You can only have one identity

I’m so jealous.

danah boyd wrote about something I’ve been meaning to write about for ages now. That can’t help but sound like so many sour grapes, but I can’t deny that I’ve scheduled a wee ass kicking for myself once I’ve finished making this post. Something about making hay and shining suns and such…

Anyway, in response to the exploding conversation about web -nymity (what kind of names are we going to allow? Real ones? Pseudo ones? Full frontal anon?), boyd writes many good things, including this bit of brilliance:

There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point. But just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined. And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so.

“no universal context”, which is to say that when it comes to internet identity, context matters just as much as it does when we’re participating in any rhetorical activity. And just as a rhetor establishes and cultivates ethos by being sensitive to context, so must those shaping spaces where people gather be sensitive to the potentially explosive or destructive intersections of online and offline spaces.

I’ve spent the last year exploring this topic with my students, and the one thing that’s been clearest to them is that there’s a utility–and I’d claim it as social–to anonymity on the web. The “radical transparency” that sites like Facebook and Google Plus seek to establish shines too much light into the lives we’ve become comfortable living online; boyd points to the long-accepted–and perhaps even encouraged–tradition of pseudonymity and handles on the web. They don’t start there, though. There’s something seductive about the transparency argument; it’s just about keeping it real, simplifying things. It never occurs to them to consider the positive reasons why someone might want to be unknown–the desire for pseudo- or anonymity is always negatively construed at the start. Once we start looking around, though, and see the people we don’t usually see (the marginalized, as it were), real names start to look very dangerous, and the real conversation can begin.

So thanks to danah boyd for saying it and reminding me that I had something to say too.



I got an account for Pottermore yesterday. I shouldn’t be quite so giddy about that, but getting up before the crack of dawn to search through descriptions of Quidditch matches in books you haven’t read in a while to find the answer to a riddle will sort of do things to a girl.

The account just means that I get to be part of the site beta (so I’m going to be one of a million testing the thing). I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say that I’m curious as a fan of the books (although not active at all in HP fandom, so from that perspective I’m a total newb) AND as an academic person who’s been talking about identity with her classes for a while.

In a June 2011 press conference about the site, J.K. Rowling said the following about the Sorting process that the site will use (source):

So, developing these vast pool of questions that are randomly selected for a user – so you wont get the same questions as your friend necessarily – I thought it was quite important that people didn’t get to second guess what meant Gryffindor, for example. But the exciting thing for me is that if you’re not sorted into Gryffindor, if you’re sorted into one of the other three houses you will effectively get an extra quarter chapter because you will go off to your on common room. If you are sorted into Gyrffindor you just follow Harry. But if you’re sorted into Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin, you go to your own common room, you meet your own prefect, who will tell you about famous people who were in your house and what the true nature of your house is.

I’m particularly anticipating a lively discussion about the whole Sorting process; fans of the series care deeply about the house to which they’d belong, many having constructed internet identities around belonging to a particular house. Sorting quizzes have been around for a long time, but now we’re going to have a Sorting experience developed by the creator–and owner–of the concept, which can’t help but change the game up a bit, no?

I’m also curious about the reception/perception of all of the additional content Rowling intends to make available through the site; participatory culture (I’m thinking here of fan-created content and conversations in particular) exists partially to imagine what isn’t told in the presented tale, to inhabit and give life to the unwritten and imagine the improbable. Pottermore has a real potential to joss a canon that’s been “closed” since the first copy of the last book was read.

And, for the record, I am not at this time conducting any academic studies on fandom, Harry Potter fandom, or Pottermore. I just can’t be anything other than what I am, which is a person who thinks about stuff in an academic sort of way.

Which makes me, I’m pretty sure, a Ravenclaw. I can live with that.