V for Venice – Guy Fawkes in the lagoon city

It was in April 2013 when I finally had a chance to visit Venice again. My beloved wife and I strolled along the narrow streets, and of course we had a look at the display windows of the mask makers. And there we found: Guy Fawkes!

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The Venetians produce the mask in their traditional way, and somehow their version looks friendlier than the well-know plastic masks which are based on the comic “V for Vendetta” and the film version.

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Just a joke for the tourists? Maybe.

But it is an intriguing phenomenon: In modern Western civilizations, the Guy Fawkes mask is perhaps the one with the highest impact on culture and political life, and it stands for privacy and the right to act anonymously. And now it has found its way back into a a cultural environment which in the past used probably the most elaborated anonymity concept in daily life and for political purposes.

Thoughts on Privacy

In his blog www.metaphorous.com, Wilhelm Greiner 2010 wrote down some interesting thoughts on privacy in the social media age. The blog disappeared later, but, as you see, the Internet Archive still has it in its wayback machine. The entry is here. From Wilhelm’s point of view, for a privacy-aware person, there are four possible attitudes towards social media:

  1. Lifecasting – me, myself, my life and everything shall be online. Self-marketing is more important than privacy.
  2. Total refusal – nothing shall ever be found online about me. Privacy is my top concern.
  3. In-depth and detailed control –every bit about me goes through a risk assessment process before I put it on the web.
  4. Social media stream designed as a résumé – whenever a future employer finds information about me, he or she should get the right impression.
  5. Role play or “alias” mode – I make sure that my online me is not at all congruent with my real life me.

I like these categories, especially when taking into consideration that there are combinations of the attitudes possible. Wilhelm already mentions that attitude 5 can be combined with attitude 3 and 4, but in my opinion it also fits to attitude 2. For example, web-citizens anonymously participating in imageboards like 4chan or krautchan, inhabitants of virtual worlds or players of multi player online games may never show any information about their real identity anywhere on web 2.0 platforms like LinkedIn, Xing or Facebook. This seems a little bit similar to the way the old Venetians lived their real lives. In their small, but vibrating and multicultural town on the seas, dealing with merchants and pirates from everywhere in a still uncharted world, they developed the idea of living an anonymous life besides the public life. Wearing the Bauta, they played a role, but it was a predefined and generic role. It worked very well. Everyone wearing the Bauta disguise was accepted and greeted as “Signora Maschera”. May be that this is the 6th attitude to be thought about. By the way, on krautchan, every user is called “Bernd”. I definitely have to think about that, too.

Questions from EIC 2010

At the European Identity Conference 2010 in Munich I presented some first thoughts resulting from this project . The presentation led to a discussion. Some of the questions posed there by the attendants will be of interest for the ongoing research:

  • Venice was a small community. Does an anonymity concept like the one represented by the Bauta disguise only function in a (nearly) closed system like the one of the Venetian society? Is the internet itself a closed system or an open system? Perhaps the Bauta concept may have more in common with the anonymity and pseudonymity concepts of platforms like the internet imageboards than with the internet itself.
  • Was it really a good anonymity device? The user of the Bauta could not hide height and weight and voice.
  • It was easy to unmask the user of a Bauta If something went wrong. Isn’t it far more difficult to unmask an anonymous internet user?
  • To develop a device like the Bauta, the Venetians must have felt the necessity of anonymity. Given that most internet users today still believe that they act more or less anonymously in the internet, may this be the reason that there is not so much interest in anonymity solutions today?
  • The Bauta gave its user the identity of a true Venetian citizen without revealing many personal details. Would it be possible use identity devices like the new German digital identity card in a way like that?
  • If necessary, the user of the Bauta could reveal a little bit more of his or her identity by abandoning parts of the disguise. How do you transfer this to the internet environment?
  • Can the real environment of the Venetian city really be compared the virtual one of the Internet?

A lot of questions to think about, thanks again to all the participants!