On Maintaining Multiple Identities

28 Apr 2014 |

You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.
- Mark Zuckerberg (http://venturebeat.com/2010/05/13/zuckerberg-privacy/)</p>


Many furries choose to interact with the world using two or more identities. At the simplest level this might be a legal ("real") identity and a furry (virtual) identity, and many furries maintain several more.

It's a simple exercise, internally, to manage multiple identities. People typically see themselves as a background manipulator, with various outwards-facing facades depending on the context: work identity, furry identity, kink identity, and so forth. This compartmentalization is normal, and everyone—furry and non-furry—does it to a degree.

It's less simple to keep outward-facing identities separate and discrete. For the most part, people are happy enough to allow their identities to leak into one another, such as when one's co-workers meet one's family. Problems occur when people want to keep some element of themselves private: perhaps their sexual behaviour, perhaps a hobby that is prone to misunderstanding... furry, for example.

Facebook presents a problem, because it's largely a central clearinghouse for identity. You might consider Facebook to be designed for the internal manipulator of the multiple identities; not for expression of the identities themselves.

The Google Plus social network is similar to Facebook in that there is a 'common names' policy. G+ requires a consistent name across all products that require a Google account. And that name most be provable: either a legal name or a pre-existing pseudonym with a provable history. So you can't be Jane Smith in some contexts and Blazing Hyena in others; it's one or the other.

It makes sense that social networks require close ties to the legal identity of their users. It's a business opportunity: if a Facebook login (say) becomes an online-based de facto proof of identity, then this becomes a service they can sell.

That sounds bad, but it's not unreasonable for a business to be motivated by the potential to create a new market. Businesses exist to make money. It is absolutely reasonable, of course, to expect businesses to be law-abiding and moral, just not benevolent.

Today, in 2014, it seems like we're having a sea change in the way identity is stored and proved. Currently proof-of-identity is a service offered by governments; a way of assuring the integrity of individual transactions like voting, or getting a driver's license. But the ubiquity of online social networks is providing a second route to proof-of-identity. Large fiscal institutions like credit agencies or banks already track individuals, creating a type of identity assurance, but their reach pales in comparison to the scope of identity services potentially offered by the likes of Facebook.

Governments are currently looking into the best ways to manage the transition to online identity (see here for a discussion of the UK government’s plans). It may be, in the not-too-distant future, that businesses like Facebook will provide legal online identity assurance.

Of course there is no (current) requirement for proof of online identity, and social networks like Facebook are opt-in. And there are other ways to prove your online identity, ways that don't require a connection to your legal identity or 'common name'.

Services like Twitter and OpenID offer a consistent virtual identity, one where Blazing Hyena doesn't need to be connected to Jane Smith. But even here, Jane is at risk of 'doxing', and anyone who links her to Blazing Hyena will be able to find out whatever else Blazing Hyena is up to.

Unfortunately it's not possible to maintain persistent multiple identities without risking them being linked. Guaranteed and absolute privacy is impossible: there is necessary conflict between physical identity and virtual identity.

Consider Jake Rush. Jake is a LARPer, the sort of hobby that is prone to be misunderstood, and so he kept it separate from his work identity. He is an attorney.

On March 20 this year, Jake announced a bid for Congress. His online LARP identity was shortly discovered, and he became a figure of fun. Pictures of him in costume were published alongside out-of-context quotes... you can imagine the rest. Jake's use of multiple identities was seen as him having, to quote Zuckerberg, a "lack of integrity".

Still, online anonymity is not always desirable. Consider Michael Brutsch, a programmer who was the subject of an article on Gawker in 2012. Online, Brutsch was known as Violentacrez, moderator of a subreddit dedicated to posting covert, voyeuristic photos taken of women in public ('Creepshots') as well as the creator of another subreddit dedicated to posting sexualized images of underage girls ('Jailbait').

