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Vanity Plates, Online Reputation, and Anonymity

by Joe Loong on November 25, 2009

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It’s been pointed out that Virginia has the highest rate of custom vanity plate use in the US. It’s probably because getting a vanity tag is so easy and cheap to do here, which has resulted in a kind of self-reinforcing vanity plate culture. However, I’ve never really been tempted to get one. Why not?

I like the idea of maintaining a state of relative anonymity while I’m inside my car, in case someone I know sees me doing something stupid while driving. As long as that person doesn’t see my face and hasn’t memorized my license plate, I have a degree of plausible deniability: “Sorry, no, I don’t recall cutting you off — it must have been some other driver in a red hatchback.” Having a vanity plate as a unique identifier removes all doubt.

However, thinking that a regular license plate gives you anonymity on the road relies on equal parts polite social fiction and self-delusion. You’re out in public, and if you want to be an anonymous, you’ll have to drive a silver Honda Accord with tinted windows and James Bond-ian rotating license plates. It’s only the fact that you’re seen by people who don’t know you that gives you limited anonymity, and that diminishes as you drive regular routes or are close to your usual destinations.

All this babble about vanity plates is just a setup for the first part of my metaphor — in the real-world, during fleeting encounters on the road, it can be easier to get away with transgressions, without having them come back at you.

In fact, unless you’re a recognizable celebrity of some sort, or someone in your immediate social circle sees you in the act, you’ve got a good deal of functional anonymity — unless you choose to identify yourself with a vanity tag, wearing a t-shirt with your name on it, proudly sport your Congressional intern badge while you’re out and about town, or leave an event with your “Hello, my name is” sticker on your shirt.

(Of course, now the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and mobile internet has changed this dynamic. But work with me on this.)

Online, of course, it’s a while ‘nother ballgame. Because of search and socially-shared status, everyone is wearing their vanity tag online. So what you do is theoretically always tied to who you are. Which means you need to be on your best behavior all the time, especially for people in business, or may be in business someday.

It’s a cliche now: the momentary lapse in judgment leads to a post that is widely spread, easily searchable, and forever archived.

I suppose this is just a way to restate the question, “Can you keep your personal persona separate from your business persona online?” and the answer remains the same: No, not really.

Without revisiting the questions about surveillance societies and personal branding and all those other issues, I think the primary takeaway is just about awareness — the relative anonymity we had is diminishing, even for those of use who don’t choose (in certain venues) to broadcast who we are. And online, it never really existed in the first place.

What do you think? Leave a comment below. (Anonymous, pseudonymous, or eponymous — your choice.)

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    • http://www.superiorpromos.com/ Promotional Products

      Very interesting concept, I really like this analogy. The internet is a great place to be anonymous until you decide that you want to make money online. From that moment forward you put your vanity plate out there on display and you must be responsible for your actions.

    • http://www.superiorpromos.com/ Promotional Products

      Very interesting concept, I really like this analogy. The internet is a great place to be anonymous until you decide that you want to make money online. From that moment forward you put your vanity plate out there on display and you must be responsible for your actions.

    • http://www.reputation-technologies.com/ Albert Howard

      It is difficult to keep your business and personal profiles separate especially for those who work non-stop. It is sometimes best to hire a company for online reputation building such as Reputation Technologies to help you with this dilemma.