On Maintaining Multiple Identities

You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.
– Mark Zuckerberg (http://venturebeat.com/2010/05/13/zuckerberg-privacy/)

 

Many furries choose to interact with the world using two or more identities. At the simplest level this might be a legal (“real”) identity and a furry (virtual) identity, and many furries maintain several more.

It’s a simple exercise, internally, to manage multiple identities. People typically see themselves as a background manipulator, with various outwards-facing facades depending on the context: work identity, furry identity, kink identity, and so forth. This compartmentalization is normal, and everyone—furry and non-furry—does it to a degree.

It’s less simple to keep outward-facing identities separate and discrete. For the most part, people are happy enough to allow their identities to leak into one another, such as when one’s co-workers meet one’s family. Problems occur when people want to keep some element of themselves private: perhaps their sexual behaviour, perhaps a hobby that is prone to misunderstanding… furry, for example.

Facebook presents a problem, because it’s largely a central clearinghouse for identity. You might consider Facebook to be designed for the internal manipulator of the multiple identities; not for expression of the identities themselves.

The Google Plus social network is similar to Facebook in that there is a ‘common names’ policy. G+ requires a consistent name across all products that require a Google account. And that name most be provable: either a legal name or a pre-existing pseudonym with a provable history. So you can’t be Jane Smith in some contexts and Blazing Hyena in others; it’s one or the other.

It makes sense that social networks require close ties to the legal identity of their users. It’s a business opportunity: if a Facebook login (say) becomes an online-based de facto proof of identity, then this becomes a service they can sell.

That sounds bad, but it’s not unreasonable for a business to be motivated by the potential to create a new market. Businesses exist to make money. It is absolutely reasonable, of course, to expect businesses to be law-abiding and moral, just not benevolent.

Today, in 2014, it seems like we’re having a sea change in the way identity is stored and proved. Currently proof-of-identity is a service offered by governments; a way of assuring the integrity of individual transactions like voting, or getting a driver’s license. But the ubiquity of online social networks is providing a second route to proof-of-identity. Large fiscal institutions like credit agencies or banks already track individuals, creating a type of identity assurance, but their reach pales in comparison to the scope of identity services potentially offered by the likes of Facebook.

Governments are currently looking into the best ways to manage the transition to online identity (see here for a discussion of the UK government’s plans). It may be, in the not-too-distant future, that businesses like Facebook will provide legal online identity assurance.

Of course there is no (current) requirement for proof of online identity, and social networks like Facebook are opt-in. And there are other ways to prove your online identity, ways that don’t require a connection to your legal identity or ‘common name’.

Services like Twitter and OpenID offer a consistent virtual identity, one where Blazing Hyena doesn’t need to be connected to Jane Smith. But even here, Jane is at risk of ‘doxing’, and anyone who links her to Blazing Hyena will be able to find out whatever else Blazing Hyena is up to.

Unfortunately it’s not possible to maintain persistent multiple identities without risking them being linked. Guaranteed and absolute privacy is impossible: there is necessary conflict between physical identity and virtual identity.

Consider Jake Rush. Jake is a LARPer, the sort of hobby that is prone to be misunderstood, and so he kept it separate from his work identity. He is an attorney.

On March 20 this year, Jake announced a bid for Congress. His online LARP identity was shortly discovered, and he became a figure of fun. Pictures of him in costume were published alongside out-of-context quotes… you can imagine the rest. Jake’s use of multiple identities was seen as him having, to quote Zuckerberg, a “lack of integrity”.

Still, online anonymity is not always desirable. Consider Michael Brutsch, a programmer who was the subject of an article on Gawker in 2012. Online, Brutsch was known as Violentacrez, moderator of a subreddit dedicated to posting covert, voyeuristic photos taken of women in public (‘Creepshots’) as well as the creator of another subreddit dedicated to posting sexualized images of underage girls (‘Jailbait’).

Brutsch’s outing as Violentacrez seems like a positive step, but the ethics of his outing is not so black-or-white. The journalist who did the research and wrote the article (Adrian Chen) is, essentially, enforcing Zuckerberg’s single-identity ideal. Chen could not have written the article if he had a separate online identity himself. His decision to out Brutsch demonstrates the risk taken by anyone with multiple identities, be they abhorrent (like Brutsch) or innocuous (like Jake Rush).

It’s a pity that having multiple identities poses these risks and challenges. Identity play is completely normal, and part of a healthy internal life. Furry might be seen as an edge case, given that our identity play includes obfuscation of species, but that doesn’t make it internally problematic.

Having said that, there is a lot of research that demonstrates that a hallmark of maturity and good mental health is self actualization (ref). Self actualization is a term that describes how the various elements of one’s identity are integrated into a balanced whole, including positive acceptance of unusual elements. Examples of unusual elements of identity might include gender identity, or sexual orientation, or sexual interests. (That’s not to say that identity play via personality splitting is a negative thing; quite the opposite in fact. But it’s a complex issue and the subject of many articles here on [adjective][species]click here to browse our ‘identity’ tag.)

