Now that's interesting, although it comes as no surprise. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington (see http://www.bis.gov.uk/go-science/chief-scientific-adviser/biography), commissioned a report into social developments on the Internet, and the report has just been published. See this BBC News item: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21084945.
In a nutshell it highlights the importance many people, especially younger people, now place on having a distinct Internet persona that enables them to communicate worldwide with others, crossing social boundaries in the process, and allowing isolated individuals with common interests and concerns to get in touch, and speak collectively.
Their chosen persona may be qute unlike their real selves, which raises issues of deception and fraud, but also lets people who feel shy or unfree to reach out and take part in something much larger. It could be as trivial as a multi-participant online game, or as big as a revolutionary political movement. Or just participating in a widely-scattered online community. The essential thing to understand is that 'hyper-connectivity' can replace all ordinary limitations on human contact, and that in the process one can let go of traditional ideas about identity - nationality, ethnic background, sex, age, degree of disability and all the rest.
Thus a housebound 85 year old living in the Outer Hebrides can style herself Atlantic Freedom Warrior, or even Galactic Freedom Warrior, and contribute to a national discussion on rape penalties, abortion, limits on immigration, withdrawal from the EU - or whatever - without being dismissed as a crazy old woman who is completely gaga and out of touch. Because she won't be out of touch at all, not with the Internet to inform her 24/7 of what is going on all over the world. And her Internet ID protects her from sight, and therefore from snap judgements based on nothing more than how she looks and sounds. As if her wrinkles and arthritis disqualify her from sharing her point of view.
I don't think this is a far-fetched development, nor one that should be stopped.
It's what blogging and Facebook and Twitter are all about right now. Cyberspace is very self-releasing. And hooking into a worldwide readership gives a powerful sense of belonging. But it can also go to the head, because the same readership can make one think that one now has clout and influence. Anyone who chiefly wants that will tend to make their online presence more and more extreme, encouraging an equally extreme support group, and, naturally, an equally extreme counter-group. And the sense of self-importance can be enhanced all the more by engaging in flame wars. It's a safe and comfortable way to inflict wounds. Not like a real-life duel at dawn with lethal weapons.
Roaming cyberspace as a high-profile and well-known persona also develops a feeling of go-anywhere, say-anything invulnerability. There are no physical restraints. The ability to post and comment as strongly as one wishes isn't curbed by any obvious sanction. When a sanction is in fact applied, as it can be, the shock is huge. Three days ago, for instance, GallusMag, the anonymous radical feminist who ran GenderTrender, was shut out of her own blog by WordPress. She could henceforth only make comments, on the same footing as anyone else; but no further posts. This stopped the blog dead. Her final comment, on her final post, bristled with dismay, disgust and defiance. But I also thought she came across as shaken to the core. She must have believed that she was untouchable. The shut-down was (according to her) engineered by an American trans woman with connections. She saw it as an attack by 'the Patriarchy' on a person who resolutely championed women's rights.
It was certainly a censorship of free speech, the kind of situation I was discussing in one of my recent posts. It was an outcome she ought to have expected sooner or later, not because of her message so much, unpopular though it was, but because she became too immoderate in its presentation. Then someone pulled strings, and she was gagged. Not killed off forever - she will re-emerge on a new blog soon enough. But no more GenderTrender as it used to be.
Which brings me onto another point, that there are ways to post and comment that dodge clampdowns, that do get real-life results if the cause is reasonable and the targets genuinely culpable. Take, for instance the activists in China who have had misbehaving local officials investigated and dismissed by the Communist Party. The activists have not been able to bring down the top people in the Politburo, but nevertheless they have achieved a useful purge of irritating midrankers. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20765530. I have to agree that this has happened mainly because the Party chose to allow it. But it certainly illustrates the power of the Internet when a lot of people are able to communicate - even if they had to resort to all kinds of strategems to avoid naming their targets openly.
Is such collective action democratic? If it is the will of the majority, then I'd say yes, even if there is no formal vote. It is still 'the voice of the people'. There is however an obvious problem of verifying who has spoken. If forty million persons said online, perhaps in a petition, that 'the UK government has messed up and should go at once' then that ought to be heeded. But first check who they are. If 90% of them were commenting from places abroad, it would clearly not be the authentic voice of the British electorate.
Finally, the personal angle. Is my own life enlarged by having an Internet persona, the Lucy Melford you read about on this blog, and can see on my Flickr site? I think it most certainly is. The Internet allows me to take part in a nationwide (indeed worldwide) conversation that I could not possibly join in otherwise. And I can continue to do it even if my personal circumstances one day make it impossible for me to leave my home and get out and around. It's definitely part of my social life. Not all of it, just part. But one I'd miss if somebody shut me down.
What about personal identity? Surely the Lucy Melford persona set up online has become my most prominent and important public presence, because it clearly reaches several hundred people each day, judging by my Blogger and Flickr stats. The number of people I interact with in the 'real world' is much less. On that basis - sheer numbers - I would say that the identity that comes across on the PC screen is surely the dominant one, the one I will be most known for in my lifetime, and the one most remembered when I die. Just because I shared my life and my point of view online. Surely this is a wonderful example of what the Internet can achieve. (Think for example of Melissa, those who knew her)
And really, it's an identity that doesn't have to be analysed very far. I'm quite content to be just 'a person', sexless and ageless, without any particular nationality or ethinic background that might trigger preconceived ideas in anyone's mind. If the Internet does that for me, then hooray.