An Annoucment

I am taking a course on Social Networking Analysis this semester. Part of the class involves writing a weekly blog post discussing our readings. As I did with my Mediated Communications class blog from last semester, I will be posting my blog posts and list of references here as well.

Since the posts for the class are limited to about 750 words, I generally have to edit out ideas to meet that constraint, however, I will be posting my entire post here. This will allow be to share my full thoughts with you as well as record them for myself for future reference.

I hope you find this topic as interesting as I do and, as always, please feel free to add your comments and questions.

This is slightly off the topic of online communities but does deal with technology. Someone shared the video below with me and I was struck by the rush of technology from crude wooden tools to rockets. Watching it, I had a couple of thoughts technology over time.

Technology makes some people very uncomfortable because it changes the world, sometimes in profound wave. .

Sherry Turkle and other digital dystopians believe that CMCs are stripping humans of our ability to connect with other people. Rather than encountering new people and situations as we pass through the concrete world, we dive down the rabbit hole of the Internet and select who and what we are exposed to.

Technology, especially communicative and travel oriented technologies, have been greeted by a Greek chorus saying that *this* will be the technology that destroys our family and puts our youths at risk. Before the Internet it was TV, radio, automobiles, bicycles, the machinery of the industrial and a thousand other inventions and ideas that were branded as dangerous to society. Every time we have extended capabilities as humans, there are people who see it as “bad” as opposed to just seeing it as change.

I take a different point of view: technology is just an element like carbon or sodium. It’s not good, not bad but neutral. It’s what we choose to do with that technological element that is invested with a moral position. I am softly deterministic in that I believe that:

  • The progress of technology is inevitable. The minute something new is introduced, someone is immediately working on some variation that makes it better (for them at least)
  • It is inevitable that evolution of technology will be a major factor in the evolution of society. I do think that there are other factors that are as important but I think that most of those are reactions to or implementation of technology driven by technology on some level.
  • Every technological element gets used for both good and bad purposes.

One example are the changes in society today that has given many workers the 24/7 work day. While there were always people who were on call (doctors, for example), however, today, many more workers are issued cell phones, pagers and other technologies that tether them to the workplace. If we look back into history, there are other examples. The industrial revolution began as the tail end of the 18th century and stretched into the mid to late 20th. One of the factors that drove the image of America as a country with the streets paved with gold were jobs and especially jobs in the industrial centers. Not only did people move from the farms into the cities for work but teaming masses came to the United States from all over Europe to work in the cities. I question whether we would have had that same level of immigration had industrial technology never been invented.

My other thought about technology is that the pace of development seems to be constantly increasing. Most people reading this will be familiar with Moore’s Law (no relation) which talks about the exponential rate that the speed and capacity of computers. I think it goes beyond that. It seems as though the rate at which all technology is being developed and introduced is speeding up. I’m not sure if that’s true but looking at the video it seems that way.

Liar, Liar!

In a prior blog post, I outlined a sequence of events that I seem to occur in most of the incidents of online identity deception. The sequence I outlined was:

  1. First a person joins a community/group manifests a personality that is very charming and has a compelling story.
  2. After becoming an integrated member of the group’s social network, the false persona’s narrative takes the form of “this is the trial I face” —> look at how I bravely deal with/overcome it.
  3. The false persona begins  intense one on one correspondence offline with one or more group members
  4. 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.

Writing about Munchausen by Internet, Feldman (2000) listed 10 clues to aid in the detection of Factitious Internet claims[i] I have seen all of these behaviors manifested in the various online identity hoaxes I have read. Behaviors on that like include: near fatal medical crises followed by seemingly miraculous recoveries; a continuous string of dramatic events, resisting phone or richer forms of communication media and confining communication to text on the screen (p. 670).

I realized shortly after making that post, that there was a fifth point I should have added: the false persona will usually make a public statement where they confirm the deception and offer an explanation. Depending on the motivation of the deception it will either be a woeful mea culpa[ii] or they will taunt the group for being so gullible (see Feldman, 2000; Joinson and Dietz-Uhler, 2002; prince-koyang, 2012). Again, Feldman compiled a list of common reactions of both the deceptive individual as well as group members after the deception has been discovered (p. 671).

