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Negotiating the Digital Closet: Online Pseudonymity and the Politics of Sexual Identity

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Online surveillance interferes with the individual's ability to control their expressive identity - to determine the scope of the social context in which their activities are to be seen and interpreted. Entrepreneurs have responded to these concerns by offering pseudonymizers, which employ cryptographic techniques to allow users to create several unlinkable personae and choose among them when engaging in various online interactions. This article investigates the tension between pseudonymity as a design paradigm for privacy technologies and as a lived practice for users. Because coming out - strategic revelation and the claiming of identity - has been at the core of the gay liberation movement, this article posits a politically and sexually active gay professional man as an ideal user of pseudonymity software, and places the design logic of pseudonymity within that particular set of social understandings. It reveals the conflicts, contradictions and trade-offs inherent in that use. Pseudonymity permits a very strong control of identity. It permits the user to segregate his public performances, and to engage in public debate without fear of bodily retribution. However, it is all but useless as a means of controlling the social context of those performances. It requires that decisions about self-presentation in certain contexts be made in ignorance of who is sharing that context, and with what resources or purpose. While it promotes the production of multiple selves, those selves are not easily lent to practices of intimacy or community. Pseudonymity also facilitates profiling practices that define and reify classes of people, even as it protects the individual from some of the repercussions of being defined as part of that class. In short, pseudonymity software is informed by a politics of heroics rather than of community.
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Document Type: Regular Paper

Publication date: September 1, 2002

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