understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Contested Identities or Controversial Medium? Authentication and YouTube.com
By: Patrick Derby

February 6, 2007


I step outside of my comfort zone, and my identity as a criminologist, to provide the following commentary on authentication and ‘new media’ technologies, specifically in the context the popular video sharing website Youtube.com. I call the text that follows a commentary, as the thoughts and ideas presented herein require further development. This being said, I look forward to your challenges and comments, so I can further develop this piece into an article.

Authenticity and the Authentication of Identity
I believe it is important to define how I understand and use the concepts of authenticity and authentication. In order to be authentic the object in question must be genuine and reliable or trustworthy. The authenticity of an object is often determined through a process for gaining confidence that the object is what it appears to be; this process is referred to as authentication, and such processes may vary in their formality. By no stretch is authentication new, nor does it emerge with the rise of a networked society. Whether it is ancient artefacts, video statements allegedly released by terrorist organizations, or individual identities, all undergo a process of authentication. As described by Stephan Brands, “[i]n communication and transaction settings, authentication is typically understood as the process of confirming a claimed identity” (Brands, 2005: 1, emphasis in original).

Stranger Society: Authenticity in the City and Virtual World
As I have indicated above, authentication is not new to social life. While individuals once lived their lives in the absence of anonymity, industrialization and the rise of the city significantly altered the dynamics of social living. The emergence of the city facilitated the growth of individualism, privacy, and anonymity, leading some to suggest that we have become a society of strangers (Lofland, 1973). The ‘stranger society’ thesis simply suggests that most of our interactions in everyday life occur with strangers who cannot vouch for our reputation based on first-hand personal knowledge. The unknown reputations / motives of others are a source of uncertainty and insecurity, and various institutions began using surveillance technologies, such as photo identification to authenticate valid clients.

In the early 1990s, we began to see the emergence of the World Wide Web. Early proponents of the internet promised an anonymous playground, impossible to regulate. However, the more popular the internet became, the more incentive dominant institutions had to establish themselves online. In less than a decade, the vast expansion of information technology made it possible to engage in urban social life without actually being present. Shopping and banking can now conveniently be done online from the comfort of home, while professional and personal relationships (local and global) may be mediated through the internet without any actual (physical) meeting. David Lyon (2001) refers to this declining requirement for co-presence in our day-to-day interactions as the disappearance of bodies.

As internet usage has become more mainstream, so too have new social fears, which have had an impact on settings that allow for online transactions and communications. These fears include, but are not limited to, fears of identity theft and cyber-predators. First, it was quickly realized that for the majority, the internet did not make good on its promises of privacy and anonymity. Most of our online interactions require that we divulge information about ourselves, which may later be pieced back together to reveal a better picture of our real identities. As most of us are aware by now, our personal information had been commodified, and may be used for both lawful and illicit purposes. Second, fears have emerged around the threat of cyber-predators, whether it is paedophiles, child pornography rings, or even callous men hunting vulnerable women to date for financial gain.

Not surprisingly, institutions have responded to these new fears, in an attempt protect the online economy, spawning an entire industry around online privacy protection, surveillance, and authentication. Parallel to the budding online security industry emerged an ethos of online responsibilization. While I will not go into any further detail on the subject, I will acknowledge (whether I agree with them or not) that great strides have been made by institutions to authenticate the identities of individual engaging in financial transactions online. What I would like to discuss in more detail for the remainder of my commentary is authentication that occurs in online communication settings.

Many of us have had the experience of establishing an email account of some sort. Whether we choose Yahoo or Hotmail as our email service provider, or whether we open an account on Blogspot or MySpace, the process is usually similar. Each of these typically requires the user to create a self-generated username and password, which is usually verified using some form of cryptographic technology. But again, as anyone who has created such an account is aware, the information we often provide to establish such accounts is rarely, if ever, accurate.

