Cyber-self 101

Or The Evolution of Virtual Identity

If you created your first email account back in the 90’s or early 2000’s you probably remember the silly username you chose to go before “@hotmail.com” or “@yahoo.com” — does cool_boy_1999@hotmail.com ring a bell? — . I can recall the catchy nicknames and funny images I used as profile pics on chat rooms; I surely didn’t want my personal info out there where any — possibly mean — random strangers could see it. Back then we didn’t want or feel the need to use our “real” identity online.

This “protection” of our identities was not without inconveniences, to say the least. Without real info — be it a name, a phone number or photos — linking you and your online accounts, it wasn’t really that hard to lose them to, say, your slippery memory or hackers; once lost, retrieving them was almost impossible. I saw this happen firsthand: a known acquaintance of mine shared — quite unluckily — his initials with a shady foreign organization which demanded that the account be given to them — I imagine they figured nobody would take them seriously had their email been “the_real_ABC@hotmail.com.” One unhappy day, after a brief period of angry messages and threats, my friend came to find his account inaccessible: it had been hacked and the password changed. At the time, email accounts were the primary means of virtual existence and, being in its early stages, there weren’t many channels — such as alternate recovery emails or linked “institutional” accounts — through which he could have proven that the email address was, in fact, his. He never got it back, nor the information it held.

This state of affairs, while already undergoing changes as online services multiplied and improved in quality and reliability, was suddenly and violently shaken by the advent of social media and its break-neck popularization amongst both internet veterans and newbies alike. In 2004 — the now social media giant — Facebook made the integration of physical or “real” and virtual identities official policy by requiring that prospective users register using a valid university email account and dispensing of usernames altogether: users were to be identified by their real names. Cyber-identities were now made to have a backbone based in reality, via the institutional linkage the university email addresses provided.

This merging of our real and virtual identities on social networks plus the popularity and integration of digital photography on mobile devices were the catalyst for boosting the characterization of the cyber-self. The plug-download-share of personal event pictures — be there important life milestones like a new job or just our nailed-it home cooked pizza — is the cornerstone of a culture that we can’t separate from the concept of social networks. Now, online interaction doesn’t just mean a way to find old friends and somehow stay connected, it has become an aspirational mirror of our offline desires and how we want to be perceived.

The only way that people may associate you with the mask — or maybe just makeup — of coolness that you share online now is just by your real name and pictures, hence the social disapproval of using images and names that hide the actual identity of a user in personal approaches. And all of this is translated to this scenario: Would you accept a friend request of someone with a single stock photo of a Lamborghini as a profile picture, no face, and an alias you don’t recognize? Of course not.

But there’s always an exception to the rule, and that is if you intend to create a deliberate characterization of a “public figure” or digital celebrity, where no personal interaction with other users is intended. In this unilateral relationship lies the difference between “liking” or “following” and “becoming friends”. If you are a tweetstar — or plan to become one — go for it.

Having a digital and virtual identity completely associated with your physical identity may have protected us a bit from annoying bullies, but now a peeve price is that it has been easier for hackers to obtain personal information to commit identity-theft-related crimes, especially if your accounts remain open and unprotected after you’ve passed away. How is that possible?

Who you are on the cyberspace is related to your Digital Identity. It’s all the information that can be associated to you and makes you a person in the digital realm.

On the other hand, the Virtual Identity is how you live your cyberspace life: alias, and alter egos, nicknames on an online gaming platform, all of your online accounts, what you share, like, comment and create, your friends list, interests, apps you use, websites you visit, etcetera. But this Identity is not created one-way only. It’s an average of what you add to it and the feedback of those who interact with you — your post of “I love mother earth” vs. the “You take hours in the shower” reply of your sister. What you do with your virtual identity and what remains of it on the internet are also known as “digital footprint”.

In simpler words, the digital identity is attached and directly associated with the real you (this information is crucial to hackers); while the virtual identity is your persona in this digital life, and it can take as many forms as you like (this is the info that gives hackers some clues to get to your digital identity).

With this precious information they are able to commit diverse types of fraud such as document or benefits fraud, credit card fraud, phone or utilities fraud, bank fraud, loan fraud, employment-related fraud, identity theft; representing a total cost of $16 billion dollars this year just inside the US.

But don’t be afraid of prancing freely on the cyberspace. To lower paranoia we suggest you check these simple steps that will reduce the vulnerability of your personal information:

  1. Only add people you know. Or if you are trying to expand your social circles, first check the profile of the person who is requesting the interaction. Pay attention to pictures (do they match? are there enough for it not to be a faux profile?), name (does the name sound legit?), friends list (do you have mutual friends?) and interests (is she/he going to add something of value to you by accepting the friend request?).
  2. Review your security settings for all accounts. But be careful, do not let the paranoia interfere with the benefits that virtual life can offer you. Remember that it’s always better to have legit information so people can trust you (this tip is especially useful if internet is your primary tool for work, or if you are trying to find a job). Just be careful who you are sharing it with.
  3. Create different passwords. You can use the same for any non-important accounts or those that do not compromise personal information. Create different passwords for accounts that require credit card information, address and sensitive info.
  4. Don’t write your passwords down! If they are too difficult to remember, use a secret keyword to remember which login information belongs to which site.
  5. Don’t give passwords for your social networks to others. This is not only a real danger to your information and identity; it could also compromise sensitive information that other friends have trusted you with.

Join us at Heeler!