12 years after Feldman, the number of online communities has grown explosively and with it the number of incidents of identity deception hoaxes.[iii]  Feldman wrote specifically about deception within medical support group communities, hence, his focus on Factitious Disorder and Munchausen by Proxy. However, based on my anecdotal observations I have reason to believe that the behaviors he outlined are applicable across the spectrum of online identity hoaxes whether they occur within blogs, social network sites, or message boards. Feldman concludes by saying that medical personnel should counsel patients who use the Internet for support and information to use caution when connecting to people online. If my belief that these behaviors extend outside the healthcare realm is accurate, than anyone who has oversight of venues that support the development of an online community should be able to recognize these behaviors so they can intervene before the confidence of community members is damaged by the betrayal of a false persona walking amongst them.


Feldman, M. D. (2000). Munchausen by internet: Detecting factitious illness and crisis on the internet. Southern Medical Journal, 93(7), 669.

Joinson, A. N., & Dietz-Uhler, B. (2002). Explanations for the perpetration of and reactions to deception in a virtual community. Social Science Computer Review, 20(3), 275.

prince-koyang. (2012, June 4). 왕자고양이//floating through. Message posted to http://prince-koyangi.tumblr.com/


[i] Both Factitious Disorder and Munchausen by Proxy involve an individual who is feigning or inducing illness, usually life threatening conditions. In Factitious Disorder the person is putting themselves forward as the ill individual. By comparison, in cases of Munchausen by Proxy the primary communicator puts themselves forth as a parent or caretaker of a critically ill individual. See Feldman, 2000 for some specific examples of this phenomenon.

[ii] As an example of the type of apologetic post I am referring to. This was posted BY D.F. after it became apparent that he had created the false persona of Nowheremom. Part of the deception included D.F. posing as Nowheremom’s fiancée.

Throughout November and December 1999, I engaged in a banter with this persona. At that time, I wanted mainly to bring some humour and entertainment to the forums. People were indeed entertained during those two months and some called it a soap opera. As time went by, NOWHEREMOM started to take an air of reality even to me. Once again, it never was my intention to hurt anyone. I simply had not realized how much people and even myself had become attached to her. In early January 2000, after Ornery mentioned the word “marriage”, one day I simply panicked and in that instant, my mind was clouded enough that, instead of simply revealing that it was a hoax, I killed her. I had never expected the grief that overcame this community. It even overcame me and I sobbed for three days as if she had been real. I came to the conclusion that to reveal the hoax would hurt too many innocent people and I was hoping that the whole thing would simply fade away. It was not meant to be. In July 2000, a member named vapor uncovered evidence of the hoax and revealed it to a few people. Instead of coming clean, still believing that the hurt to our community would be too great, I denied the whole thing. Vapor was vilified and ostracized for this. To him, I can only offer my sincere apology for I am truly sorry for the way he was treated on this matter. I lied to some people closest and dearest to me because I thought that, in doing so, I was protecting them from becoming accomplices in my cover-up. Unfortunately, many came to my defense in a spirited fashion and ended up unknowingly defending a lie. The matter never rested and many of my friends and acquaintances ended up being divided into two clans. In particular, I know some outside individuals who would be pleased to no end watching the fabric of this community unravel over this. The well-being of this community is paramount in my book for I do consider you my Internet family It was simply a hoax which I thought was harmless and which got out of hand when I panicked 16 months ago. I sincerely apologize to everybody involved or hurt by this matter.

[iii] As I have mentioned in prior posts, I draw a clear distinction between fraud, where a deceptive person perpetrates the fraud specifically for financial gain, and an identity hoax where the perpetrator puts forth a false persona for reasons other than fraud. In the case of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, Debbie Swenson, the deceiver, donated any money she was given to legitimate cancer charities.

I stumbled on this via on of the Twitter feeds I follow (Barry Wellman or danah boyd maybe?) and found it an amusing trip in a time machine.