A quick cruise through the user profiles of YouTube members confirms that I am not alone in providing inaccurate profile information. Given the above, allow me to suggest that, unlike their counterparts responsible for transactional settings, the creators of online social and communication spaces are not preoccupied with authenticating the true identities of its users. Does authentication not occur in social spaces online? This is a question I began to explore within the confines of the YouTube community.

Video Sharing and the YouTube Community
For those who have been hiding under a shell, or simply have not been paying much attention to the media hype enjoyed by the video sharing website YouTube.com, this website had its official debut in November 2005, and by summer 2006 was the fastest growing website on the internet. In November 2006, the start-up was purchased by Google Inc. for a purported $1.65 billion US. In addition to sharing music videos and movie/television clips, the YouTube allows amateurs to post videos or share their experiences and/or opinions via vlogs. Consequently, YouTube has created several internet celebrities, several of whom have gone on to experience fame beyond the YouTube community. While some of these YouTube celebrities have achieved fame as a result of their film making talents, others have done so as a result of contested online identities.

This past week a viral video posted on YouTube entitled Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out made national headlines after receiving over 2 million hits. The clip appears to be an amateur recording of a twenty-something woman chopping her hair off during a tantrum an hour before her wedding. Debate immediately emerged regarding the authenticity of the video. As it turns out, the clip was an initiative launched by hair product company Sunsilk Canada, and the individuals in the video are aspiring Canadian actresses.

Another contested YouTube identity was that of Bree, more popularly referred to by her username lonelygirl15. Lonelygirl15 debuted on YouTube in June 2006, as a coming of age story through which the audience shares in Bree’s life experiences. In addition to her video postings on YouTube, lonelgirl15 also established a MySpace site to facilitate communications with fans. Despite these efforts to make Bree’s identity as believable as possible, in just over one month, several fans began to question the authenticity of the lonelygirl15 video blogs, and by September it was revealed that Bree, a.k.a lonelygirl15, was actually an actress named Jessica Rose. The YouTube community was divided as several members responded to the lonelygirl15 controversy. While some YouTubers became upset when to Bree’s true identity was revealed, others provided their support for the series’ creative efforts.

While I am not necessarily concerned with which side individuals took in this controversy, I am struck by how YouTubers, and even members of wider society (including popular media), have demanded authentication of the identities portrayed within this virtual social space. Whereas in online financial transactions authentication is top-down, from institutions to users. Authentication in the context of the examples provided from YouTube, indicate that demands for authentication in communication transactions is more likely to be lateral.

Further, after examining the user profile information of selective YouTube participants, I have also come to question whether the lonelygirl15 controversy is really about Bree’s contested identity, given that it is not uncommon for YouTubers to mask their real-life identities. Ironically, even some of those who have rebuked lonelygirl15 are not forthcoming with their true identities, often providing inaccurate user profile information. Rather than these controversies being about authentic identities, I believe the controversy is more rooted in the authentication of the medium used to present video clips such as the lonelygirl15 storyline (vlogging) or the wig out bride. While the traditional medium of movie and/or film may be understood as fictional, the vlogs and viral videos presented on YouTube, for the most part, are conceptualized as authentic, and surely the creators of lonelygirl15 and the executives at Sunsilk Canada have intentionally exploited the authenticity of the YouTube medium.

Recently, a reporter asked an advertising executive whether ‘net seed’ clips such as wig out bride are going to become the ‘new normal’ of advertising. If they are, and if the post-911 ‘new normal’ is any indication of the events to come, I conclude my commentary with the following questions: Will YouTube.com become a virtual battleground, and will YouTubers become the foot soldiers in a ‘war on authenticity’?


BRANDS, S. (2005) Authentication. Available online at: http://www.idtrail.org/files/Authentication_Brands.pdf

LOFLAND, L. (1973) A world of strangers: Order and action in urban public space. New York: Basic Books.

LYON, D. (2001) Surveillance society: Monitoring everyday life, Open University Press; Philadelphia.

Patrick M. Derby is an MA Candidate with the Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa.
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