Carlos Danger and our online identity crisis

From a distance, it appears that former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner is having a bit of an identity crisis. On one hand, he’s a capable career politician vying to become mayor of New York City. On the other hand, he’s a sexually confused individual, sending lewd texts and terribly inappropriate Facebook messages to women who are not his wife. So, is he Mayor Weiner or is he Carlos Danger?

New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner leaves his apartment building in New York on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. The former congressman acknowledged sending explicit text messages to a woman as recently as last summer, more than a year after sexting revelations destroyed his congressional career. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner leaves his apartment building in New York on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. The former congressman acknowledged sending explicit text messages to a woman as recently as last summer, more than a year after sexting revelations destroyed his congressional career. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

It’s easy to make jokes about the former congressman, of course. But if you spend a significant amount of time on the Internet, you could experience a similar type of identity crisis. The sheer number of networks and mountains of content can obscure how or what you should be sharing with others. What you might consider to be business as usual – such as tweeting out photos of your lunch and texting news of a breakup – could be easily mistaken as over-sharing or just really socially insensitive behavior by others.

Our collective online identity crisis is only becoming more pronounced as we let technology take over a greater share of our lives. Back in 1984, MIT professor Sherry Turkle referred to “The Second Self” to describe the way computers and technology change the way we think about identity. Instead of interacting directly with others, we do so indirectly, using technology as a sort of intermediary. That creates new behaviors and new norms.

And that was before the Internet and smartphones became a fixture in many people’s everyday lives. Nearly 30 years after the publication of “The Second Self,” we are now required to manage a growing number of identities and relationships, across a growing number of platforms and devices. And, given the bewildering array of privacy options, you may not really know what it is that you’re sharing — or with whom. That’s assuming, of course, you choose to participate at all.

If you do, the task is not only exhausting – it’s also confusing. It’s getting harder and harder to determine what’s socially appropriate these days.

This doesn’t excuse Weiner’s behavior – his escapades on Facebook as Carlos Danger were hurtful not only to his wife, but also to his friends, political supporters and family. They’re also embarrassing for the good people of New York (yes, including me) who are tired of the endless Weiner jokes in the tabloids. His behavior also sends the wrong signal to the upcoming generation of young political hopefuls, who may think they can “get away with it” if Weiner does.

However, haven’t all of us, to one degree or another, engaged in a bit of Carlos Danger-like role-playing across social media? We create fake Twitter accounts. We create online avatars. We assume pseudonyms and find clever ways to make ourselves anonymous. And the more time that we spend online, the more that our online and offline identities begin to blend together in strange and unexpected ways. We assume that nobody will see this activity, and that nobody will judge us for it later.

The problem is, it’s no longer possible — as Weiner suggested to his Facebook paramour — to “do me a solid” and delete the whole thing. It’s no longer possible to assume privacy is the default setting these days or to expect that we can remain anonymous. The biggest social networks want and encourage you to share as much as possible — even offering up perks in exchange for your activity. Our online social lives leave permanent tattoos that are impossible to delete. Even if we do a “hard delete” on our own digital devices, it’s anybody’s best guess whether this data continues to live on in “the cloud” — stored on servers around the world.

That means all but the most saintly and disciplined among us run the risk of having our Carlos Danger unmasked, revealing to family, friends and enemies our unfortunate inability to connect online behavior to real-world consequences.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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