Digital doppelgangers

Digital doppelgangers
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Digital doppelgängers

I wrote this up last night as a reply to an article on digital identity: "Truth or dare or warts or spin". [-1] This morning I read "Why" has pulled the plug on his digital self. For Why.

I’m an analogue person who lives on the Internet. [0] Online you see a copy of my analogue self, a "digital Doppelgänger" [1] if you like. It’s a data shadow cast by myself. Similar, but not quite the same and at a much lower resolution. My double is a subset of my analogue self, devoid of many of the subtle cues of a person. So what happens when you view a double online? To give you an idea, choose a sunny afternoon and go outside. Then look to see how the sun casts a shadow of yourself. See how your shadow is distorted? You get taller and you can only see your outline. The hairstyle is gone. Nobody can see the crumpled shirt and daggy runners you happen to be wearing. Your shadow gives only a hint of the real you.

Your digital double is a bit like that distorted shadow you cast on sunny days. Viewed online the information available means you have to squint your eyes to see the person leaving your mind to fill in the gaps. Of course you can enhance the resolution of your double with photographs, video and audio but you are only replacing the shadow with something akin to a two dimensional cut-out. [2] A bit more realistic, but not that convincing that a two year old couldn’t tell the difference. One place to observe this first hand, is the three dimensional version of the Internet, Second Life.

A famous cartoon published in the New Yorker, pre-Web that showed 2 dogs around a computer with the caption, "Nobody on the Internet knows you are a dog" [5] illustrates why a digital persona might be enhanced. You really can project who or what you want to be online. I got my first hint of this visiting Second Life [6] when I tried to retrace Wagner James Au "Great Expedition" journey across Second Life on foot. [7] The place was pretty deserted, much like a shopping mall late on Monday nights. The people I did bump into where certainly not the type you’d bump into in a real shopping centre.

Despite the fact the software used to create your digital self encouraged you to upgrade yourself I bet most people would choose a better self over their existing one anyway. [8] You can really see this by comparing the passport photograph of Wagner James Au in Second Life shots against the reality. [9] The double always seems to get the better deal.


There is a line in "The Matrix" [3], where Neo is in the Dojo being instructed by Morpheus on the finer arts of "Kung Fu" when he makes a point about the illusionary nature of the Matrix with the line, "Do you think that’s air you’re breathing?".[4] That one line really gets to the heart of your digital online double.

Your digital representation is really just data. Bits of information represented as numbers. You can fundamentally re-arrange your double self, any way you like. Once you understand this you should realise that you can make improvements to your analogue self without the scars. And so people do. If only it was that easy.

In the days before the Internet, television and radio when communication consisted of dots and dashes Morse code [10] operators used the Telegraph key [11] to send messages. Operators would tap out messages long hand representing the alphabet in a series of dots and dashes. Experienced operators receiving messages could even identify individual operators sending messages by recognising subtle changes in the timing and rhythm of characters being received and decoded into messages. The word used to describe this is an operators "fist".

I suspect people who know you could recognise your by your digital fist. No matter how much you try to improve your double, you are probably going to have a hard time fooling those you know you. But what about those who don’t know you? Good luck. I don’t think you can game your double to improve your real world image that easily and I can think of a simple test. Try posting a fake double to a dating site and see how you go. The illusion will probably be broken the first time you make contact.

Humans look more carefully at your digital fist for the subtle cues of authenticity for reasons of compatibility than in real life probably because there is less distraction. What parts of a "digital self" do people like? What is the minimum amount of information needed to accept someone online as a real person? For the answer to that we have to look at the world of Hackers. [12]

Hackers have inhabited the digital landscape a lot longer than the rest of us. So if you want to see how you can define your digital presence, this is the place to start looking. In a time just after punch cards ruled, Hackers lived in the land of ASCII [13] (text) writing software to run their creations on personal computers. Computers with less computation power than some mobile phones.

Hackers communicated to each other via cutting edge technology like email and updated their micro-blog equivalent, "dot plan" files. [14] You didn’t need a real name to participate and be accepted. Sure everyone has a name but you didn’t need one for a digital presence. You probably don’t need one now. A handle or nick name would suffice. What about a photo of yourself? Nope. Don’t need that either. In the days before images on the Internet, you couldn’t show a picture of yourself easily. It was possible, but way beyond mortal users. [15] So I’d say the minimalist version of a digital presence is probably a handle, some text your have written and maybe, just maybe an email address. That’s it. An email address is the computer equivalent of a phone number. What’s the use of having a presence if you can’t talk to someone? [16]

I reckon that’s enough to be recognised online. But probably not enough to be really accepted. To be recognised online, you probably have to create something useful. It doesn’t have to be a compiler or an operating system. [17] For some, a simple story or a photograph will do. All it requires is some trace of human like interaction in a digital system that other people value.