January, 1983, Time Magazine declared that the personal computer was Time’s Machine of the Year for 1982 (beating out, among others, Steve Jobs). They stated that 4 million Americans were online, which was about 1.7% of the population. By 1995, the year of this PSA, Internet adoption was still only 14% (The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Internet Adoption 1995-2012). Rereading the articles from that 1983  issue of Time,  it showed that the landscape of computer users was a place that was predominantly white, male, economically advantaged and technologically elite[i]. The majority of people they spoke with saw computers as becoming as ubiquitous any other households appliance but it doesn’t seem that they saw it as a replacement for their media sources such the radio, TV, etc.

By 1995, a personal computer was still primarily an information tool, an electronic manifestation on Vannevar Bush’s memex; a replacement for the family typewriter; and a novel (and economical) way to instantaneously communicate asynchronously across town or across the globe.  However,  the script for this PSA projected that by the time these 10 year olds were in college (2003-2004ish) the Internet would be the TV, phone, shopping mall and workplace.

I see this as bolstering Tim Berners-Lee’s expressed opinion that the term Web 2.0 was jargon and that the whole purpose of the World Wide Web[ii] from the beginning was to be a collaborative space that facilitated human interconnectivity.   In 2005, he said about blogging (perhaps the poster child of Web 2.0), “Every person who used the web had the ability to write something. It was very easy to make a new web page and comment on what somebody else had written, which is very much what blogging is about”. That people saw the Internet as place to connect socially, professionally and commercially would have been no surprise to Berners-Lee.

I got online back in 1991 and I recall that my social circle was amused that my sister and I (she had gotten on the Internet about 4-6 months before me) had home computers. The most common question I got was, “what do you do with it?” Email and productivity software was common in the workplace and that was how I primarily used it at home: sending email to one of the few people I knew online, following a few Usenet groups, writing, doing some work from home.

At the time this time this PSA was made, I think I had already moved from CompuServe to AOL (or was about to)[iii]. Amazon.com came online in 1995 but was still just a book seller. Classmates.com also came online that year (which I would cite as being *the* FaceBook). Sixdegrees.com, which I would peg as the first social networking site most of us today  would recognize as such, would launch the following year, 1996, but sputter out before the turn of the century. YouTube was still a decade away as was Facebook (and guess who was a 5th grader back in 1995?).

However, as prescient as the writer of this PSA was (the YouTube description give the name Cindy Gaffney), the Internet was still seen as a tool, a service provider that built on existing existing communication tools. However the fruits of these predictions were there but in their infancy.

  • There were rudimentary phone services (I can’t remember the name but I remember reading about it when I bought a modem, I’m sure it was expensive, complicated to implement and that the quality was poor);
  • There was online retail. Amazon’s 1995 start date was quickly followed up by EBay in 1996.
  • There were brief animations on the Internet. I can’t remember the exact year but I think the Hamster Dance and the Dancing Baby came out around 1997ish. It took a critical mass of Broadband users to make high quality videos (and by extension Internet television) viable[iv].
  • As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I got a computer was so that I could work on extra projects at home. I didn’t have the authorization to upload material directly onto the organization’s server but I could work, save it to a floppy disc and bring it to work with me. The introduction of laptops increased this activity.

The function not explicitly predicted in the video is the Internet as a virtual agora and major role it’s played in the maintenance of social network ties: blogging and social networks sites.

The action of blogging is older than the term, that should come as no surprise to anyone reading this. I remember that some of the earliest personal sites on the WWW were crude versions of what most of us would call a blog: updates on a person’s activity, his (or less commonly her) thoughts and ideas. Some may have had pictures. I’m not sure that anyone realized how much so many of us had to say. In addition,blogging has served the very important function of providing a focal point for societal subgroups and outliers to coalesce around and form their own communities.

