From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 22, 1997*On losing a Cyberdentity

It's happened to me in the past that I've searched for a book, in a library or on my own shelf, and though I was sure that I knew where to find it, it seemed to have disappeared. Of course paper has a way of getting misplaced, but it rarely disappears without a rather simple physical explanation. On the other hand, bits, though search tools are making them harder and harder to misplace, seem capable of vanishing into thin air, going the way of the matching sock from the never to be paired again sock still in the drawer.

But I don't want to deal here with the frustration of discovering that you didn't bookmark a page which you've suddenly discovered is relevant to a new topic you're interested in, but can't get a lead on where to find it. What interests me here is the feeling you get when a site you've become attached to suddenly disappears from cyberspace.

Recently I decided to look up an old friend. Not someone whom I know personally, but someone whom I've grown to know via his web site. I don't "know" the producer of the site in question, and he certainly doesn't know me, but over an extended period of time I've read what he's posted about himself, and I've come to know him and consider him a friend. Though the site was everchanging, and I thus always found something new in it, I related to it much as I do to a favorite book on my shelf that I leaf through frequently (shades of a previous column). I didn't have his site bookmarked, but didn't need it to be since I knew the URL by heart. But it didn't connect. Justin had disappeared from cyberspace.

In the end it turned out that this was only a temporary disappearance. Justin had gone off to Honduras and instead of leaving his normally constantly changing web site dormant, apparently decided instead simply to shut his server down for the duration of his trip. That was definitely an understandable decision on his part, but it still caused more than a bit of distress on mine. After all, if Justin were a book he wouldn't be constantly changing and adding to himself (except of course as a sequel), and I'd perhaps lose out on the pleasure of following those changes and additions. But on the other hand, I'd have something concrete on my shelf which I could always access. Though I deal with bits every day, I've got to admit that they seem to remain ephemeral in my mind, and when Justin disappeared from cyberspace it felt as though his identity had been erased.

But why look to someone else in order to witness a cyberdentity crisis when I can turn the mirror on myself?

An online community I've been a member of has recently closed down. The extensive web site of that community is still accessible, but it's only a matter of time until the bits that comprise the site evaporate, or do whatever it is that bits do when they're no longer available. I have numerous personal web pages on that site, and although they've been rather dormant of late (hey, if I can't meet my own deadline with these columns, how can I get around to updating pages that don't have any deadline at all?) and thus perhaps should be viewed as giving more a picture of who I was, rather than who I am, knowing that they're accessible to anyone is part of how I identify myself. If the web site goes, part of me goes with it.

What's more, the e-mail address for myself on those pages is no longer active, meaning that an e-letter that someone who might read the pages and perhaps want to write me won't get through. It's not that hordes have been thronging to my pages and suddenly find that they can't reach me. That might be a pleasant problem to be faced with, but so far it's not my problem. My problem is that part of my identity has suddenly disappeared, and now I have to admit that even when it was apparent it was ephemeral at most, but that all the same it held a certain power over me. The thought of how I might present a certain episode of my life on my web pages occasionally even seemed to influence the way I lived those episodes themselves.

Now, with the web site inactive, and perhaps soon inaccessible, I discover to what an extent the existence of my pages was important to my identity, and yet also how little a difference it really made on my daily ("real"?) life.

When Justin was away from cyberspace in Honduras did he feel as though he were a different Justin than the Justin who almost daily updated his pages with reports about his life? To what extent has the web become a defining element in our lives? In the cartoon below more than half of the addresses given are constructed incorrectly. But perhaps what is correct is the extent to which the web has become central to our identity. Sometimes we only become aware of this when it's no longer there.


That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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