washingtonpost.com
The Rise of Alter Egos In Everybody's Space
After Oversharing, Users Recast Their Online Personas

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

Since joining Facebook and MySpace two years ago, Luke Mitchell has amassed 476 friends, mostly buddies from high school and college. It was a great way to keep in touch, until his boss showed up on the sites and saw the embarrassing party pictures a friend posted.

He deleted his profiles on both social networks and started a new one on Facebook under a different name, only letting his closest friends know how to find him. An alter ego was born.

"All of the sudden I felt completely exposed," said Mitchell, a 22-year-old financial analyst in the District. "It was fine when I was in school, but I just started my first job. I can't be out there like that."

Other people in their 20s and even teenagers are doing the same, assuming online aliases on such sites as Facebook and MySpace to avoid the prying eyes of parents, college recruiters, potential employers and other overly interested strangers. They are also being more selective in who they allow in as "friends" by paring back the size of their social circles.

Social networks, which let members share photos, videos and intimate details about themselves and their friends, have pushed the boundaries of how people view their personal space. Now, the younger generations that used to embrace the voyeuristic qualities of the Web are considering the advantages of borders between their public and private lives.

In person, people tend to adapt their behavior to the situation -- talking to a co-worker requires different language and attitude than what's comfortable with a college friend. On social networks, everyone's in on the same conversation.

Not only that, an indiscreet comment in a face-to-face exchange can be regretted and forgotten. Online, it can live for years, providing personal details to potential bosses and marketers.

"For the first time in history, we can't tailor our image for our specific goals," said Mark R. Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. "When we have to create an all-purpose social history, how do people juggle competing audiences?"

Modifying online personalities in search of more privacy "is a natural evolution in our relationship with these technologies," said Mary Madden, senior research specialist with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, who has studied privacy issues among teens on social networks. "There's a bigger pool of people to think about now. Networks we initially considered to be curated and private can start to feel very public."

Pew research has shown that 66 percent of teens with an online profile have restricted access to it. Among teens who allow their profiles to be seen by others, nearly half provide some fake information.

Barbara Leary (no relation to the Duke professor) joined MySpace two years ago, but when she entered high school this year at School Without Walls in the District, she scrapped her account and started over. Leary, 15, no longer posts her full name and feels less obligated to accept every friend request she receives. When she opened a Facebook account this year, she used the strictest privacy settings available.

"I started using MySpace when I was a seventh-grader and wasn't as careful," said Leary, whose mother has suggested that she sprinkle fake information into her accounts. "Now I'll be friends with someone if I see I have a lot of friends in common with them. But if I don't know them, I don't let them in."

Arwa Zafar, 26, a law student in Harrisburg, Pa., started using a fake name on her Facebook profile six months ago after her professors told students to take down their social network profiles while applying for summer internships. Two people from her school had missed out on jobs because of material they posted online, she was told.

Zafar also wanted to cut down on the number of strangers asking to be her friend.

"I used to get 10 random requests a day," she said. "I'm not on there to meet new people; I'm there to keep in touch with the people I already know."

But Facebook does not allow members to go by nicknames, initials or other pseudonyms on the site and will deactivate accounts found to be using a fake name. Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, said using real names encourages people to be accountable for their online behavior.

"Facebook is not a place to experiment with your identity and have six different profiles that you use based on what day of the week it is and what persona you want to inhabit," he said. "It's meant to be a place to share real-life social context."

Facebook has encountered criticism for making personal details about its members too visible, most notably by initially allowing its Beacon feature to broadcast users' purchases to online friends. (The site later allowed members to opt in to the feature.) Facebook has added privacy controls that allow members to limit the information visible to different subsets of friends, so a person's boss, for instance, will see a different page than family members will see. Members can also decide whether their profile can be found by outside search engines.

MySpace also allows users to control how much information can be seen by others and has tighter privacy settings for younger users. The site is developing tools to let users preserve social distinctions between groups of friends.

The problem, though, is that many social networkers don't know about the privacy options and stick with the default settings, which allow visitors to see everything, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"People think they are disclosing information to their friends when much of it is available to strangers," he said, adding that "a lot of people won't bother navigating through the privacy preferences."

About 20 percent of Facebook's members use some level of privacy controls, Kelly said.

As online social lives grow, so do the difficulties of juggling various groups of friends. Two weeks ago, Saba Khan, 21, dropped her full name from her Facebook profile, partly so strangers cannot tell her gender. She also deleted many of her photo albums from the site.

Khan, a pre-med student in Orlando, was bombarded with strange comments from people she didn't know. Now she requires people outside her network to enter her e-mail address to contact her.

The different cultures of Facebook and MySpace, the two largest U.S. social networks, have influenced the actions some members take to ensure privacy, said Catherine Dwyer, a lecturer at Pace University who has studied trust and privacy concerns on the sites. Facebook started exclusively for college students and therefore created a greater sense of trust among members than MySpace, which took a more open-door approach, she said. Now that Facebook is also open to anyone with an e-mail address, people are starting to pull back a bit. Her research conducted last year showed that nearly all of Facebook's 70 million members use their real names, while less than half of MySpace's 110 million members use theirs.

Rather than changing their names, Dwyer said some cautious socializers exchange cryptic messages that outsiders cannot understand, she said.

Facebook user Katherine Kennedy, 23, who runs her own public relations firm in the District, has more than 2,300 friends, including professional acquaintances, clients and long-time pals. It's tough to keep in touch with them all, she said, so she started a separate profile for close friends so she can be freer in what she shares online.

"I think it's definitely the case that people are trying to create different circles. We obviously portray different selves when we're with different groups of people," said Eszter Hargittai, assistant professor of communication studies and sociology at Northwestern University, who said she has also considered starting a different profile to communicate just with friends. "A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company