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Sock Puppets

Learned a new word today.  Sock puppets refer to fake online personae that are used to try to manipulate conversations on social media networks. Needless to say a new player in the business is the U.S. military.  Like the old fashioned broadcast forum, Voice of America, which was broadcast on radio around the world, today there is now OEV, or Operation Earnest Voice, which attempts to intervene in social media interfaces in political hotspots around the world (you know where you are).

It’s pretty run of the mill cloak and dagger propaganda stuff.  What’s interesting about it is the way it’s certainly not new in terms of a digital practice. Companies have been offering this service to corporations and celebrities for a long time now. The military may invent the hardware as far as the history of media goes. But they are always very late when it comes to supplying the content.

Even more interesting is the way stories like this serve as wake-up calls to all of us.  They force us to reflect on the authenticity, even the humanity, of machine-based communication. Am I talking with a machine has become a routine question in various online forums. We ask this, for example, every time we open our email.  And now we have to ask this when we enter online chats.  As one recent commentator remarked, “The Turing Test has become a 24/7 experience for most of us.”

I’m trying to think about how this new online world of anonymity and machine-generated identity may or may not be different from the prevalence of anonymity during the heyday of print in the 17th and 18th centuries. What kind of reading experience did this anonymous or pseudonymous print world engender and does it have lessons for us in our highly unspecifiable identity politics online today?  One stark difference seems to be the way early print publics were quite often tightly intertwined with oral, often courtly, publics. Anonymity was more of a game than a permanent state of affairs. Print was a sidecar. Online there is no regulative norm outside of the technological. This is only amplified when you may not even be talking with a person, let alone a forgerer.

Jaron Lanier has argued that we need less anonymity online. Authentication is a way of forging authentic relationships online. It is the basis of forming real community. I’m wondering if we will have a surge of identification techniques in the years to come.