Technically speaking, Krishnabh Medhi is a nerd with thick gray glasses, a mop of black hair and a brand-new computer science degree. But for two glorious weeks in early February, the 23-year-old software engineer was — on Facebook, at least — a hot blonde chick named Amanda who loved Starbucks and “adventuring.”
“I had a lot of free time, and a lot of boredom, and a weird suspicion that other people experience the world in different ways,” Medhi said. “I wanted to see what they experience.”
As Medhi later described in a viral Quora post-mortem that’s racked up nearly 860,000 views, the Amanda experiment began on a whim — a way to kill time until his immigration paperwork came through. He opened the blank Facebook account, set its location in West Lafayette, Ind., and scrolled through pictures of women in Google Image Search until he found a good set of stock photos. Then he set his interests as Starbucks and adventures (“I put minimal effort into it,” he explains), and, unconvinced the project would amount to anything, friend-requested 20 strangers.
Within 24 hours, hundreds of people were swamping “Amanda” with Facebook friend requests. Within 72 hours, foreign men were offering to order pizza or sushi to “her” apartment. Medhi had never been so popular, such a crowdpleaser. At one point, he hooked his computer up to his living room TV so some friends could come over and gawk at the sorts of weird, unprovoked homages Amanda was receiving.
“I felt,” Medhi would write later, “like I was violating the rules of reality.”
“Reality,” of course, is a flimsy thing these days: It’s never been quite so easy to blur and stretch it to one’s particular purposes. Hoaxes spread as comfortably as news does; the vernacular’s ballooned with words like “finstagram” and “catfish.” And yet, Medhi is correct that one corner of “real life” hasn’t expanded online quite like we hoped: Contrary the promises of early Web utopians, your online identity is probably very similar to your physical one.
It’s not acceptable for nerds to “become” hot girls online — or anything else, for that matter.
This development would have disappointed the earliest online communities, and not only because they contained lots of nerds. One of the pillars that made the Internet so mind-blowingly revolutionary was that, when you “met” someone on it, you couldn’t immediately deduce characteristics like their race, biological sex, age, height or attractiveness.
For 100,000 years of human history, those sorts of immutable physical characteristics had dictated everything from social class to evolutionary success to your chance of getting a promotion; research has found that people form an impression of you, based on nothing but your face, in as little as a tenth of a second.
But here, in the primordial fog of early cyberspace, was a chance to finally choose your destiny: to obscure those signals, or alter them, or mute them entirely. Idealists like Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow — who wrote, in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, that “our identities have no bodies” — dreamt of a Platonic space that eschewed superficial, physical concerns in favor of deeper engagements. They prophesied the end of race, of gender, of conventional social hierarchies.
“You could alter nearly every aspect of your identity: You could be a man or a woman, young or old, bald or bearded, whatever,” Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu wrote, grandly, in “Who Controls the Internet.” “With complete control over their identities, people could cluster with congenial souls to create virtual communities. … The first truly liberated communities in human history.”
Goldsmith and Wu were writing, specifically, about the philosophies of ’80s gaming communities called MUDs — basically, early versions of online role-playing games. But the idea of having a self-created “online identity,” as distinct from an imposed, physical one, persisted well into the next two decades.
Until Friendster cropped up, circa 2002, virtually every major forum, instant messenger and gaming site used avatars or buddy icons, not profile pictures, to distinguish its users. And if you, like I, are a child of the late ’90s Web, you may remember the (now-redundant) chatroom shorthand “a/s/l” and the creative license with which you answered it: On the Internet, no one knew or cared you were a dog.
Until, of course, they did.
This isn’t to suggest, of course, that the Internet doesn’t still host its less literal identity communities — its pockets of anonymity, pseudonymity and straight-up play-acting. But generally speaking, the mainstream social Web demands, if not requires, that people port their physical selves over to it. According to the Pew Research Institute’s most recent survey on the subject, 91 percent of teenagers have a real photo of themselves — and thus, a declaration of their age, race, gender and attractiveness — associated with their social media accounts, up from 79 percent in 2006.
Over that time, using a non-photo avatar, or no avatar at all, became both unusual and suspicious: “One time-tested method for settling the question [of whether to engage with someone on Twitter] is to look at the person’s avatar,” Max Read wrote in 2015. “If it’s the default white egg, ignore, or block.”
And using someone else’s photo or “pretending” to be someone else is grounds for straight-up account suspension. If you want to see Amanda’s profile, for instance, you can’t anymore: Medhi deleted it.
“I know it’s against Facebook’s Terms of Service, and I don’t want to get in trouble,” he said.
There are, of course, a lot of good things to be said for the literal identity regime: Among others, the fact that it helps prevent pranksters like Mehdi from catfishing strange men out of their pizza/dignity. Facebook, for one, has long argued that the merger of one’s virtual and physical identities is critical to preventing abuse. Certainly it fosters a different sort of connection than the ones early MUD players were used to.
Still, it seems a loss — not just of personal agency, but of potential — that the Internet may not liberate us from our bodies and circumstances after all. In the early aughts, the Internet researcher Yael Kaynan wrote, optimistically, about the revolutionary ways that people formed relationships on the anonymous and pseudonymous Web; it appeared as if, for the first time in history, physical and social shortcomings wouldn’t unfairly torpedo a first impression.
Now we commonly make online the same sort of superficial, split-second judgments that we’ve made for thousands of years in the “real world.” Qualities like your trustworthiness and approachability are instantly inferred by details as small, and as immutable, as the width of your mouth in a single Facebook photo.
“Your picture is worth that fabled thousand words,” OkCupid’s Christian Rudder wrote in 2014, summarizing his company’s research on the subject. “Your actual words are worth almost nothing.”
After two weeks as Amanda, Medhi came to much the same conclusions. It didn’t matter how limp or noncommittal his messages were, and it didn’t matter that he never publicly posted: Hundreds of people were into him, courtesy a stock photo.
Would he prefer an Internet without profile pictures? An even playing field divorced from physical identity?
“I don’t know which is inherently better,” he punts. But he wouldn’t refuse more free sushi.
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