For much of history, people lived in small communities, where everyone knew them, and they knew everyone. Identity was largely inherited and imposed, and the ability of people to re-invent themselves was quite limited. You were father, farmer, drunkard, and everyone knew it.
The big city changed all that, by offering anonymity and choice. Against the background of anonymity, people can choose their identity, or choose multiple identities, often by choosing the community of other people with whom they live, work or play. In the city, you can choose to cultivate multiple identities: to mingle with bankers or toddlers by day, to play rugby or poker by night, to socialize with rabbis or lesbians, and to do all this while choosing how anonymous to remain. Maybe you’re happy to use your real name with your bank colleagues, but delight in the anonymity of a large nightclub. And you can share different parts of your identity with different communities, and none of them need to know about the other parts, if you don’t want them too: work and home, family and friends, familiarity and exploration, the city allows you to create your identity against a background of anonymity.
Like the city, but on a much, much bigger scale, the Web allows people to create multiple digital identities, and to decide whether to use their “real” identity, or pseudonyms, or even complete anonymity. With billions of people online, and with the power of the Internet, people can find information and create virtual communities to match any interest, any identity. You may join a social networking site with your real names or your pseudonyms, finding common interests with other people on any conceivable topic, or exploring new ones. You may participate in a breast cancer forum, by sharing as much or as little information about yourself as you wish. You may explore what it means to be gay or diabetic, without wanting anyone else to know. Or you may revel in your passion to create new hybrids of roses with other aficionados. The Web is like the city, only more so: more people, more communities, more knowledge, more possibility. And the Web has put us all in the same “city”, in cyberspace.
Life is about possibilities: figuring out who you are, who you want to be. Cities opened more possibilities for us to create the identities we choose. The Web is opening even more.