Women juggle work and family — and now their online identities too

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It’s hard not to note the irony of a discussion about authentic identity at a festival where most people are posting the same overexposed iPhone pic of their morning latte to Instagram. But inside the Austin Convention Center at SXSW Interactive this year, identity and privacy took center stage.

In a panel on how women present themselves in the digital age, Huffington Post editor Margaret Wheeler Johnson asked, “Are you the same person online as you are in real life?” The question speaks to the bigger concern: When there are so many social media avenues to present yourself, how do you maintain authenticity and manage your identity (to borrow a current buzzword)? Some would argue that upkeep is unnecessary.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook has famously said,

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.

But while much of the discussion around Zuckerberg’s comment has had to do with the “lack of integrity” bit, the feminist bloggers on the panel “Sex, dating and privacy online” responded instead to the idea of a single identity, stating that in this culture, multiple online identities (and a separation of public and private) are still necessary for most.

For an example of how fraught this area is for women or those who might have social reasons for staying anonymous, just consider the times. The rights of gay men and women to get married are leading to vitriol from the right, and top-rated radio hosts get away with calling a grown woman who takes birth control a slut. So while Zuck may have been accusing folks of lying if they maintain separate identities, the issue is far more subtle when seen from the fringe (or rather, the perceived fringe).

And because of handy features like single sign-on and integrations across social networks, it is increasingly hard to control data about yourself, as the EFF points out. One solution, from writer and panelist Rachel Kramer Bussel’s perpective? Reveal everything.

By blogging, tweeting, Instagramming and otherwise frankly being as public as possible, there is no longer anything to hide. It’s kind of like preemptively telling your boyfriend that embarrassing childhood story before your parents spill the beans. And of course, we have plenty of tools at our disposal to do this: Already, there are 600 tweets posted every second.

Blogger Twanna Hines pointed out, though, that this method is a privilege. For those with professional jobs who might not want their personal lives (in her context, sexual lives) broadcasted or who are concerned with safety, the online world can be a place of paranoia and fear.

The other choice? Reveal nothing. On a different panel, artist Zach Blas brought us back to the idea that identity is located in the face. His new project “Fag Face” disrupts the concept of biometrics by creating a mask that is an amalgamation of faces to protect your individual face and, therefore, your identity. His art piece could be considered a literal interpretation of a recent movement Blas talked about in the session, where people Like and Friend everyone, so that it is impossible to tell what they actually like or who they are friends with, thus maintaining anonymity.

That hits the heart of the discussion: In a world where companies are pushing people to expose everything, do we have to make a choice between authenticity and anonymity?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Corinne Day

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