While you can build a case for predicting using the Internet for a telephone as a tool for maintaining social network ties, social networking sites have taken it far beyond that. It’s more than being able to shoot an email to a good friend after you’ve moved out of the neighborhood. You can still maintain a level of involvement in each others lives that wasn’t possible before through (a) more frequent incidental interaction, (b) exchanging pictures and videos of important private and public local events (sometimes within less than 5 minutes of an event occurring). So while they might live 1000 miles away, they can see video of their daughter’s 7th birthday party or and annual block party. You can also get to know their friends more easily because you are all sitting in a virtual room together conversing with your common acquaintance.

I’m not sure if anyone predicted this 15 years ago (If anyone reading this knows of anything like this please let me know, I would love to read it).
Finally a few other oldies but goodies:

This is an AOL commercial from about the same time as the PSA above (195)

This is a news segment about high tech gifts for Father’s Day. (I don’t know what I know this but the “Dad” in this piece is Mike Jerrick.)

The First World Wide Webpage


boyd, d. (2012). Danah boyd’s twitter account. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from https://twitter.com/zephoria

Bush, V. (1945, July). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly,

Friedrich, O. (2003, January 3). The computer moves in. Time Magazine,

Laningham, Scott (podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks).developerWorks interviews: Tim berners-lee (audio podcast)

Pew Internet & American Life Project. (2012). Internet adoption 1995-2011. (). Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Wellman, B. (2012). Barry wellman’s twitter account. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from https://twitter.com/barrywellman

[i] Although this wasn’t the Internet, I remember using WordPerfect in the late 80s and early 90s. Formatting involved remembering a function key combinations and being able to troubleshoot a document that didn’t look right involved interpreting the code associated with your document. And computers were not cheap. My first computer cost $2100 in 1991. As point of reference, my current desktop, which has the largest hard drive available when I bought it last year, ran about $1200 in 2011 (about $770 in 1991 dollars).

[ii] For context, when I refer to the Internet, I’m talking about the tool that grew out of Arpnet, into academic institutions at large and then to the general public: the interconnected computer networks that connects us through computers, smartphones, tablets, etc. There were several protocols by which a user could connect to the Internet, the most popular one is the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is a term that a lot of laypeople use interchangeably with the Internet. While the Internet allowed us to connect, the World Wide Web enabled hypertext, one click links within a document that navigated the user to another document with related information, and multimedia. Web browsers, from Mosaic to Firefox to Chrome, provided a graphical user interface that which made the WWW more accessible to users who were not as technologically adept as the Internet pioneers. Going onto the Internet became less like reading a book on a screen and more like reading a colorful magazine that may also include sound and moving pictures.

 [iii] In the mid 90s, AOL put on a full court press to get subscribers. In order to used the service you needed the floppy disc (later a CD Rom) with the software to get you online and set up. This media was *everywhere* they would blanket mail neighborhoods, put the discs in magazines, I even remember my local library having a display with the dreaded discs (I suspect they made contributions to public libraries for that sort of access). New subscribers for 10 free hours of AOL access. Back then, they charged you by the hour for access. AOL didn’t go to a flat fee service until Oct 1996 (Wikipedia: AOL)

 [iv] I wonder about the role of Saturday Night Live and music videos in creating fertile ground for the “VidClip Culture” (I should probably add Sesame Street here since I’ve read in a couple of places that Sesame Street was one of the inspirations for the MTV style of short, fast bits of motion, sound, color and music). Do any media scholars have thoughts on this?

Asexuality Comes Out of the Closet.
And in the “great minds think alike” category, this news article appeared on the Rutgers University Media Relations site. One of the professors in Rutgers School of Social Work wrote an article discussing how many asexuals are comfortable with asexuality as a part of their identity. It is also interesting to note that like the LGTB community they have a flag whose stripes represent the different facets of asexuality.
From a Social Work standpoint, how people integrate asexuality into their identities (pathologized vs “normal”; curing the individual vs fighting for societal acceptance, etc) is an important part of working with the individual to help them integrate into society. Approaching it from a Communications point of view however, how does a community reframe societal discourse and shift itself from a pathology (something invalid and something that needs to “healed”) to a sexual orientation (something that is socially valid and meriting protection under civil rights laws)? How do they develop their unique language and symbols?  What are the network ties between prominent members of community and how have they developed over the history of the community?


