but I hold social media at arm's length and do not post a tremendous amount of personal information there.   I also try not to pry into my neighbors' private lives (digital or otherwise) but sometimes I can't avoid finding out Too Much Information.