Posts Tagged ‘online communities’

I’ve been away from my beloved blog here for so long, I feel as though I should sing a chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

But I’ll spare you.

My primary academic interest is examining the ways we create and recreate our lives in virtual spaces. I come from the point of view that technology like a hammer or saw;  fantastically useful tools that someone can decide to pick up and use as an implant of construction or destruction. It’s not the tool, its the end user.

Virtually every new communication technology from the alphabet (Thank you Nancy Baym for that great quote from Plato!)* to the airplane (because you do realize that transportation is a type of communication tool, right?) to the Internet has been decried as that thing that will make our society dystopic, make our society utopic, make us smarter, make us dumber, foster connections between people, drive us farther apart. And someone will always proclaim that it somehow makes us less human and our youths sex mad, .

Poppycock and Balderdash.

This is why I disagree with authors like Robert Putnam and Sherry Turkel. Yes I think society has changed, but I think it was and is still doing just that: changing.  Every age has its affordances and constraints from its technology, but technology is just the tool, not the determiner of the world we live in.

That is completely up to us.

Anyway, for the uninitiated among you, xkcd is a thrice weekly web comic written by Randall Munroe.  It is funny, highly geeky, and at times head scratchy. A few days ago, he absolutely nailed how ridiculous the moral ( and every other) panic associated with technology is.

(BTW: if you are not familiar with the comic, I suggest checking it out. It’s great!)

* In her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym quotes Socrates’ warning‘, by way of Plato,  that the creation of an alphabet that allowed people to write instead of extemporaneously orate would make us all dullards. Makes me chuckle every time. 

(Link to this comic: http://xkcd.com/1289/)

xkcd Simple Answers

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The dichotomy of the virtual world versus the real world is a lie.

Now that I have your attention, let me explain.

There are no longer two separate spheres of existence. Activity online has become more ubiquitous, commonplace. There is only one real world and online interactions are just one of the many stages we perform upon within it. It has become another venue in the same way we in habit other spaces such as out home or the bowling alley or school.

Nancy Baym, Microsoft Research principal researcher and author of Personal Connections in the Digital Age is an active tweeter. Recently, she tweeted a link to an article about by Paul Miller about what happened when he decided to unplug from the Internet for a year.

Talk about unexpected consequences.

The second sentence in his essay is, “One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.” This statement isn’t shocking, we’ve heard people say variations of this before. What is more telling is his first sentence,

I was wrong”.

Why his experience didn’t work out the way he thought it would is played out in this passage, “I drew her [his young niece] a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.”

Internet I

He made a mistake that all but doomed his experience to end with a feeling of desolate isolation as opposed to the  feeling of freedom he was thinking. When he illustrated the Internet for his niece, he showed it the way an IT person might, a network of various bits of electronica connected by cords and cables.

But the Internet is far more than that. A more accurate depiction would have been a network of all of the family, friends, and acquaintances in his life linked together by lines of varying thicknesses. Some lines might be doubled or tripled, and maybe even different colors.

The Internet isn’t about computers and smartphone and tablets; it’s about people and how we connect with each other. It’s about the myriad types of relationships we can initiate and maintain with keystrokes, images and sound. It’s about who we contact and why we contact them

Internet II

At the end of the day, the Internet is about people and their process of using the technology to connect, not that machines that facilitate the act of connecting. This is true whether you are talking about the alphabet, train travel or email.and  how often; it’s about how close we are to them and what methods we use to contact them

Miller’s experiment ties back to a tweet that Baym posted later on, “So important to study old media because otherwise we think everything is new and we are historically special. That’s me talking.”

In the same way that living without a phone is hard for most of us in the First and Second worlds to imagine, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine life without connection through the internet: email, social networking sites, message boards, etc. While Miller initially enjoyed things he felt he was missing, he ultimately found that he was engaging in the same behaviors he blamed on the Internet. He stopped leaving the house and would passively watch TV all day. Without tools such as Skype, email and Twitter, he began to feel the social disconnect that would occur for many of us if our Internet access was cut off.

The lesson learned is that while the hardware is new, the attitudes and behaviors are the same. From the alphabet to television people expressed concerns about how a particular communication technology was going to degrade the quality of our relationships and civilization  itself.

What Paul Miller discovered is that once a new technology becomes integrated into society it becomes enmeshed in the fabric of our relationships. It is the rejection of new communication technologies that can have a negative impact on our ability to be fully present in the lives of those we know and love, not new technologies.

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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.

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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.

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(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?

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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.

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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.

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