Can We Still Reinvent Ourselves Online?

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Shifting identities online used to be pretty easy. But as we fashion ourselves digital identities out of fragments of personal information on Facebook or Foursquare, and as those identifies follow us around the web and merge with one another, is online personal reinvention still possible?

Jenna Wortham poses this question at the New York Times, noting that "retaining anonymity becomes more challenging as the Web populace becomes more interconnected."

Wortham explains that Internet companies ranging from Netflix to Pandora are increasingly soliciting or simply tracking user preferences to enhance the utility of their services, as the web gravitates toward all-encompassing personalization.

"What do we lose when we can't mutate and molt through online personas?" she asks. "There’s something deliciously freeing about shedding one's self to don a shiny new identity. It's why vast multiuser online games like World of Warcraft have flourished and why the anonymous video-chatting site Chatroulette catapulted in popularity."

Yet Wortham adds that some companies are pushing back and introducing more anonymity into the web: a tool called Disconnect disables third-party tracking as people surf the web, while the search engine DuckDuckGo refrains from collecting people's browsing history or other personal information. And that's not all:

There is something of a covert resistance afoot, the fringes of which I can see on the Facebook page of my 13-year-old niece. She and her friends use only cute screen names to identify themselves, and the only profile pictures they post are rendered nearly unrecognizable by cartoon hearts and sparkles. Maybe it's a start.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.