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 Gateworld.net, 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 Gateworld.net, perhaps anonymity is not part of the liberating potential of the Internet. Perhaps community-building is.