Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Social Pipeline: Identity within the Global Village

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All  articles you read, videos you watch, posts you tweet and things you like can now automatically be reposted to all your online profiles, creating a social pipeline. In China, activists use this method of mass propagation to fight against the amnesia that strikes their posts when deleted by censorship. But at the same time, such activity log banishes the possibility that any of our online traces might be forgotten, making each of our online moves forever visible in the plain light of our community.

Jingjing (警警) and Chacha (察察) are the cartoon mascots of the Internet Surveillance Division of the Public Security Bureau in Shenzhen, China. Image by courtesy of China Digital Times

Digging tunnels under networks

I have been spending too much time posting and reposting information through the many social networks. Digging into Facebook, Twitter, Google+,, and these days, Pinterest and  Quora –  all very immersive experiences into human communities. What’s more,  Chinese netizens’  irresistible sense of humour which is producing high-quality memes on remote social networks like Weibo and Douban, makes you end up with a “social minute” that eventually lasts for an entire day chatting and juggling with your web accounts. That is why services  such as Ifttt (If this then that) or Facebook activity feeds have created a new solution: interlock all online services and activities into a social pipeline. In 2008, the Chinese blogger Isaac Mao was already describing this “micropipeline” as an “unblockable infrastructure” in the fight against online censorship :

Chinese bloggers are now becoming smarter in building more complex personal pipelines to avoid single point failure.”

What used to be little islets within the wild network are now linked together, slowly merging our different activities on the Web into a single online identity. Anticipating global tendencies, the gurus of  the WWW are even conceiving a project called WebID, where any person or organization can be identified with a unique ID. As information production increases, fact-checks and source verification become crucial elements.

“The ability to enable information sharing (shareability)  will be the baseline for the design of many web products in the next years. The first important thing is to find a reliable mechanism for certification.” as Isaac Mao remarked recently.

Show me your web ID

Similar to human migrations, the web also quickly grows its checkpoints, borders, customs and other verification tools to monitor netizen identities. In China, real ID authentication is required to register any website or hosting, even to access a cybercafe. Following recent scandals, the microblog service Sina Weibo has updated its terms of  use and made it mandatory now to show ID to register an account. The big internet companies in China are all monitoring content and deleting unverified accounts, especially if they contain “sensitive” information :

Sometimes the system asks for a phone number to verify the ID of the account owner, but I just skip the procedure and keep on posting.” , explains Chinese media activist Wen Yunchao. “Yesterday Sina Weibo once more closed one of my accounts. As usual, I had to register for another one. I’ve done it already more than 25 times.”

But Sina is not only down on people with fake identities, they are also promoting people who have registered their real identity. Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber tells her own incredible story:

“I had 500 followers when my account was not yet verified. After having been verified, I got 4,500 followers within less than a day.  [One month later] Inow have 33,600+ followers. Crazy.

The right to disguise

Facebook and Google have also adopted a  real name policy. The Chinese columnist Michael Anti got his Facebook account deleted altogether because he was using his writer’s name. Upset by this loss, he challenged the limits of  the policy  :

“Am I more fake than Zuckerberg’s dog?”

This verification process is answering pressure from political and marketing teams concerned about faking identity. We should remember the young Fouad Mourtada who was jailed in 2008 for creating a fake Facebook profile of the King’ of Morroco’s brother.  At the same time, this control process is also a requirement of the users themselves, as Thomas Crampton insists  in his recent post :

“A key aspect of online dating involves ensuring authenticity.”

At the same time, modern web browsers also reflect our needs for an intimate browsing experience, mostly offering an incognito mode. We should now face our own contradictions in building a remote system of identity which limits our private sphere while adding social value. Maybe we shouldn’t consider data only as our personal property, but more as a process implying new forms of common ownership. It is now time to take into account that our avatars are first and foremost social constructions.

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Clément Renaud Twitter: clemsosClément

Working between Europe and China, Clément Renaud investigates how online social practices are shaping a forthcoming economy of sharing. He has co-founded an independent research center with a community of Chinese bloggers and hackers named Sharism Lab. Clément Renaud write code, articles, courses and research papers about data visualization, social network analysis, education for journalists and urban culture.