Consistency of identity is a good thing from a psychological point of view. But this refers to internal personality—the internal manipulator of facades—and not the editing of outward-facing personalities depending on the context. It is normal and healthy, and respectful of those around you, to manage outward appearance to match society’s expectations. To use an extreme example, it’s okay to enjoy masturbating to weird furry porn (and be happy about that), but you probably shouldn’t share the details around the office watercooler, even if someone asks you what you did on the weekend.

Interestingly, there is evidence that having disparate identities is an indicator of poor mental health. This specifically includes furries: the IARP have shown that furries with diverging fursonas are more at risk of negative psychological states like repression or dissociation (ref).

Some personality splitting is normal. It’s normal to act and feel different in different contexts: online vs offline, friends vs family, lovers vs workmates. Yet there is a lot of value in being able to act in ways that reinforce the validity of your identity. It’s good to meet online friends in real life. It’s good to turn sexual fantasies into sexual realities. It’s good to talk about the furry world with non-furry friends. And it’s good to talk openly about sexual fetishes, or sexual and gender identity.

There is a balance to be found, and it’s not easy. It’s good to merge our online world with our offline world, but this should to be done in a safe fashion, and should be respectful of those around us. Some editing and personality splitting is necessary and reasonable. It is completely unreasonable to suggest, as Zuckerberg does, that managing different versions of yourself in order to respect other people and to stay safe is ‘an example of a lack of integrity’:

To get people to this point where there’s more openness — that’s a big challenge. But I think we’ll do it. I just think it will take time. The concept that the world will be better if you share more is something that’s pretty foreign to a lot of people and it runs into all these privacy concerns.
– Mark Zuckerberg

 

Zuckerberg’s point of view is completely reasonable if you happen to be male, white, heterosexual, and rich. He is speaking from a position of privilege, one that disregards the need for privacy for those of us who don’t conform quite so easily to the mainstream. (But then nobody would mistake Mark Zuckerberg for a philosopher, or suggest that he is well known for his emotional intelligence.)

There is always risk that an unusual online identity will be linked with a staid offline identity. This is not a problem if, like Zuckerberg, you can express yourself fully and still meet society’s norms. And it’s easy for such privileged people to assume that their experience is universal.

For the rest of us, we must bear the risk that we will have our ‘hidden’ selves outed. We’re especially vulnerable if we hold any public or semi-public position. The accusation we risk facing will be a familiar one to many furries: something along the lines of “pretends to be an omnisexual transgender fox on the internet”. We’re not doing anything other than expressing ourselves, yet we’ll be tarred by the suggestion of weirdness, and of lacking integrity.

We furries risk being shamed for being ourselves. There is no solution, beyond carefully curating our online presences to give ourselves as much privacy as possible. Unfortunately, it’s a challenge that comes with the territory.

 

– with thanks to Drat for the inspiration and the help

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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6 thoughts on “On Maintaining Multiple Identities

  1. Zuckerberg is obnoxious, plain and simple. You are entirely correct in pointing out that his viewpoint is that of the dominant white male bigot. Anyone not like him is the defective, as far as he is concerned.

    However, I think the need for furries to have separated, multiple identities would be greatly reduced if more of us were open about it. I try to do that. My family, coworkers, and employer all know that I am involved in furry and to what extent. It hasn’t harmed me as far as I can see, but they already had a reasonable amount of trust and respect for me before they found out.

    The real issue is the public image of furry fandom, which needs significant improvement. We should learn from the tremendous strides made by the LGBT folks in just the past few years. The advances in same sex marriage and acceptance of transgendered people have grown from the increasing numbers of us who have made ourselves visible so that our friends and neighbors realize that we are the people they have known for years, and not just weird freaks hidden in some dark netherworld or carnival side show.

    The image of furry will improve when those of us who seem otherwise “normal” stop trying to hide our connection to the fandom or community or whatever you choose to think it is.

    1. I think it bears pointing out that Zuckerberg has one more privilege that most of us share, which is that he lives in a society and under a government where he is able to express just about any opinion, including those about his government, and have essentially no worry about being targeted by his government for saying the wrong thing. Those of us who have never lived in a society where you could be labeled a spy or a dissident for saying the wrong things and possibly be arrested, have everything taken away from you have no idea what it’s like to live in such a society, and unfortunately there are still parts of this world that are like that. The ability to have an alternate identity that no one can connect to you is one of the most important freedoms one can have in a world were such governments still exist.

      1. Certainly a good point, though in truth even in the US it can be unsafe to be too critical of powerful politicians or wealthy individuals. Someone like Zuckerberg can get away with it because he is in that rarified world of the hyper-wealthy now.

