FOR A WHILE LAST YEAR, there were 32 people pretending to be me on Twitter.
I'm not internet famous, much less real-world famous enough to inspire the kind of knock-off Twitter accounts you see for Tilda Swinton, Markus Persson, or North West. I just happened to be the rueful subject of a brief meme enabled by a system that allows people to create quick, disposable accounts.
After I created a fake Twitter account (called @WinterBrendan, which I used to mock my real account, @BrendanAdkins), other pretenders decided to pile on, too. They included Autocorrect Brendan (@brekndaikins), who spellchecked my more egregious typos. Drunk Brendan (@Drunk_Brendan) burbled cheerful messages from an alternate universe where I am not a teetotaler. SpringBrendan (@SpringBrendan) purported to be a spectacularly lewd version of my id. Shark Brendan (@SharkBrendan) was a shark named Brendan.
Some were topical (@POTUSBrendan), some dada-esque (@brendan_ebooks), some discomfiting (@BrendanInLove). However, what began as a few friends messing with me became a fractal, self-replicating idea; I have had friends of friends inform me that they didn't know there was an original Brendan Adkins.
What became interesting about the whole affair, to me, were three things I learned from it. First, social media is as much about identity as it is communication. Second, most social media are commercial, so that identity is mediated by commerce. Third, all social media are constrained; these constraints determine what you can express on them, and how.
I AM WHATEVER YOU SAY I AM
The strongest tie between today's social networks and their progenitors is a simple founding concept: the username and user icon. You get a short piece of text and a small, square-cropped picture, and anyone can click on them to see your profile.
It's a tradition so old (in internet years) that it never seems to occur to anyone how weird it is. "Ah, I notice you've said something! With the smallest possible gesture, I will now learn how popular you are, where you live, more about what you look like, and everything else you have ever said in this venue."
That's who you are, on a network: the sum of the things it can find about you. Pinterest and Tumblr know what you like. Foursquare knows where you've been. Twitter knows what you're talking about. Facebook and Google+ know everything.
It seems as if contributing information to these networks yields a clearer picture of who you are and what you do—but in truth it's a way of commodifying yourself and your activity, of giving them away. The more you engage, the less your public face is yours to control. There's plenty of value judgment to be made about that fact, but it is a fact, and it's fascinating.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE WORTH?
I'm a software developer, and one of my company's specialties is building niche social networks, but much of my understanding of digital interaction comes from game design. Game designers often build around a "compulsion loop," a cyclical system of reward for participation that drives you to continue playing. Think about passing Go in Monopoly, or unlocking levels in Angry Birds, or leveling up in... well, pretty much any console videogame these days.
"The people who design social networks want you to be there indefinitely," says Portland game designer Ben Lehman, creator of Matriarchy (matriarchygame.com). "So it's not useful to think of them as games you play and then are done with."
Instead, he says, both the networks and the games that operate on top of them—like FrontierVille or Candy Crush Saga—want you to integrate the loop into your daily routine. If you don't engage enough, they'll find ways to draw you in.
"Players who check in rarely will become players who check in often," says Lehman. "Social networks encourage this. If you haven't checked in for a day, Twitter will send you an email telling you what's happened. Facebook will remind you of your friends' birthdays."
What's the reward for playing? Ephemera. Facebook and YouTube use like-thumbs to compel you; Instagram and Pinterest use hearts; Twitter and Flickr use stars.
All of them want you to return regularly and count your accolades, so that they can quantify your attention to sell ads, and to publish things through them so that your audience will come back too. When you hear someone talking about their "personal brand," you are hearing someone who has invested heavily in this idea.
One consistent piece of advice about personal branding is to be consistent over multiple channels. You can link to your Tumblr posts from Twitter, or sync your tweets or pins to Facebook.
These efforts to consolidate your audience, though, serve the secondary purpose of driving traffic between and among those platforms. While you grind away at the table, building your following, the house is quietly taking its cut.
This is what I mean about identity mediated by commerce: Successful networks get you to do their advertising for them, using your name and face. By putting your life online and creating genuine connections with other people there, you lend corporations an authenticity they have struggled to attain for the last century.