Questions. I’ve got a million of them.

Defining Moments

A couple of weeks ago I published a blog post about an incident of identity deception that took place on Tumblr.  The false persona had self identified as being “pangender asexual demiplatonic….trans-racial (east asian) and otherkin (tabby cat)”.
I was pretty sure that anyone who read this would find at least one of those terms newand/or confusing so I set out to create a glossary explaining what these terms mean. So here I am 2 weeks, 3300 words, 5 entries and 31 references later knowing more about several social sub groups that I didn’t even know existed

Beyond that, I discovered  tiny subsectors of society that the Communications academy has only begun to learn more about.  Identity labels such as otherkin or asexual are good examples of  one of functions CMC has become dominant in: the construction of identity in individuals who are considered far outside the mainstream.

For example, while what could be described as proto-otherkin individuals began gathering as early as the 1970s, it was email groups and Usernet that formed a nucleus of what has become the Otherkin community today; computer mediated communication (CMC) tools were the tipping point that took this from a small local group to an international community . Today, one site,  Otherkin.net has almost 400 registered users and in addition, sites like Tumblr  have active otherkin communities.

These communication hubs provide a forum for community building. So you while you have  people constructing the group identity, the group identity enables a person to create a more concrete and specific individual identity for themselves. The group provides the validation, support and language constructs (bot created and appropriated jargon, “how to come out”scripts, explanations for people outside the community, etc) that constitute the boundaries of the community. When you have boundaries it becomes easier for a person to know if they are a community member, an outsider, or a visitor, for example and ethnographer or sympathetic family member (Fairhurst and Putnam, 2004).

These microcommunities have found rich soil in this generation of social networking sites (SNS)  and that sense of community is reinforced by the ties these like minded people create between each other. CMCs have made this possible on a scope that could never have been imagined 20 years ago. I believe these are fertile fields for scholars in the Social Sciences, especially Communications because it there isn’t much scholarship out there for many of these groups and studying these groups will help us learn more if and how of community, social networks, and social ties have been changed or enhanced by the continuing ubiquity of CMCs and SNS.

The first  people who grew up with personal email addresses as the norm are on the way to college and within about a decade the first people who have grown up steeped in the panopticon of FaceBook (and is successors) will follow them. By beginning to study these microcommunities now, we may be able to develop a better understanding the norms and anomalies of community formation development and dissolution among groups for whom the connection between time, place and communication is more tenuous than in previous generations.

I hope you will find the glossary helpful


Fairhurst, G. T., & Putnam, L. (2004). Organizations as discursive constructions. Communication Theory (10503293), 14(1), 5-26.

(When I use the term trans*, I am specifically, not including transgender individuals under that label. I will be posting a page defining these concepts shortly)

Other hoaxes I’ve blogged about here came to light when the deception was dragged into the light, generally by someone who become suspicious of the deceptive narrative. In this case it seems the goal here was to only perpetrate this hoax long enough to rook enough people so the hoaxers could say, “Gotcha!” I find this hoax interesting because up to now, most of the incidents I’ve reviewed were either rooted in filling a psychological need and in the case of LonelyGirl15 was a marketing scheme. Depending on your POV, these hoaxers were calling attention to a perversion of the social justice movement by slacktivists or kids being mean and dismissive of groups that already feel marginalized.

Language is a social construct. We string together a group of sounds and point at an object called an automobile or a pair of glasses. Identity is also something of  a social construct. We identify with certain groups based upon thinks such our race or ethnic background, what we do for a living or what we do in our free time. Those labels we embrace became shorthand as societal (and often personal) stereotypes project meaning onto a person’s identity. Regardless of whether a part of our identity is innate or self selected, disabled versus jock, for example, elements of each of those labels we wear have a societally assigned meaning as well as a personal one.

