The week of July 12, 2015

The Internet of secrets

By Jesse Hicks

“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog,” goes the old saying. But that adage, coined in the hazy mists of yesteryear (1993), seems less and less true, as the Internet increasingly does know if you’re a dog—and probably what kind of dog food you like, where you shop for it, and whether you have fleas.

To clarify an admittedly murky analogy: At one point, the Internet was by default an anonymous place; today, it’s increasingly a place a of real names, of the data-mined “social” Web. Anonymity—or simply privacy—is something we have to take great pains to guard if we hope to preserve it, as so much of our digital lives trend toward greater “transparency” (the dominant euphemism), whether or not we desire it. But we all know secrets can be useful, and remain so even amidst the pressure for disclosure.

This week we have three new stories of secrets and lies. First, Chris Stokel-Walker looks at Dark Justice, a pair of online vigilantes who’ve made it their mission to hunt down and expose pedophiles in the United Kingdom. They create fake personae, complete with underage-seeming photos, and wait to be contacted. It doesn’t take long, they say, and they’ve already carried out 20 sting operations. Despite remaining anonymous to the public, they’ve helped put men in jail. But their online vigilantism is controversial, and they’ve maintained secret identities out of concern that not everyone approves of what they do.

Sex workers rarely have illusions about who approves of what they do—that’s one reason they adopt pseudonyms, both online and off-. But as Charlotte Shane (herself writing under a pseudonym, a manufactured identity) explains, a stage name is also a brand name. On the Internet, everyone knows you’re a marketer and expects you to act accordingly on-brand. Sex workers, then, often end up developing three identities: their legal names, their stage names, and finally, another persona created as an escape from the first two. That third persona, she writes, is a secret self that can grow to feel truer than either of the previous selves and offers sex workers a space in which to bond with and support one another.

In other words, it offers them a network of fellow workers, even while preserving their anonymity. Not surprising, as most industries have networks, online and off-, formal and informal. Olga Lexell looks at one collection of these: the secretive, exclusive digital networks used by Hollywoods power brokers—and those who want to be them. The online tracking boards she explores offer access at a price, with the implicit promise of a better future just over the horizon; critics counter that they’re selling hope and delivering not much more. But Hollywood has its secrets, and plenty of people willing to share them for a price.

Photo via Sarah/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed