Comic-Con and Social Networks

Comic-Con is many things: awesome, hilarious, tragic, fun, hilarious, expensive and hilarious. Every July, San Diego becomes the homeof more than just balmy temperatures and the alt-rock tones of Jason Mraz; it hosts Comic-Con, an extraordinary pop culture event that brings together Trekkies and Chris Evans (the 2011 Captain America), Jedis and Ryan Kwanten (of True Blood) and more than a few people who have never picked up a comic book. I’ve joined the crowds the past two years because, well, it’s what you do in San Diego this weekend.

I have found that Comic-Con is a prime beneficiary of the decline of anonymity in online social networks.

Facebook may be leading the way in the fight against anonymity, but digital communities built around shared interest in science fiction are giving Mark Zuckerberg a run for his anti-anonymity money. To be sure, online games like World of Warcraft (WoW) allow you to create fantastic identities and personae for yourself, but I had a feeling they have become so much more than that. I did not know from experience: I enjoy Sci Fi and have my share of SyFy shows waiting on my DVR, but I’ve never played WoW. I was never a big gamer, even when “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” actually came on those large black floppy discs. So, I did what any nerd would do: I went to Comic-Con to test a theory.

I looked for groups where members were of similar ages (thus excluding families), but did not restrict myself to any particular age, race, gender or costume. I spoke to about 100 people. I wanted to know where they met their friends: online or in person? If online, on what platform? If not on a traditional social networking site like Facebook, where? Did they ever have pseudonyms or online identities that hid their real identities? If so, how and when did they come out of the closet to meet each other? In other words, I was trying to understand the role of online anonymity in social interaction among people at Comic-Con, many of whom are highly wired.

Of 107 people, 67 met the friends they were with at the time online. Notably, that is not the same as saying that nearly 2/3 of respondents came to Comic-Con with people they met online, but still, that is a staggering number! In any event, all of them eventually “met” or “found” each other on Facebook, but some initially linked up through sci-fi themed groups. But, since it all happened through Facebook, no one was anonymous. 

Not all relationships started on Facebook’s science fiction corner. A few knew each other as frequent commenters on, an all-things-Stargate fan website; some were WoW buddies who “never kept [themselves]hidden. He sounded cool, so whatever. It’s all on Facebook or MySpace anyway.” Another young man met his Jedi-clad friend “playing a few different online games. In the chat rooms, he mentioned he was from China and I thought that was so cool, especially since I live in Georgia.” He meant the country, not the state. The two struck up a friendship, became MySpace “friends,” then Facebook “friends” and then decided that they both should meet each others’ friends at Comic-Con. I also met a few young women who lamented that I wasn’t in costume and said that they too bonded online as three of the precious few females to comment about the show Warehouse 13 with any frequency. “As soon as I saw another girl, I immediately asked who she was and where she was. She then friended me on Facebook and I had a friend in a place called Riverside, California. I live in Oklahoma.”

Comic-Con attendees bear the brunt of a lot of stereotypes, none more common than of the adolescent, nonathletic boy who projects the kind of person he wants to be into his WoW elf. But, my initial research suggests that these men and women are not hiding behind the perceived anonymity that their online games could provide. Instead, they see their digital selves as extensions of their physical selves and their online identities as ways to help them meet people in real life. It is difficult for all of us to meet new people, so while an elf-self may be a foot in the door, the man behind the elf wants nothing more than to drop his mask and allow his digital community to supplement his physical community.

Admittedly, my tiny sample set answered informal questions in an unscientific survey. But, this concept — who we really are online and what are we really doing — has implications for the kind of policies websites, intermediaries and users would want to adopt to make the Internet a safe community for all. If we don’t want to be anonymous and have less and less need for it, why should we put safety and certain rights at risk in the name of protecting absolute anonymity? If even elf-selves are eschewing anonymity because of the community-building possibilities of Facebook and, perhaps anonymity is not part of the liberating potential of the Internet. Perhaps community-building is.

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4 Responses

  1. Very interesting. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. People have been meeting up offline at conventions with friends they met online for a long time. You’ve rediscovered a version of the @-party. What’s your evidence that the growth in the phenomenon is linked to the decline of anonymity on online social networks, rather than to the the rise in the popularity of online social networks?

  2. Ari Waldman says:

    Good question, James. Of course, this is anecdotal at this point, but a few things makes me think this is more than just the rise of social networks and, instead, is about the decline or lack of need for anonymity. First, these groups — sci fi gamers — are one of the paradigmatic examples of Internet users whose online identity is not their physical identity. It has to be; they play as elves, clerics, warriors, etc. But, it would appear that they are not using fake identities for social interaction, only gaming. The fact that these users are not using their online personae to hide from the real world is telling. Second, the speed with which they dropped their online personae is striking. One woman finds another woman and immediately reveals who she is. That kind of willingness to identify is relatively new, perhaps a product of the Facebook world having replaced the old AOL chat room world from the late 90s. Third, there has to be a new factor other than the rise of social networks — which, as you say, is nothing new — because gamers are not the only ones whose behavior is changing. Gay Internet users, for example, are eschewing anonymity even on mobile technologies that were originally meant to be used anonymously. There may indeed be various cultural forces at play there, but if it is true that behaviors of groups who traditionally benefited (or were thought to benefit) from online anonymity are choosing to identify themselves, then it cannot just be about the rise of social networks. It may be the rise of social networks that reject anonymity specifically; but, the change in behavior suggests something diverted the original arc.

  3. This is why other social scientists hate law professors, I say only half-jokingly. You are doing essentially ethnographic work, but not in an ethnographic spirit. That is: you have interviewed, briefly, a number of attendees of a single event, about a single issue in their experience. Having identified a possible pattern, you then immediately conclude that it is caused “the decline of anonymity in online social networks.”

    I mean, whoa, whoa, whoa! You lost me at the existence of a decline, to say nothing of the causal connection. I want to know *what* online networks. I want to know in *what respects* they were anonymous. I want to know *who* used them, and how they chose which networks to use and how anonymous they’d be. I want to know what the affordances of those online networks were. And so on. Because when you say “online social networks,” I don’t even know whether you’re talking about a two-year change, a ten-year change, or a twenty-five-year change.

    Now, maybe the evidence you’re gathering can tell you something about this. Perhaps you want to say, “I talked to a hundred people at Comic-Con, and, based on their stories, social networks are less anonymous now.” It is possible to reason in that direction, yes: many good scholars do. But when they do, they’re careful about the limits of their data. They’ll explain how Comic-Con attendees, who are after all meeting up in person at a major annual convention, may not be representative of the specific communities they’re part of, let alone other online communities, let alone online social networks as a whole. They’ll ask their informants in detail how and why they chose to identify themselves, to try to learn the conventions and norms at play. They’ll look for the differences in the stories they hear, as a well as the commonalities. That is, they’ll be more precise about the limits of their data than just saying “tiny sample set … informal questions … unscientific survey.” And because they will be, they won’t immediately go on to make sweeping generalizations about ditching anonymity in favor of community.

    Look, I probably *agree* with many of your underlying points. The late-1990s emphasis in cyberlaw theory on perfect anonymity misread how many people actually use electronic media. Offline and online lives interpenetrate. Community is as much or more a basic human drive as is identity reinvention. Etc. etc. etc. But this is not the way to go about showing it. You have seemingly rediscovered something that is well known in Internet-researcher circles, but done so in a way that is too methodologically casual to tell whether you are describing something that is actually different from what is already in the literature. This is how it is with us legal scholars (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone else here): we’re like blind men with an elephant that has already been so well-studied that there are reference books in Braille describing it.

  4. Ari says:

    You make a valid point. But, with all due respect, I don’t think I passed anything off as definitive research. Nor did I say that what I found from my few interviews was conclusive. In fact, I admitted how casual the “research” was and that there may be other factors at play and how there can be no definitive conclusions. I posed a hypothesis though what I thought was a fun post of general interest and, I feel, couched it with sufficient limits.

    Perhaps you feel that I could have been more effusive in my admissions of the limitations of interviewing a few hundred people at one unique event. And, I certainly could have; I think we can all be more careful in that regard.

    Thanks for your comments!