Archive for June, 2012

(Part I)

A fellow grad student asked me how I differentiated between incidents of online identity hoaxes and the multiple personas a person may maintain online. I gave him an an answer I was not satisfied with.My last post dealt mainly with the role played by the screen name and how it is the first step in crafting your online identity.When a person crafts a false persona, the name they choose to loose is a significant first step because it affects how others see the persona and how the person who inhabits these person that he or she has created. (Stommel, 2007; Bechar-Israeli, 1995).

Kacey, J.S and Julia. Which is the middle aged woman, which is the plucky teen age girl and which is the hyper sexualized 20something year old man?

Most people would agree that there is a difference between maintaining an online persona (or even multiple personas) and engaging in identity deception. My first instinct is to call malicious intent the linchpin of a working definition. However, that becomes problematic because most of the well known cases of online identity deception are not necessarily rooted in malicious intent.

One of the earliest documented cases of an online identity hoax involved a middle aged disabled woman by the name of Julie.  Stone says, “[I]n the intimate electronic companionships that can develop during on-line conferencing between people….Julie’s women friends shared their deepest troubles, and she offered them advice.…(1991)”. You can guess where this is going.  The persona that people knew as “Julie” was not a middle aged, disabled woman but a middle aged able bodied *male* psychiatrist. When unmasked he said that he had carried on this hoax for 3 years in order to gain greater insight into women and how they communicate. Stone continues, “’I felt raped,’ one [of the women Julie deceived] said. “I felt that my deepest secrets had been violated”.  Several went so far as to repudiate the genuine gains they had made…lives. They felt those gains were predicated on deceit and trickery (1991, p2-3).

The Nowhere Mom hoax was borne out of a similar impulse, the man behind the persona wanted to see what it was like to be a woman in the online community he was a part of. LonelyGirl15, which I wrote a paper on, was a marketing ploy. In this cases of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, J.S. Dirr and Abby Pierce the reasons are less clear but the intent does not seem to be about malice so much as a lonely person trying to create meaning in a life that the feel has none.  Those deceptions seem to have been rooted in emotional or mood disorders.

If not malicious intent, what are the defining factors of a case of online identity deception? The next logical place I would look is at the aftermath of the hoax, when the persona has been unmasked as being false. But that doesn’t seem to fit just right either.

I know I’m going to come back to this.

Bechar-Israeli, H. (1995). FROM ?bonehead? TO ?cLoNehEAd?: NICKNAMES, PLAY, AND IDENTITY ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT1. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 1(2), 0-0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1995.tb00325.x

Stommel, W. (2007). Mein nick bin ich! nicknames in a german forum on eating disorders. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00390.x

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess.

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A few weeks ago I was explaining my academic interest in online identity hoaxes to another grad student and he asked me a question that I knew the answer to. Well sort of knew the answer to.  He asked me what the difference was between having an online persona and perpetrating an identity hoax.  I gave an answer that wasn’t wrong but didn’t feel complete.  I suspect that like my definition of an online community, this is one of those answers that will evolve the more I study this.

When we join a community or any kind of interactive website, we immediately begin creating our persona.  The first step of that is the selection of our screen name (Stommel, 2007; Bechar-Israeli, 1995).  Bechar-Israeli emphasizes the key role screen makes play in his 1995 observation of screen names (which are called nicknames) in the Internet Relay Chat system. He says, “nicks serve many functions. They are, first of all, a means to announce one’s willingness to play. They are a kind of mini-ritual in which, each time participants log on, they declare their entrance into the state of play…. Nicks become part of our personality and reputation in the computer community” (Bechar-Israeli, 1995, Summary and Discussion, par.3).

Our screen name is another example of Goffman’s cues given and cues given off. For example if one man selects the screen name Robert512 and another man selects SpeedRacer they are sending a message as to how they wish to be seen buy the group. But beyond that, they are giving off cues based on others’ perception based on the type of name they selected, does it reflect a hobby, does it seem like you just threw some numbers on the end of your name, or does describe your outlook on life.  Bechar-Israeli created a taxonomy based on the nearly 300 screen names he reviewed and broke them down into six categories. How much more important is it to choose a screen name for the deceptive identity so that the deception can continue as long as possible without being questioned

  • People using their real name
  • Self related names
  • Names related to medium, technology, and their nature
  • Names of flora, faun, and objects
  • Play on words and sounds
  • Names related to figures in literature, films, fairy tales, and famous people
  • Names related to sex and provocation

But the screen name is just the beginning. There are thousands of ways, highly visible and barely perceptible, that we construct our identities in online communities. The language we use, our demeanor (aggressive, shy, knowledgeable, newbie, chipper, worried), how we interact with others. Even the frequency of our interactions sends a message to the group we may or may not be aware we are sending.

