Anonymity

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?