I’ve read quite a bit about how the anonymous hordes of internet assholes are destroying public discourse. Google tried to enforce a “real name” policy on their new social network and Facebook’s terms of use require you to use your real name in your profile. Lots of news websites require a real name if you want to comment on a story. The idea is that people don’t say awful shit as much when they can’t hide their identity. Awesome! Except that it turns out that simply requiring people to adopt a persistent identity of some sort accomplishes the same goal. Also, the combination of all of the legitimate reasons why someone might want to remain anonymous and the impossibility of developing a system that accommodates all of the permutations of real names means that anonymity online is never going away. This is a good thing.

Internet anonymity is kind of a new animal in Western society. Sure, anonymous publication goes all the way back in the US to the Founding Fathers propagandizing against the British and the Federalist Papers publicly hashing out our form of government. The thing about the internet is that it makes the process of publication infinitely more trivial. That means that one’s message can potentially be more widespread, but it also means that the barriers that used to require a certain amount of motivation have also disappeared. It’s just as easy to write “Bieber sux cock” in an internationally available form as it is to publish a treatise on economic theory, possibly by the same person. Combine that with the fact that every aspect of a person’s life is potentially published online, and the need for anonymity becomes much more urgent. Our politics are already streaked through with non-compartmentalized scandal as people’s family lives, lifestyle choices, professional work, and published work all get intermingled. As ordinary people start to find themselves having to reconcile previously separate spheres of their lives, it makes sense to allow them to maintain different personas in different arenas.

So, anonymity online is at least a necessary evil. I would go further and say that it is actually a good thing. Publishing online outside of a few niche venues means that the average person is pretty much anonymous anyway. The advantage of “standing behind your work” with your name attached is largely negated by nobody knowing who the hell you are. One of the major arguments establishment journalists level against bloggers and online commentary in general is that the largely anonymous authors don’t have to stand behind what they write. I could go along with that reasoning if it weren’t for the fact that most of the time when I read a newspaper I’m asked to trust the credibility of “staff” or AP Newswire. Supposedly, the reputation of the publication stands in for the ability to trust in a specific author. I would say that this transference of reputation from a specific individual to a publication is similar to what makes being anonymous online work. My persona as The Howling Pig has nearly nothing to do with my daytime identity, but the publication history of THP speaks for itself in that my political biases and social views are well-documented as is the reliability of my presentation of facts and opinions.

That’s where I find that online anonymity represents a new thing entirely. The vast majority of the time online being anonymous isn’t so much a complete lack of identity as the adoption of a persona. Usernames, email addresses, and IM handles all tend to be persistent. It’s not impossible to make up a new username, but people tend to become parts of communities and become known as the personas that they’ve adopted. Even better, these persistent identities (not necessarily connected with one’s offline life) develop their own reputations based entirely on their contributions. It’s now possible for a tax accountant to become a respected authority on needlework in an online forum, a sought-after gaming companion in role-playing game, a fiery partisan in a political bulletin board, and never have any of these roles effect each other. Of course, it’s also possible to be an unmitigated asshole, but that’s always been possible and most people both don’t participate in that way and are learning to ignore it.

How cool is that, really?


Fun and Excitement Watching the Crazies in Greeley

Today, I got to go to my very first right-wing rally. Luckily, I got to hang out with the rather cooler people that organized a response to the Americans For Prosperity travelling circus show that set up in the park downtown. It was a weird experience. There were a number of speakers, but the only two that I knew were locals– talk show host Amy Oliver, and county commissioner Sean Conway. The speakers actually addressed themselves largely to the protesters since the crowd of supporters wasn’t very big. For the most part, it was a call and response sort of thing with protesters shouting out derisive commentary as the speakers rambled on about the importance of fossil fuels and the waste of government funding for alternatives.

Boy howdy, I was floored at the internal inconsistency from these people. Obviously, the whole point was to fire people up to oppose the evil government and Obama specifically. Their hook was that government regulations, policies, taxes, and waste were responsible for high gas prices. This led somehow to a defense of natural gas fracking, the Keystone pipeline, and an attack on alternative energy. No mention was made that Americans For Prosperity are largely funded by oil and gas companies, with the oil baron Koch brothers chipping in a significant amount of the organization’s cash. On the other hand, the speakers made a point to say that the Obama administration was rife with conflicts of interest, apparently funneling vast amounts of research money to campaign supporters. Since I’ve been a supporter, I assume the check is on the way.

One major point that I noticed- most of the arguments were cast in terms of either ending oil and gas production entirely at the hands of draconian government regulations and taxation, or stopping the waste of taxpayer money on alternatives and setting the industry free to innovate without government interference.
Seriously, what the hell?
Even the hardest core environmentalists don’t want to end fossil fuel production immediately, and there sure as hell weren’t any hardcore greens hanging out there. Transitioning to alternatives is just a smart idea. Even if one believes in a fairy tale of infinite fossil fuel reserves that are somehow available at a reasonable cost, and completely discounts the concept of climate change, anything to reduce fossil fuel use is kind of an unvarnished good thing… unless you’re in the business of selling oil. Reducing the mess from production, reducing the need to intervene in volatile regions of the planet, reducing the shit belched into the air, and of course reducing the price all seem like good arguments for alternatives. Beyond that, Weld County people don’t really seem the type to want to end oil and gas production entirely, but we’re a bit suspicious of any methods that seem prone to poisoning our water and reducing our air quality.

Pretty much everything else was a recap of a generic Fox News broadcast– scandal and insinuation heavy, but light on discussion. There was some gesture toward backing up points with numbers, but I noticed that the units didn’t match up. One speaker that was introduced as a scientist tried to show that fracking used less water than watering golf courses– but she used acre-feet in one example and gallons in the other. I wasn’t in a position to take notes, but a little bit of mental estimation gave me the impression that her numbers said the opposite of what she said, but she was relying on one number being bigger than the other. Tricky. Also, who’s opposing the massive water use of hydraulic fracking because they’re avid golfers? Is there a Lorax that speaks for the back nine?

It was an interesting exercise in propaganda, but I don’t know that anybody who isn’t in on the scam would be convinced by the over-the-top rhetoric. Conservatives dug it because the crazy people on their team were saying wacky things– hooray! It was a hockey match and their side threw a few hard elbows. Kind of a waste of time and money. I kind of resent the fact that these assholes get to be stupid and shitty in public in such a way that those of us that oppose that sort of crap have to waste our time responding.

In short, the gents and ladies that feel the need travel around puking up a bunch of disingenuous red meat to some gullible conservatives can just fuck the fuck off.

A good news day, encapsulated

twitter capture announcing civil rights advances