The more useful or meaningful the interaction, the more you are recognised. In fact as I write these very sentences a rather well known but unidentified Hacker [18] unplugged himself from the Internet. Deleted all his accounts, software, writing, images. Most wouldn’t know his real name or identity. Recognisable only by the software, artwork and writing. Enforced by photographs and appearances at software conferences. The simple fact of unplugging has prompted a sort of digital eulogy. A expression of loss of an anonymous online presence. [19]

The whole sum of your digital self is just ones and zeros. Should you use the opportunity to do something radical and improve yourself? Edit out the bad bits? Model yourself as you do in real life? Or use it as an extension of your real self? I loathe to make suggestions and my perspective on this is somewhat slanted by the fact my double pre-dates the Web. My double began as text and is still evolving.

So just be yourself. You don’t have to identify yourself, but it helps others to accept your presence. Remember your digital double is low resolution and no match to your real self. But it has a measurable effect. And if you pick an avatar take some time to think about "atemporality". [20]

[-1] Meatmeatmikes, Pip Lincolne, "Truth or dare or warts or spin"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]…

[0] With no desire to be "a LIVE node on the network" as discussed by Linda Stone when describing "Continuous Partial Attention".
Linda Stone, "Continuous Partial Attention"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]

[1] Wikipedia, Doppelgänger , "A double or ‘any double or look-alike of a person’"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]

[2] It’s hard to fool a four year old that a sock puppet is not real person. So it’s probalby just as hard to convince someone that your double is a real representation of yourself.

[3] Wikipedia, The Matrix, "A Wachowski brothers film about simulated reality"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]

[4] Youtube, "The Matrix: Morpheus and Neo in The matrix training in the simulated reality Dojo"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]

[5] Wikipedia, Peter Steiner, "’On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.’ A cartoon in ‘The New Yorker’, July 5, 1993"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009],_nobody_knows_you’r…

[6] Some screencaps I took of travels through SL (SecondLife) in 2006 after reading about Wagner James Au’s expedition across SecondLife.
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]
_why is no more

[7] New World Notes, Wagner, James Au, "NEXT THURSDAY, HIGH NOON: THE GREAT EXPEDITION, REDUX!: Embedded reporter in SecondLife"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]

[8] New World Notes, Wagner James Au, All about my Avatar, "A Second Life Odyssey: refers to the ‘Molotov’s Dispatches in Search of the Creator’ film about avatars which can be found here: "
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]

[9] New World Notes, Wagner, James Au, "Man in the Mirror"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]



[12] Hackers is a much misused term. When I use the word Hacker I mean a user of a computer that is benevolent, not malevolent.

[13] Wikipedia, ASCII, "’American Standard Code for Information Interchange’ is a way to store the roman alphabet and other characters commonly used in printing, digitally"
[Accessed Thursday 20th, 2009]

[14] HackerNews, "Secret blog published in robots.txt file", "Back when linux was new and lots of servers started popping up, .plan (dot plan) files ~ became the blogs of that era. Easy to read, quick to load you get a heads up of what was going on via text – a lot like HackerNews. And the best .plan files to read had to be iD & John Carmack."
[Accessed Thursday 20th, 2009]

[15] Wikipedia, "Uuencoding (Unix-to-Unix encoding): is a way to encode binary information as text. This is the technique is used to send images via email or view images via IRC and usenet."
[Accessed Thursday 20th, 2009]

[16] This sort of reminds me of authors. You can write a book have it published and all you really know about the author is their name and the contents of what they have written. The name the author published under could in fact be a pseudonym.

[17] The most well known being RMS who wrote the GNU C compiler, GNU toolchain and GPL license. And of course Torvolds who wrote the original Linux operating system.

[18] HackerNews, "_why is no more"
[Accessed Thursday 20th, 2009]

[19] John Resig, "Eulogy to _why"
[Accessed Thursday 20th, 2009]

[20 Twitter, William Gibson (author of Neuromancer, 1984), "Your bleeding-edge Now is always someone elses past, Someone else’s 70’s bellbottoms. Grasp that and start to attain atemporality"
[Accessed Wednesday 19th, 2009]

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