The anonymity dilemma

When the web was like the Wild West, anonymity made sense for a lot of people apparently.

Today I was talking to a friend, whose identity I shouldn’t reveal for thematic consistency. Let’s call him Barry.

Barry – actually that won’t do, he’s not Barry, let’s say Dante, he’s a sophisticated, erudite sort of chap – has been seriously online for a lot long than me, engaged in forums and communities and the like when that sort of activity involved command lines and other such geekery beyond the rabbit-proof fence of basic technical aptitude. Once the web made it possible for me to click on things and have things explained in pictures I was away – up ’til then, I was stuck with an unconnected life, curse its analogue breath.

I digress.

So Barry/Dante was telling me that he ran about twenty alternative identities for a while because it made sense to do so. He actually became quite good at it. It was as much a part of security to resist revealing your identity online as it was to have a side-hobby of fine-tuning a military-grade firewall and companion anti-virus software.

Twenty alternate identities. Maybe it all felt like an interwebs version of The Bourne Identity Amazing.

Anyway, I asked him. If you were starting out today would you do that again?

Nah. Not worth the bother, says Dante/Barry. He’s even got some public facing profiles on social media networks.

The web works best when it is open. As WIRED founder Kevin Kelly says, in his incredible The Next 5,000 Days of the Web TED presentation (watch it below if you haven’t already, it’s a cortex-zinigng mind alterer), the more open you can be with it, the more information you are willing to share, the better it will be and the more you will be able to get from it.

So it’s interesting to watch, isn’t it, the dilemma of anonymity in our society represented so clearly by someone being horrible about a lady in New York.

Short version of the story follows:

  • Woman runs blog calling other women in NYC “skanks” (it’s a serious term of abuse there, if you’re not familiar with American culture).
  • One woman takes exception and pressures Google via the courts, which runs the Blogger service upon which the defamation (which is what the judge involved agreed it was), to reveal the identity of the blog’s author.
  • Said author then sues Google for some nonsense.
  • Eek.
So here’s the dilemma: we don’t want the ability for people to publish anonymously to disappear (and it almost certainly never will, networks and the web being what they are). But we don’t like people writing the 21st century of poison pen letters.

Dan Gilmor, the journalist and media innovator/thinker extraordinaire, puts it very well, of course in a post about “skanky blogging“:

One of the norms we’d be wise to establish is this: People who don’t stand behind their words deserve, in almost every case, no respect for what they say. In many cases, anonymity is a hiding place that harbors cowardice, not honor. The more we can encourage people to use their real names, the better. But if we try to force this, we’ll create more trouble than we fix.
People who’d ban anonymity don’t seem to realize that it’s technically impossible unless we’re willing to turn over all of our communications in every venue to a central authority — a system that would herald the end of liberty. They can’t really want such a regime, can they? Meanwhile, even that kind of structure could and would be hacked by motivated types, though with more difficulty.

It’s another part of the emerging digital literacy sub-set of “crap detection“, isn’t it. Our subsconcious needs to be trained to run the following sub-routine:

Who is writing this? > I can’t tell > Do they have a good reason for hiding their identity? > No. > Well then they are talking crap. I should spend my precious attention elsewhere > Close browser window.

In this case, granted, another sub-routine existing from old media and my pre-web education would be running saying:

Why am I reading someone’s thoughts about women who is calling them nasty names and calling their moral character into question for no apparent reason? > Close browser window.

But that’s by the by… Here’s Mr Kelly to lift our thoughts back up to a higher plane…

By Antony Mayfield

I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com. Google