They want to know who you are elsewhere, too. Any time you see a "tweet this" button or a "like this" widget—even if you don't click it—the relevant site is noting that you visited that page. Having a single, unified identity makes it easy for them to be certain where you've been and what you were doing there, and that's information they can sell.
Honestly, there are worse prices to pay for a global platform—as long as you know what you're paying. There are even ways to hop the turnstile, but moving among networks in anonymity doesn't always sit well with their owners.
Every once in a while, a prominent internet company will advance the thesis that "real names" are the solution to spam, harassment, and hate speech. Surely this form of accountability will keep people from saying awful things, they claim, and if spammers can't create disposable fake identities, they won't be able to run rampant within our walled garden. Anonymity—or pseudonymity—is the root of all they perceive as evil.
Facebook and Google+ will fight you if you attempt to inhabit a fictional identity—you can get away with an account for your pet, but you'll get shut down for pretending to be Ron Burgundy. They have a vested interest in connecting individual accounts to individual humans.
That's in part because their ad sales systems pride themselves on specificity, allowing a vendor to target, e.g., single fathers under 45 who work at Intel and like Janeane Garofalo. (Have you ever tried to buy an ad on Facebook? It's disturbingly like searching a dating site.)
Increasingly, though, the demand for verifiable identity seems to make people resent your platform. A Pew Research Center study on young people's internet habits indicates that teenagers tend to see Facebook as an obligation, and are shifting their enthusiasm to other social networks less likely to urge them to connect with their parents.
Those other platforms have limits, too, but some limits are more interesting than others.
PLAYING BY THE RULES
Social media are software. "Software," like "game," is just a word for a set of rules. Many of these are so obvious we don't think about them. You can't use an account without authorization, for instance. You can't type more than 140 characters in a tweet. You can't post an executable file to Pinterest. You can't see private photo albums on Facebook (well, usually).
These rules have another name: constraints. Publishing on the web is an essentially creative act, and creativity under constraint can take on startling and exciting forms.
Look at how many comedy careers have begun or exploded on Twitter, where brevity actually is the soul of wit. Look at the gifset, a form of sequential art produced by Tumblr's limit on image size uploads. Look at the pause-chopped style of many vlogs, born when YouTube videos maxed out at 10 minutes. Or look at those 32 imaginary Brendans, subverting the idea that one name and one face can represent every aspect of a person.
Earlier this year, I decided that if people wanted to play with my face and name so much, I'd let them. I wrote a web application called Starpilot (xorph.com/starpilot) which converts the “favorite” stars you collect on Twitter, and turns them into expendable credits you can use. You can spend a favstar I give you and anonymously post a tweet from my account. Yes, really. As if I'd written it myself. It's contagious—once you try it out, other people can starpilot you.
Is it too much to hope that someday this will prove confusing to the National Security Agency? Even if not, there's a genuine thrill to giving up control of your perceived identity, and shaking loose other people's ideas of who you are at any given moment.
If anonymity is the root of animosity, this idea should be disastrous, overrun with slurs and spam. It might still turn that way. But right now, Starpilot overflows with messages of kindness and support, clever jokes, and knowing affection. It's the opposite of your typical comment section.
"I give warm and well-timed hugs," someone once said through my mouth. "Be the chaos you want to see in the world. Make the mystery." "You've been brave enough to break your own heart before, so you know you can survive it this time, when it's probably a fracture." "Well, at least we're scared together, right?"
Your friends, it turns out, may have an easier time making you say sincere things for them than telling you themselves. The freedom of taking on a pseudonym is real, but when it belongs to someone with whom you've made a connection—even one as simple as a little yellow star button—that freedom is balanced by responsibility.
A lot of my public face rests in the hands of billion-dollar companies, and trying to play tug-of-war with them is a losing game. You can deal with this by doubling down on assimilation, by quitting, or turning your identity into a game of its own.
Sure, the house still gets its cut. But they're not the only ones writing new rules.
Brendan Adkins has more of this kind of stuff at stupidtwittertricks.com.