A few weeks ago London’s Science Museum hosted an evening of talks, workshops and performances on the theme of computing, and the Ego-Media team were there using the defiantly analogue format of the post-it note to ask visitors some questions about online identity. Getting people to stick sheets of fluorescent paper to a wall may not seem like a particularly rigourous research method, but our post-it vox pop did prompt some great responses and discussions, as the rundown of selected Qs and As below attests.
What is your first memory of going online? Asked to think back to their first experiences of the Internet, many visitors responded by talking about what had enticed them online, offering in so doing a catalogue of the TV shows, stars and games that mattered to the kids and teenagers of turn-of-the-millennium Britain: Rugrats, Pokémon, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Robbie Williams all featured, alongside games like The Sims, Quake and Dark Age of Camelot.
Other visitors talked about going online to chat – whether with strangers posing as royals, or with friends over MSN (three letters capable of eliciting a lot of of dewy-eyed nostalgia if our responses are anything to go by). Others still confessed they’d been lured online by the promise of free porn. In an age of wireless broadband connections it was also sobering to hear so many reminiscences about the noises made by dial-up modems and arguments over tying up the family landline.
How much information do you share about yourself online? This question turned out to open onto a series of further questions – like whether the sharing is intentional or unintentional and who we might be sharing with. Even visitors who controlled what they posted on social media acknowledged that they might be inadvertently giving away more than they knew to companies who track our browsing habits, while others noted that limiting what they shared didn’t stop friends, family members and colleagues posting about them.
Some visitors also had different policies for different sites and kinds of content – like sharing life ‘milestones’ but not posting pictures. A few responses mentioned the impetus to share only selected highlights from our lives, while others argued for the value of social media as platforms for discussing politics or promoting activism. Some, though, preferred to opt out altogether: as one visitor put it “I don’t like to maintain an online presence for the same reason there are doors on toilet stalls.”
Does the Internet know who you are? This question was interpreted in several different ways, with some responses referencing targeted ads and ‘do you know?’ suggestions, others Googling yourself or using pseudonyms. Some visitors confessed to being more opinionated, funnier or more socially awkward online. One tech-literate literalist even took us to task for implying that there was a ‘you’ to be found online beyond the strings of ‘binary and hexidecimal code’ of which software is composed.
Is “who you are” online the same across different sites? Some visitors talked about the difference between sites where they used their real name versus those where they used screen names or pseudonyms, while others admitted to being more open on Facebook than they were elsewhere. Some suggested such variations were less as a matter of identity than of abiding by the implicit or explicit norms of different sites.
Has the Internet changed how you think about romance? Lots of responses here referenced Tinder – often blaming the app for doing away with romance altogether. Others, however, suggested the Internet had its uses when it came to checking up on prospective partners and weeding out ‘dodgy’ date candidates. Some complained break ups had become still harder for those regularly confronted with an ex-partner’s online presence, while one person chose to highlight the potential for dissimulation and roleplay online via a quasi-hieroglyphic image of a cat and a fish…
Do you use any apps or wearable technologies that try to influence your behaviour? From promoting fitness and mindfulness to getting more sleep and managing dyslexia, visitors used apps and wearables for various ends. For some, though, the effort of regulating these aspects of life smacked too much of work, while others pointed out that these services tend to be unavailable to those without smartphones.
Where are your old online selves now? Asked to tell us about abandoned platforms and deleted profiles, visitors responded with elegies for long-lost Myspace pages, deserted Habbo Hotels and dead Neopets, declarations of loyalty to once-popular blogging services and stories about pretentious photoshoots returning to haunt their coworkers…