Today marks Facebook’s 5th year of allowing us to get more digitally intimate with our friends, as sources across the web have noted (e.g. TechCrunch, ValleyWag, BBC). It has undoubtedly changed the way we interact with each other online, but for me and many others, one of the more resounding effects has been the way it encouraged us to move beyond the years of cultivating quasi-anonymous online personalities that reveal very little about ourselves.

My first taste of the internet came in 1993 when I used it primarily for chatting with others via Internet Relay Chat (IRC). At the time, the thought of revealing my identity to others was inconceivable. The IRC nick name restriction of 9 characters meant that we came up with all manner of short pseudonyms to represent ourselves. Over time one might let drop a detail or two about their “meatspace” existence, but certainly in my case, it was never much.

Because of a lack of trust, because there were sometimes nefarious things going on within these digital communities, because almost no one I knew in real life used the net, and because it was simply the digital norm, people didn’t reveal much about themselves unless it was for professional or academic purposes. Even then, it was common for this digital incarnation of someone to remain separate from the one used for day-to-day and personal net activities. For me, at least, my digital existence was almost entirely separate from my physical one, except for a limited set of personal data I kept online to act as my professional and academic web presence.

In the late 1990′s, web-based message forums were all the rage. These made it much easier to develop relationships with people online, as they allowed for a more media rich social experience than the text-based one of IRC. Still, it was not common for someone to use their real name instead of a dreamt up nick name, but it did become easier to trust people and eventually meet those on a local community forum than it had been previously. User profiles allowed one to indicate superficial data like age and gender. I still went to some effort to disassociate my real-world identity with my digital one, even if I did allow the two to intermingle.

As the 1990′s progressed into the noughties and blogging became more popular, the use of nick names began to diminish. But still, many people avoided revealing too much about themselves on social networks like MySpace. It was still fairly de rigeur to use a clever pseudonym or simply a first name on MySpace rather than your real name.

Not until Facebook arrived on the scene did I totally eschew using pseudonyms for my personal (vs professional) online existence and bother to input a detailed and accurate account of myself. I do remember feeling uncomfortable as I registered with Facebook and wondered if I would later come to regret exposing all this personal data. I haven’t, and in fact I’ve realised what a great joy can come from sharing so much online with my real world friends. Finally, my real world life and digital one are able to overlap in a way that is socially rewarding and fulfilling. Naturally, there comes some danger with opening up too deeply online, but as Facebook offers a plethora of privacy setting I feel pretty much at ease.

And now we are in an era where many new web applications don’t even ask for a nick name upon registration. Mobile, location-aware and proximity-aware technologies will only blur the divide between our digital and physical selves further, and Facebook will have played a key part in getting us there. Thanks FB! Happy Birthday.

Written on February 4th, 2009 , Ruminations, Social Software, Tech

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