Brutsch's outing as Violentacrez seems like a positive step, but the ethics of his outing is not so black-or-white. The journalist who did the research and wrote the article (Adrian Chen) is, essentially, enforcing Zuckerberg's single-identity ideal. Chen could not have written the article if he had a separate online identity himself. His decision to out Brutsch demonstrates the risk taken by anyone with multiple identities, be they abhorrent (like Brutsch) or innocuous (like Jake Rush).

It's a pity that having multiple identities poses these risks and challenges. Identity play is completely normal, and part of a healthy internal life. Furry might be seen as an edge case, given that our identity play includes obfuscation of species, but that doesn't make it internally problematic.

Having said that, there is a lot of research that demonstrates that a hallmark of maturity and good mental health is self actualization (ref). Self actualization is a term that describes how the various elements of one's identity are integrated into a balanced whole, including positive acceptance of unusual elements. Examples of unusual elements of identity might include gender identity, or sexual orientation, or sexual interests. (That’s not to say that identity play via personality splitting is a negative thing; quite the opposite in fact. But it’s a complex issue and the subject of many articles here on [adjective][species] - click here to browse our ‘identity’ tag.)

Consistency of identity is a good thing from a psychological point of view. But this refers to internal personality—the internal manipulator of facades—and not the editing of outward-facing personalities depending on the context. It is normal and healthy, and respectful of those around you, to manage outward appearance to match society's expectations. To use an extreme example, it's okay to enjoy masturbating to weird furry porn (and be happy about that), but you probably shouldn't share the details around the office watercooler, even if someone asks you what you did on the weekend.

Interestingly, there is evidence that having disparate identities is an indicator of poor mental health. This specifically includes furries: the IARP have shown that furries with diverging fursonas are more at risk of negative psychological states like repression or dissociation (ref).

Some personality splitting is normal. It's normal to act and feel different in different contexts: online vs offline, friends vs family, lovers vs workmates. Yet there is a lot of value in being able to act in ways that reinforce the validity of your identity. It's good to meet online friends in real life. It's good to turn sexual fantasies into sexual realities. It's good to talk about the furry world with non-furry friends. And it's good to talk openly about sexual fetishes, or sexual and gender identity.

There is a balance to be found, and it's not easy. It's good to merge our online world with our offline world, but this should to be done in a safe fashion, and should be respectful of those around us. Some editing and personality splitting is necessary and reasonable. It is completely unreasonable to suggest, as Zuckerberg does, that managing different versions of yourself in order to respect other people and to stay safe is 'an example of a lack of integrity':

To get people to this point where there’s more openness — that’s a big challenge. But I think we’ll do it. I just think it will take time. The concept that the world will be better if you share more is something that’s pretty foreign to a lot of people and it runs into all these privacy concerns.
- Mark Zuckerberg


Zuckerberg's point of view is completely reasonable if you happen to be male, white, heterosexual, and rich. He is speaking from a position of privilege, one that disregards the need for privacy for those of us who don't conform quite so easily to the mainstream. (But then nobody would mistake Mark Zuckerberg for a philosopher, or suggest that he is well known for his emotional intelligence.)

There is always risk that an unusual online identity will be linked with a staid offline identity. This is not a problem if, like Zuckerberg, you can express yourself fully and still meet society's norms. And it's easy for such privileged people to assume that their experience is universal.

For the rest of us, we must bear the risk that we will have our 'hidden' selves outed. We're especially vulnerable if we hold any public or semi-public position. The accusation we risk facing will be a familiar one to many furries: something along the lines of "pretends to be an omnisexual transgender fox on the internet". We're not doing anything other than expressing ourselves, yet we'll be tarred by the suggestion of weirdness, and of lacking integrity.

We furries risk being shamed for being ourselves. There is no solution, beyond carefully curating our online presences to give ourselves as much privacy as possible. Unfortunately, it's a challenge that comes with the territory.


- with thanks to Drat for the inspiration and the help