Drawn and Quartered on the Internet

No one would deny that the internet has altered the tenor, the feel, the style of public life. The web contains much of the record of that life, and in turn directs how that life is conducted.

The problem for description and analysis arises when you concede that the internet’s effects on public life seem so contradictory. Everyone who looks (and the web sometimes makes you feel like a staring eyeball that can’t blink) sees the same constellation of contradictions: more public shamelessness yet more public shaming; a threat to privacy side by side with a growth in anonymous communication; and more pure information together with an expanded circulation for baseless opinion. The temptation is to throw up your hands and just say that, thanks to the internet, the public sphere contains more of everything: more exposure, privacy, publicity, anonymity, truth, lies, opinion, information, pornography, culture, advertising—though probably not more art.

Still, it may be that if we can identify some basic ways that the individual person relates to the public sphere, we can begin to replace an online feeling of immersion with something more usefully aloof. One axis along which every individual relates to the public is that which runs from identification to anonymity. A police officer, named on his badge, chases a masked man down the street: one is identifiable, the other, for now, publicly anonymous. (This is different from sitting at home with the shades drawn.) But whether or not to reveal our identity in public—to disclose our face, name, or title—is hardly the end of our choices. Another axis runs from reticence to expressiveness. The police officer in pursuit, even if he shouts Stop! at the top of his lungs, is personally reticent and inexpressive: the uniform he wears is not of his design, and the laws he upholds are not of his authorship. Who knows what he thinks of them? The masked figure he’s chasing, on the other hand, may be highly expressive even as he retains his anonymity and the opinions he expresses founder in banality: on some wall he has scrawled Cops suck! Of course the officer could at any moment shed his personal reticence and start declaiming to the assembled onlookers a print-out of the blog post he wrote the night before. The graffiti artist could likewise stop running and tear off his mask.

So there are four basic positions one can occupy in public, owing to the fact that at any given moment we can reveal or conceal both who we are (our physical and social container) and what we think and feel (our emotional and intellectual contents):

Each quadrant of the graph represents a potential way to relate to the public sphere—a terrific simplification, of course, but with luck a heuristic one. The result is four possible positions:

1. You can reveal both who you are (show your face, say your name) and how you feel (disclose your thoughts and desires, or some of them).

2. You can reveal who you are but NOT how you feel.

3. You can reveal how you feel but NOT who you are.

4. You can reveal neither.

What happens if we apply these four available positions to the internet—where, after all, so much of public life takes place these days? If the examples above of the police officer and graffiti artist seem antique and implausible, it is because the online world has so signally expanded the individual’s capacity for virtual mask-wearing and virtual declaiming. The internet affords us unprecedented scope for appearing in public (even if only the atomized public of the internet). And if at first it seems hard to see how you could conceal who you are and how you feel and nevertheless publicly appear, it’s necessary only to think of a site like Wikipedia, where anonymous individuals publicize facts about which they are not to disclose their own opinions.

Is it surprising that the four positions above seem to correspond strikingly well to four of the primary preoccupations of the World Wide Web?

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