One of the key features of computer-mediated communication (CMC) is the obfuscation of the identities of its participants. Unlike the physical world in which “the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance [but] the body provides a stabilizing anchor” (Donath, 1999, p. 1), computer-mediated communication places identity wholly in the content of communication acts. Given the absence of the body as an anchor for identity, one can have “as many electronic personas as one has time and energy to create” (p. 1).
CMC has given a dual rise to practices of self-identification that embody communication acts into digital identities, and practices of censorship by which these new virtual bodies are regulated. Absent a body, CMC endures the added burden of providing a proxy for the body. Simple speech acts take on new meanings, codifying their authors based on the content provided. Censorship online, then, blurs the distinction between the censorship of an offensive statement or an offensive identity.
This paper examines the censorship of craigslist Missed Connections, an online version of “I saw you” personal ads. Missed Connection authors anonymously describe encounters from the physical world that typically did not result in an enduring interpersonal relationship. Normally with romantic objectives, users author simple digital identities as they provide simple descriptions of the individuals involved, and any interaction that might have occurred. Ideally, their intended target will see the post, recognize the participants and interaction described, and respond. Craigslist, however, also provides readers a number of ways in which to “flag” posts, effectively enabling a user-powered censorship system. Posts that have been flagged an undisclosed number of times are removed from the system.
Using descriptive statistics comparing censored and uncensored content, paired with a qualitative digital ethnography, this paper explores the types of posts that are more likely to result in censorship, and identities they contain. Specifically, this paper asks:
RQ: What types of identifying practices result in the highest rate of anonymous censorship?