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Social Networks for Good: Authenticity Matters

By Susan Carey Dempsey on December 11, 2009No Comment

Early communities on the web promoted more of a widespread free-for-all, an anonymous or pseudonymous experience; identities were free-flowing and indeed, much of the early online growth stemmed specifically from a user’s ability to guard his real name.

Excerpted from CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World

As the famous New Yorker cartoon of a wise-cracking canine pointed out back in 1993, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Anonymity was big in first years of the commercial Internet, continuing the pattern established by the bulletin boards of the 1980s and Usenet, the vast interest-based community of users. As the social web began to grow quickly after the turn of the century, parts of the new social web – which placed an emphasis on the personal experience online not just of consumers but of creators – began to emphasize authenticity.

Bloggers used pseudonyms but they were meticulously open in moderating discussion. Amateur photographers took pride in their portfolios on Flickr, and linked to other photographers. Sites like created a system of open bookmarks held together by personal identity. Gradually it became possible to stitch together a personal identity online that was quite authentic, whether it used a pseudonym or not. And that identity wasn’t limited to a single site or service; now you created your “best you,” as my teenage daughter describes personal profiles online, through your blog, your comments on other blogs, your Facebook or LinkedIn, your music playlists at lastFM or Pandora, your bookmarks and Digg votes, your videos on YouTube. It was a kind of freedom to both create, and to be recognized for creation, that hadn’t existed before on such a vast scale.

“Three things changed, ultimately, to move us from the intimate, voyeuristic Internet to the public, exhibitionist Internet,” says media critic Jason Chervokas. “First, always-on Internet connectivity and mobile Internet connectivity stitched the Net deep into the seams of everyday life. Second, high bandwidth Internet access completely opened up the medium not only to video and audio, but also to hybrid forms like mash-ups and file-sharing and media-rich user profiles. No longer was the Net a replica of written correspondence, but a multimedia, multichannel, new way of communicating – neither one to one nor one to many, but any to any both in terms of people and in terms of types of communication. Finally, there was a generational change. As old media guys we dragged our experiences and presumptions on to the Net, even as we tried not to. The second and third generation entrepreneurs started building more Net native kinds of experience.”

Technology, bandwidth, digital tools and a common will toward self-expression created increasing freedom online. As Charles Leadbeater described it in his book, We-Think: “Freedom is a slippery idea, but I believe that the web will be good for freedom of expression in four respects. These are: the freedom to think what we like, to form and express ideas independently; the freedom to shape our identities, to be who we want to be; the freedom as consumers to choose and buy what we want; and the freedom to express ourselves through creating things that matter to us.”

That new social web provided social proof of who you were; you gradually created one solid but multi-layered identity across the entire web, rather than many identities on many different sites or services. Yes, you probably portrayed an idealized view of yourself, but the more you contributed, and tagged, and commented, and linked, the truer the picture of your “real” identity became – the most trustworthy your profile appeared. That profile was continually validated not by your own statements, but by the actions of your friends online.

They added you to friends lists, linked to your pictures, commented on your posts, argued with you, invited you to attend events online and in the real world – and that created a record of your “life” in the digital realm.

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