Part II


Bechar-Israeli, H. (1995). FROM ?bonehead? TO ?cLoNehEAd?: NICKNAMES, PLAY, AND IDENTITY ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT1. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 1(2), 0-0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1995.tb00325.x

Stommel, W. (2007). Mein nick bin ich! nicknames in a german forum on eating disorders. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00390.x

Stone, A. R. (1991). Will the real body please stand UP? In M. Benedikt (Ed.), Cyberspace: First steps (pp. 81-118). Cambridge, MA: MIT PRess.

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The first couple of steps in the online identity hoax process involve a “person” with a compelling life story. Once that person is part of the social structure their life, as documented in their posts, becomes a litany of dramatic events.

The false persona’s posts take on the form of a dramatic narrative with the false persona cast as the brave hero weathering crisis after crisis. Additionally, in these situations the frequency and intensity of the crises increases over time. Despite the unlikelihood of so many major events befalling one person, the hoax continues as a critical mass of group members are still supportive of the false persona (or are keeping any misgivings to themselves).  The group members are generally intelligent, perceptive people who are not new to socializing through computer mediated communication (CMC).

Walther theorizes in Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction (1996), when people communicate via CMC they fill in any missing cues and information heuristically. The deceptive person behind the false persona seems to exploit the Hyperpersonal Effect by creating a character for whom living in a constant state of crisis is the norm. I think creates an environment so rich in heuristic and emotional thoughts and behaviors that it might disrupt the normal socialization process that new group members go through.

The communication of the deceptive individual behind the deception seems to be in synch with Zhou, Burgoon, Zhang and Nunamaker’s observations about the language dominance of a deceptive individual in CMC environments (2004). They found that the intensity of the deceiver’s communication increased over the life of the deception as a mechanism for asserting language dominance over the group’s communication. This is consistent with the increasing the false persona experiencing increasingly dramatic incidents in their lives (as presented through their posts).

One of the things I wonder is what role, if any, the constant stream of crises play in prolonging the deception. Some of the elements presented by the false persona seem ludicrous after the fact. What prevents group members from seeing it or, at the very least, mentioning any misgivings they may have?

Could it be that it goes unchallenged because the issues adopted by the false persona are sensitive ones. Cancer or the death of a child are issues that touch the deepest of human fears. Could group members be consciously or unconsciously fearful of violating the social norm of holding these kinds of stories sacrosanct?  My other idea is that the deception might go unchallenged because these crises create a collective anxiety that uses up so much cognitive processing, either collectively and/or on the individual level that there is insufficient processing power left to engage in any kind of meaningful warranting of the false persona’s stories.

I guess I just assigned myself a new paper….


Zhou, L., Burgoon, J. K., Zhang, D., & Nunamaker, J. F. (2004). Language dominance in interpersonal deception in computer-mediated communication. Computers in Human Behavior, 20(3), 381. doi:10.1016/S0747-5632(03)00051-7

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43. doi:10.1177/009365096023001001

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My adviser sent me a link to a story in Gawker about JS Dirr and the Warrior Eli hoax.

The process of an online identity hoax in a community of choice intrigues me because after all that holds these communities together are the thin threads of  mutual trust and an tacit agreement that people will be relatively truthful in their communication. It is one thing to fib about your education or age and something else to create a false persona and to actively convince people they are interacting with it. At some point I hope to study what happens to communities in the wake of this type of traumatic event and what markers might predict which communities will become more tightly knit and which will fall apart or fracture into pieces.

In my research on incidents of  identity deception*, one thing I’ve noticed in the is that of the all of the ones I reviewed seem to follow a very similar script as outlined below.  I will expand on my thoughts on each of these points in subsequent blog posts.

The Identity Deception Process

  1. First a person joins a community/group manifests a personality that is very charming and has a compelling story.  Nowheremom was a single mother in a community that was predominantly men; Kaycee Nicole Swenson was a bright teenager who was cheerful despite batting cancer and in the case of JS Dirr the persona was presented as a member of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police who seemed to get every girlfriend pregnant.
  2. After becoming an integrated member of the group’s social network, the false persona’s posts take on a “Perils of Pauline” motif. This is usually not apparent and/or discussed within the group until late in the deception. One interesting example (I’m sorry, I can’t remember the article so I don’t have cite for this), was a quote I read in an article about the Kaycee Nicole Swenson hoax. One of the group members was a nurse and recognized that a particular treatment alluded to by Kaycee was not the correct treatment for the life threatening crisis she claimed to have had. He didn’t raise his suspicions publicly and the
  3. Next, they will begin an intense one on one correspondence offline with several select group members. I sometimes wonder whether this is done to fulfill a need on the part of the deceptive individual or
  4. In the final act, the false persona makes some kind of critical error in the narrative that becomes the tipping point between the false persona’s image as a sympathetic figure and the revelation that the false persona is an imposter

* My capstone project for my Masters program was a content analysis of the YouTube LonelyGirl15 hoax.