For example, let’s say you injure yourself slipping on an icy sidewalk and a person runs up to you to offer assistance, if she says she is a doctor that will carry with it one meaning as opposed to if the person is wearing a Dunkin’ Donuts uniform. The doctor might be a dermatologist and the Dunkin’ Donuts employee a highly experienced volunteer EMT but their words and dress can affect the trust you have in them if they begin administering first aid to you.

The concept of Otherkin (and in fact the whole trans* movement) is possibly an example of the exponential effect CMCs have on the constitutive nature of language in the construction of identity. If someone posts to an Otherkin support site about coming to the realization that he or she is a cat in a human body, that statement will be supported and his or her identity as such will be reinforced.  If one is engaged in a role playing game or belongs to the furry subculture, it is understood that these are identities that serve as temporary wrappers for the person others know and interact with in the concrete world. Trans* people, though, are the mirror images of that social construct. The human being who passes through the concrete world is the wrapper and the trans* image (species, disability, race, etc.) is the true being, not a persona.

This raises some questions for me. Usually, both verbal and visual (clothing, the objects we carry with us, the vehicle we drive) cues construct our identity. In the context of Internet dating that identity is self created with text and photographs but if and when the people meet, that adds to the other person’s perception of an individual’s identity.

But, what does it mean if your self constructed identity is solely textual and at complete odds with all of the other visual and verbal cues and personal artifacts associated with a person. I might tell you I’m a wolf trapped in a human body but I am visibly human in appearance, action and public behavior. If the only place my true identity exists is within the bounded reality of the Internet and the only way I construct it is with words and occasional graphics that bear no resemblance to my concrete flesh, what does that say about the constitutive nature of language on identity, how broadly and deeply can the scope of this constituation go? If you are just one of a community of thousands who are all constructing or supporting the construction of identity in this manner what does this mean.

Is there a sociological or philosophical justification for trans* people for  appropriate the language of the Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements?

It happened again.  A few people got to together and decided to play Loki on the Internet in the name of exposing a perversion of the social justice movement.

In  early June, a person going by the screen name of prince-koyang created a new account on the microblog site Tumblr and made this post (punctuation and spelling is taken verbatim from the post):

“hello there. i’m new to tumblr and just thought i’d introduce myself. my name is jun, or june, depending on how i’m feeling. i’m a 16 year old pangender asexual demiplatonic. i’m also trans-racial (east asian) and otherkin (tabby cat). i have high-functioning autism as well. i’m glad to finally have found a community where i’m accepted & where i can post about my issues

without being discriminated against.

: )

my pronouns are xie, xir, xis and xiself. please feel free to follow me — i’ll follow back!”

Of the comments to this intro, 20 were either “reblogs” where someone connected this post to their own blog, and “likes” which functions in the same manner as the Like button in FaceBook.  The remaining few comments were critical of the use of the term trans-racial and prince-koyang’sself-identifying as a feline Otherkin.  A few others warned xir (pronounced zir) to be cautious on Tumblr because there would be people who would be very vocal in their intolerance for xir differences.

On July 5, 2012 prince-koyang posted the following:

“This is starting to get kind of boring so I suppose it’s time to give it up. As some of our more astute readers have noticed, this is a troll blog — a collaborative trolling effort between three teenagers with too much time on their hands. None of us are autistic, pangender, asexual, demiromantic, transethnic, or a cat, although one of us is 16 and Canadian. It was fun while it lasted.

You have created a community in which someone can ….find it plausible that someone would believe they are a Korean cat with autism and appropriate social justice terminology to defend that belief. What does that say about the state of your community?….

But it’s completely stupid (tw: ableism) and it trivializes the struggles of people who actually suffer from oppression (people laughing at you on the internet is not oppression). It also enables unhealthy escapist attitudes and, in some cases, severe mental illness. One of our more fervent supporters is a diagnosed schizophrenic, who’s chalked up their schizophrenic delusions to their identity as a “multiple system”. Don’t tell them to get treatment, or you’re being oppressive! In short: the Tumblr SJ [social justice] community has turned into a giant joke. And what better way to lampoon it than with, well… a giant joke?”

