“Online identities”: From anonymity to visibility and back again?

On the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), since 2023, many users have adopted the same username “momo” and the same profile picture featuring a cute pink dinosaur. This can be considered as a way to seek anonymity online. The exact homogeneity of the username and profile picture renders these users visually indistinguishable from one another, thus decreasing the linkability between information source and message.

The issue of online anonymity may have long passed the heat in cultural analysis of digital communication. This is not least because the digital industry has transformed its technological and commercial models in capitalizing on human interactions. Social networking sites tap into users’ existing offline networks as a playground for tracking user behaviors. Micro-celebrity culture is predicated on presenting and branding one’s identity. “Real” and “authentic” identities seem to characterize digital beings since the Web 2.0 era. The contemporary geo-location based services, digital payment solutions, and automated facial recognition also render “online identity” a less relevant point when discussing the digitalization and datafication of everyday life. If anonymity is conceptualized as the inability to recognize one’s identity knowledge like real name, locality, and social categorization, digitally afforded commercial, political, and peer surveillance is exactly the technology to render this information knowable.

This talk, based on my empirical studies of Chinese influencer cultures, connects the seemingly contrasting two types of identity practices: celebrity and anonymity. To do so, I trace how digital platforms valorize different forms of user participation, how they bring repercussions to highly visible and identifiable individuals, and what strategies users adopt to control their personal information.


Mingyi Hou

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Digital Humanities Tilburg