        For ordinary individuals, the consequences can be deadly, and especially so with the NSA and Homeland Security constantly snooping around and trying to match up the disparate pieces of identity and connect everything. Though the US is nominally an environment of free speech and opinion, historically it has not always turned out to be so. As confirmed by recent SCOTUS rulings, wealthy individuals are allowed to do whatever they wish. The rest of us are not so lucky.

  2. It is only by challenging society’s expectations that those who desire to change them can hope to achieve their goal. (Whether you agree with Zuckerberg is a separate matter; the same is true whatever your ideals.)

    It’s unreasonable for those who seek election to a public office to expect privacy. If you are to represent me in important decisions, I expect to be able to make an informed decision as to whether to support you. Candidates who conceal information should be distrusted. What are they hiding? If they believe it’ll affect their chance of election, doesn’t that imply that it’s exactly what we need to know? You could say some facts (e.g. LARPing) are an improper basis for a decision, but who are you to decide that?

    As for shame, it can only arise if you accept your behaviour is contrary to those aspects of society which you value. If you hold fast to your beliefs, the contempt of others will hold no power over your mental state. It may, of course, impact reactions with others, but if you attempt to avoid that, you’re likely opposing the free flow of information for your own benefit; hard to justify, except to oneself.

  3. I’d like to comment on this as someone who works in business as an open furry. It’s a new development: The past year I’ve been opening up about being furry out of the realization that by hiding it, I was doing myself and those around me a huge disservice.

    It was hard at first — really hard. I lost several people close to me. But as time went on, I realized that I would rather stick with the people who would stick with me as a furry. And the relationships that have resulted have been the most satisfying in my life.

    I’m ultra-privileged. I’m white, male, intelligent, and I have a great job. I’m aware of this, and partly because of that awareness, I have this feeling that… “If I can’t do it, then who can?”

    So I take my privilege and I use it to be myself in a pretty wild way. I schedule appointments with executives titled “Coyote Sync-Up”. I call myself a Data Coyote and tell people I’ll get my nose to their problems. This causes some problems, but it also engenders deep respect.

    This wasn’t won easily. I struggled for a while with anxiety and fear, stuff that still comes up from time to time but is slowly fading as I gain more experience. When we feel anxious about ourselves, we teach others to be anxious about us. This has been a particular struggle for me as I’ve also been coming out as bisexual (and possibly gay) which has its own hurdles, not to mention opening up to strong feminine traits that I used to keep hidden.

    But the weird thing is, as I integrate these multiple identities, they are slowly emerging really as a single amazing identity. A man who possesses some of the powers of women. A sexually open person. And most of all: I’m spending fewer of my precious brain cycles curating an external image and spending more of them on open inquiry and truth-telling, which makes me better in my “normal” business role.

    I’m working my way up to management, and one thing that makes me proud is knowing that anyone would want a manager who has the openness and empathy you earn by working through your fear and anxiety. People respect my opinions because they know I don’t tolerate bullshit.

    I don’t mean to write this as a self-congratulations, although that is part of it. I need the congratulations for later when I run into trouble or self-doubt. But more, I’m writing this to open up the possibility of a fully-integrated furry identity. Sure, I still introduce myself to new business partners as Douglas, but then later I tell them “but my friends all call me Coyote.” It creates a personalness that my partners appreciate and helps cement long-lasting relationships.

    Furry can be an asset rather than a liability, it’s a matter of how you approach it. But approaching it correctly is not given, especially if we have deep-rooted issues about it (which we all do, naturally). This journey, of learning how to integrate, to go through fear and embrace, to make mistakes and get up again, that’s how we learn to treat our identity with respect, and teach others to respect it too.

    I love knowing that by being myself, I give others permission to be themselves, and everyone can be more honest. It’s just good business practice.

    1. Coyote, thanks for your terrific story. I dare say that your experience is one that demonstrates the learnings from the IARP study: that having a furry identity close to your non-furry identity is a marker of good mental health.

      You are right, of course, to note that you are in a privileged position. Most people don’t have the ability to express themselves as a furry without it affecting them negatively to an unreasonable extent. Of course you have experienced some minor negative points, but these have been overwhelmed by the positive aspects of being able to express your identity. I think that’s pretty cool.

      By the way, I also think that you are doing the furry world a good service. You are introducing furry to many people, and demonstrating that it can be a positive or at least neutral influence. You are an ambassador, a good example. Any future furries meeting people you have already worked with will find it much easier to be their furry selves.

      I’d like to think that there are, slowly, becoming more and more furries like you out there. I know of a small handful among my local furry group who are equally able to be open about furry in their professional environment. Slowly but surely, you are collectively rehabilitating furry in the eyes of the general public.

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