This post generated over 2000 comments. Most of them supporting (sometimes grudgingly) the points made by the hoaxers. The chorus of voices who were supportive of Jun/June was smaller in terms of their speaking out on the blog but one of them did create a Tumble account called boycott-prince-koyangi which some attempted to use as a rallying site for those who were angered, hurt and/or offended by the blog hoax.

Unsurprisingly, the blog is now just showing a placeholder, the hoaxers job s done and the snake oil salesman has left town. More thoughts on this will follow shortly.  I will also post a page explaining the some of the concepts addressed in the Tumblr hoax such as otherkin, trans-x identities and such.

In Part I of The Stranger Among Us, I described a pattern I’ve notices in incidents of online identity deception that included the cultivation of a shadow network of strong ties within the online community.

Julie Graham cultivated strong enough ties with select female members of her community they disclosed intimate details of problems they were having to her. When it came out that the persona of Julie was a lie, one of the often quoted community responses is succinct and potent, “I felt raped” (Stone, 1991, p. 3; see also McGeer, 2004). Kaycee Nicole Swenson formed a such a strong connection with one group member that he helped her set up a website for her poetry (http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819) and said that she was like a daughter to him. J.S. Dirr engaged in at least two cyber romances during that decade long hoax.

Seeking a deeper connection with select group member in and of itself is typical behavior. People will tend to gravitate towards others based on commonalities such as proximity, shared interests, etc. However, the act of cultivating these sub rosa relationships should create a high level of tension for the deceptive individual.

On one hand the goal of the deceptive individual is to prevent detection.  Academics writing about deception have noted that the language constructs used by the deceptive individual are designed to create distance between the false persona and the community. Ambiguous language is a tool of the trade when perpetrating an online deception (Newman, Pennebaker, Berry & Richards, 2003; Hancock, Curry, Goorha, & Woodworth ,2008 ).  This seems to be in direct conflict with the trading of increasingly intimate confidences that deepen a tie

Even though the disclosures are comprised of (at least partially) manufactured information, you’re still talking about an additional piece of deceptive narration that a person has to keep track of. They not only have to keep it straight with the individual they are bonding with but they also have to keep it consistent with the deceptive narrative they are creating within the group. If they are bonding the false person to multiple group members than means there are additional threads for each deepening tie.

This leaves me with a few questions. First, is this something anecdotal, maybe it’s just the case studies I’ve been drawn to read up on? If it’s not, my next question is why does this occur? Is the deceptive person seeding the community with “defenders” who they can depend on to confirm the veracity of the false persona? In cases where the impetus for the deception seems based in emotion, could this just be another way the deceptive individual is trying to get their needs met? (It is interesting to note that in the case of the LonleyGirl15 hoax on YouTube, the false persona initiated selected contact with media sources, but not individuals).


Hancock, J. T., Curry, L. E., Goorha, S., & Woodworth, M. (2008). On lying and being lied to: A linguistic analysis of deception in computer-mediated communication. Discourse Processes, 45(1), 1-23. doi:10.1080/01638530701739181

http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/7819 (retreived June 30, 2012)

McGeer, V. (2004). Developing trust on the internet. Analyse & Kritik, 26(1), 91-107.

Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 665-675.

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.

(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.

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.

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

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.

The Long List

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)

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)

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

I wrote my working definition of an online community on my “About Me” page but I thought that it might be a good idea to recap it here as well. The nice thing about a working definition is that it’s something that is in flux. I anticipate revisiting and refining it for some time.

My (working) definition is:  a virtual semi public space where people interact with each other through computer mediated communication (CMC).  These communities generally revolve around a specific topic or purpose (knitting, marathon running, living abroad, etc.) however, members may interact around topics besides the key topic. As in any community, some group members may develop stronger ties with some members than with others.  Online communities of choice are differentiated from other types of virtual meeting spaces by:

  • Having an undefined lifespan.
  • Requiring some type of registration or formal membership in either the community itself or the site in which the community is situated.
  • Having the feeling of a sense of “dedicated space” (similar to a club that regularly meets in the town library).
  • Group members feeling emotionally bonded to one or more of the other group members as well as  connected to the group. (Blanchard, 2007; Jones, 1997; Koh and Kim, 2003; boyd and Ellison, 2007)

There are similarities between this definition and the often cited definition of social networking sites (SNS) in boyd and Ellison, 2007. However, whereas according to boyd and Ellison the SNSs are about enabling “users to articulate and make visible their social networks”, online communities are more about a purposeful extension of a person’s social network.