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Below is my long list of PhD programs I might apply to.  The next step is to do some additional research and narrow this list down to 4-6 schools.

I want to take a closer look at the research the schools’ current PhD cohorts are working on as well as the PhD dissertations for the past 3-5 years.

I should have my final list by mid July so I can begin work on my essays and begin submitting my apps in the Fall

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present my long list….

  • New York University (New York)
  • North Carolina State University in Raleigh (North Carolina)
  • Northwestern University (Illinois)
  • Purdue (Indiana)
  • Rutgers University (New Jersey)
  • UC @ Santa Barbara (California)
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Illinois)
  • University of Kansas (Kansas)
  • USC (California)

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I might be thinking about social network ties in the wrong way.

First let me give a rundown of the different types of social networking ties (this list is adapted from a paper I wrote in 2012):

  •  Absent: People an individual does not know or person meets in passing like a mailman
  • Weak: A tie to a person who would generally be deemed as acquaintance. She or he serves as a local bridge between social networks that would otherwise be disconnected. Weak ties are associated with bridging social capital
  • Strong: A tie to a person who is generally a close friend or family member. This type of tie bonds people who have a high degree of similarity and forms the core of an individual’s social network. Strong ties are associated with bonding social capital (Granovetter, 1973)
  • Latent: A tie for which a connection is available technically but that has not yet been activated by social interaction (Haythornthwaite, 2002, p. 389).
  • Dormant: Situations where two people had a social network tie in the past (strong or weak) but drifted apart and no longer communicate with each other. The social network tie can be considered severed. (Levin, Walter, and Murnighan 2011)
  • Diminished: A tie, weak or strong that has weakened. This might occur when a neighbor moves out of a neighborhood or a co-worker goes to a new department
  • Spontaneous: When one individual actively seeks to connect with a stranger with whom they have something in common or seek to obtain information from.

Absent, weak, and strong ties relate to existing social networking ties that serve a purpose in the present. Weak ties serve as conduits for the exchange of new and innovative information and strong ties form our mutual support system.  Even an absent tie, if put in the context of your mailman or barista, serves an immediate purpose: a pre-programmed interaction that nets you information or a commodity but does not add any appreciable weight to a given individual’s social network.

However, the other types of ties I mentioned describe the ways in which people are (re)introduced into or slip out of a given social network. In the case of a spontaneous or latent tie, the two people may have little or no knowledge of each other at all until one of them finds the other in some technological database and initiates an interaction. Dormant ties are essentially a broken link and no longer serve the social network until they are reactivated. A diminished tie is ultimately a going to be either a weak or absent tie; the designation “diminished” refers the movement of the tie within the social network.

I feel as though the diagram I developed is too facile. I’m imagining something  that needs to be 3 dimensional I just can’t wrap my mind around what it should look like.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2002). Strong, weak, and latent ties and the impact of new media. Information Society, 18(5), 385-401. doi:10.1080/01972240290108195

Levin, D. Z., Walter, J., & Murnighan, J. K. (July/August 2011). Dormant ties: The value of reconnecting. Organization Science, 22(4), 923-939. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0576

Relationships of Social Network Ties (Diagram Jeter, 2012, unpublished)

Relationships of Social Network Ties (Diagram Jeter, 2012, unpublished)

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I am a movie fanatic, especially older movies. The past few weeks, I’ve seen several movies that deal with wartime romances which led me to thinking about Walther’s theories about hyperpersonal communication (1996).

In his description of the phenomenon, he talks about an idealized perception on the part of the communication partners as they fill in the information they don’t have about each other with the most positive assumptions possible. I wonder if two people have a relatively short time to get to know each other a similar process occurs. It logical that it might be a contributing factor. There may even be some deindividualization going on if the civilian partner (usually a female) sees and responds to the the uniform, the symbol o the fragility of the relationship as well as life, as opposed to the seeing the person who is wearing it.

Obviously Walther’s work deals specifically with cases where the communication partners are confined to communicating via CMC whereas the situation I am talking about the partners are co-located for the duration of this bonding process. I wonder though if the situation of people meeting when one of them is most likely (if not imminently) facing a danger creates an intensified sense of reality that leads to communication behaviors that are similar to what Walther describes.

I would be interested to read a couple of scholarly articles on the communication processes associated with called wartime romances.

(Some of the movies that feature this include, A Farewell to Arms, Waterloo Bridge, The man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Best Years of Our Lives and many others.)

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43. doi:10.1177/009365096023001001

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