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On anonymity

The launch of Google+ has started a huge debate over the role of anonymity on the Internet. But what I see again and again in the debate about this is two massive straw men:

  1. “Anonymity is essential so that the marginalised/endangered can speak”
  2. “Real names are essential to stop bad behaviour”

Neither of these are, of course, in any way true. There’s a whole host of stuff from smarter people than me pointing out that the voices of the marginalised only have impact when attached to a consistent meatspace identity. The old concept of “you own your own words” from The WELL has a deep and resonant meaning here: words which a real identity visibly stands behind will always carry more impact than those of a completely unknown person.

But, more importantly, not every forum is likely to be one where those cases where anonymity is clearly required are likely to speak. For example: A comment stream on a post about a sports result is unlikely to attract comments from a rape victim which require that person to be anonymous.

And this is where the construction of these straw men is really stifling meaningful debate. The implicit assumption is that “the Internet” is a singular thing which must carry only a single correct policy on anonymity. To me, that’s a bit like saying “everywhere on the Internet must use English, because it was created by English-speakers”. It denies the fundamental fact that the web is not “a place” with a singular set of rules, but a confederacy of places, all of which have different needs, opinions, rules and so on.

For some sites, anonymity is essential – I doubt there is anyone who would disagree, for example, that a site which counseled child abuse victims shouldn’t require a “real names” policy. But for others, insisting on real names can be part of the arsenal of methods to encourage civil discourse – and let’s not forget, “civil discourse” is not always the aim of a community.

What’s required here, as is often the case, is a granular methodology. Again, I’d refer back to The WELL. On The WELL, your real name was always visible, as part of your profile. This was non-negotiable, as part of the “owning your own words” ethos. And it worked. The exception was for topics which could be seen as sensitive (usually around sexuality, but others too) where you only saw someone’s real name if they explicitly put it in.

I’d argue that for a general social network without pre-established forums, that control should rest with the original poster (in this case, me – but if you have a blog, you). OP’s should have the ability to make comments “Real names only” or “anonymity allowed”.

In other words, devolve the power.

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  • http://twitter.com/Conan776 Conan776

    “the voices of the marginalised only have impact when attached to a consistent meatspace identity.”

    Nonsense. I’ve had plenty of impact with just a consistent online identity, and even my closest offline friends just call me Conan for short. How would going by my government name change that one whit? All it would do is let people who I know only marginally or don’t care to have following me around online stalk me, or fire me, or disown me, or not employ me, or persecute and/or prosecute me. Cui bono?

    And in your very next paragraph you declare people shouldn’t have a consistent identity! Pick one, sir! I keep mine constant so it is there when I need it! This to me seems clearly to be the wisest course of action.

    Your truly,