An online community can exist on its own platform (like a message board for example) or it can be situated within a website such as a LiveJournal blog or a Facebook interest group.

What makes these communities unique (as compared to online communities and groups set up on intranets, through professional organizations, and for classes) is that a person can leave at any time, membership and participation is voluntary. There are generically few to no kith or kin ties, as you would find in FaceBook, and there are no reprisals or penalties for leaving the group.

Since I originally posted this back on March 14, 2012, I have been periodically checking online to see if this has been rolled out to other locales yet; I know that New York was supposed to be one of the cities they were going to roll this out to .  I have yet to see anything. I’m not sure whether it’s being kept quite to avoid attracting the kind of criticism they got in Texas.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. While it could cause people to interact with people who might otherwise become invisible, we also run the risk of dehumanizing them and viewing the “Wi-Fi homeless” as infrastructure. The best technological intentions usually have an unintended  dystopian element.  If this project is still going to roll out across the US, I’ll be watching it carefully to see how it goes.

Originally published on March 14, 2012

We have talked a couple of weeks ago about the question of whether mobile communication technologies refocusing people in public and semi-public spaces from being aware of other people they are sharing the space with (and hence, being available if the opportunity for serendipity to occur), to people focusing on their existing social networks who they are connected to via wireless technology.

This article describes an experiment that is being done in at the South by Southwest Festival. A group of homeless men and women have allowed themselves to be made into Wi-Fi hotspots for hire. The company is paying them a daily rate for being a hotspot and they are encouraged to charge users an hourly fee as well. It is not surprising that this idea has its boosters and detractors. I heard some people on the news paint it as victimizing and commodifying the homeless, stripping them of their dignity by reducing them to a mechanical device used to connect (comparatively) affluent people to other (comparatively) affluent people. Others think it’s a great idea and a way for someone who is homeless to earn money without begging or otherwise causing a public nuisance.

The PR firm that is doing this is talking about testing it out in NYC next so it they follow through on this, the next battle will be fought right next door to here.

What do I think? I think the answer will fall somewhere in the middle. I do think that there may be a few highly motivated homeless people who will be able to parley this into something that lifts them out of poverty. However, for the majority of folks who volunteer for this, I don’t think it will have a long or significant impact on their life, especially since (a) a significant portion of the homeless are struggling with addition issues (b) they will likely become targets of other people who will want to victimize them somehow to gain access or procession of the Wi-Fi device (heck, people have been assaulted for a pair of shoes).

I think at first people may be mindful of the homeless people they have to interface with to buy time. I have to wonder though that if like that barista at Starbucks, after a while people treat them more like payphones than people.

Links to news reports on this:

My name is Patricia Moore-Jeter and I am in the Masters of Communication and Information Studies at the School of information and Communication at Rutgers University. I am currently in the last semester and applying to PhD programs for Fall, 2013.

While I only began my Masters studies a few years ago, my interest in computer mediated communication goes back to the 90s. This is a blog  is about communication online especially as it relates to online communities of choice.

Since this is a blog, you will be treated to my personal observations, thoughts, questions and opinions as well as interesting facts I learn along the way. When possible, I will include any citations I think might be relative.

In addition, I have links to Communications websites and blogs I frequent that I hope a reader might find  might find helpful and interesting. If there are any links that you feel should be added please leave me a message in the comments, I’ll be happy to take a look.

Finally, I have dedicated a page to a series of blogs I posted for a class on Mediated Communication in the Spring of 2012.

The Path

Welcome digital traveler, I hope you enjoy this part of the journey we will be taking together.