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Not possible to judge strangers you meet online

india Updated: Aug 12, 2014 20:47 IST

"The only thing that we know about the future is that we die. The brief, messianic experience of the cybernetic supernatural is an attempt to control that future by creating a bubble of eternity in the fluid materiality of time."- Sean Cubitt, author of Digital Aesthetics and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The advent of the age of social networks has seen the global society evolving into a hybrid world of digital and physical environments, where a new generation of 'networked citizens' is emerging. The ever growing presence of real people in the virtual world means that the concept of a digital identity assumes higher importance and people spend more time curating their digital identities.

But what is a digital identity? What does it exactly mean? As Stacey M. Koosel puts it, digital identities are who we say we are, when we are online. These identities can exist in various formats: they could be a partial/full replication of our real world public persona, an extension of who we truly are, or at the other end of the spectrum they could be carefully fabricated stories to hide our actual identity from the world. Indeed, the catch in Koosel's definition lies in the phrase 'who we say we are'. How does one ascertain whether what people say about themselves in the virtual world is the truth in the real world?

The answer is, one can't. Social networks like Facebook give their users the choice to share the minutest details about their personalities. While these were originally meant as tools to share our real world identities with others, the flip side that has emerged is that many people now use these tools to craft personalities that are popular, cool, and more worryingly nowhere near their actual self. The original ideas of connectivity and connectedness are being replaced by seeking popularity and claiming your own fifteen minutes of fame.

Indeed, if one of my social network friends makes an online 'check-in' into this new happening restaurant in town, or if they say they are watching a critically acclaimed movie/reading a really intellectual book, or even if they announce to the world that they are 'feeling happy' or, more boisterously, 'feeling accomplished', should I believe them? Should I take them on the face value of their social media updates? At the cost of being cynical, I can at best, take all this social information with a pinch of salt. With people who I know in real life and interact with on a constant basis, making judgments about realityand as a result about their personalities would still be easier and not that far off the mark. But, with real-life strangers who I meet online, can I make the same judgment that easily? Probably not.

My cynicism arises from the fact that forging a favorable and popular identity in the virtual world is easy, does not require any form of proofing or authentication, and carries much more social impact than in the real world. Call these the cons of the free and unpoliced nature of the foundation on which the social networks are built, but that's what the reality is. By simply liking, sharing, pinning and even applying the copy-paste knowledge from Google, people in the virtual world can appear smarter, more pleasant and definitely more likeable. And this idea is so attractive in itself, that it is too hard to resist. Indeed, all of us haveat some point or the other taken advantage of these loopholes and given some push to our social clout (pun intended).

As things stand, in the world of social networks, it is really difficult to differentiate the black from the white when it comes to knowing and understanding people, unless you happen to have ample real world interaction with them. It is a matter of great irony indeed that most of the social networks originally came into being as a place where people could be free to 'be themselves'!

Derrick De Kerckhove, the famous academician and author, predicted in 1995 that "Changing our personal identity will become a primary entertainment, like a cosmetic surgery of the psyche." His words could not be truer at any other time than now.

(Varun Tyagi works as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and blogs at The Pyjama Warrior)