“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” To some extent, that’s still true – but not nearly as much so as it was in 1993 when that famous cartoon was published in the New Yorker. In the early days, everybody went by “screen names” or “handles” such as CrazyFox233 or DoctorJ. With the advent of social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, whose terms of service require that you use your real name, anonymity is rapidly disappearing. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
There are certainly some excellent talking points on both sides of that argument. Like everyone else, I have my own opinion, formed by my own experiences. Maybe there’s a bit of the exhibitionist in me, but I have always preferred to let those with whom I’m dealing know up front who I am. I guess, as a writer, I see my words as uniquely mine and I want the credit (or blame) for them.
I’m reminded of once when I was ruminating over whether I should write about a highly volatile subject. Someone suggested, “Why don’t you write about it under a pseudonym?” That idea didn’t appeal to me at all. What’s the point of taking a stand, and if you’re then going to hide behind a fake persona?
Of course, I live in a (relatively) free country where I’m probably not going to be prosecuted or persecuted for speaking out on controversial topics. Those who live under more oppressive regimes have a good reason for wanting to remain anonymous, and I understand that. But in many cases, it seems that anonymity leads to bad behavior. After all, if you know you won’t be held responsible for what you say, you might be tempted to say things that you would never say if they could be linked to you.
It’s only anecdotal evidence, of course, but my observations over almost two decades of heavy Internet usage indicate that when people use false identities online, they tend to be much more rude, aggressive and likely to “flame” others who disagree with them. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it seems to me it’s anonymity that really brings out the worst in people.
For example, I enjoy going on cruises and I participate in many online venues that are dedicated to the subject of cruising. There is one popular web site that provides a great deal of good information in the form of articles and reviews, but its discussion forums are infamous for the less-than-friendly responses – ranging from mere snide remarks to vicious attacks – that often follow a posting there.
This site encourages its members to use screen names that aren’t indicative of their real names, because “we value the privacy of our members.” While this is a laudable principle, like many well-intentioned guidelines, it has unintended consequences. Cloaked by fake names, many of the forum users feel free to vent their anger on newbies or other who dare to post something they don’t like.
Facebook cruise groups, on the other hand, sometimes have their little flare-ups, but on the whole people tend to be much more civil. The most obvious difference between the two venues is that Facebook’s TOS requires its users to use their real names on their accounts, and although there is really no effective way for Facebook to enforce the rule and there are some obvious fake names that pop up from time to time, the majority of Facebook users seem to comply with the requirement.
This same pattern carries over to pretty much all of the online communities to which I belong. But it’s not just my personal opinion. A professor of Communication at the University of Houston published a study earlier this year and its findings confirm that what I’ve seen is not an anomaly, but the norm. In fact, his research showed that a majority (53 percent) of the people who commented on news stories anonymously used hateful language. He also noted that anonymity has a negative influence on behavior whether online or off; it’s simply easier to conceal your real identity on the Internet than with in-person interactions.
It’s important to note that it’s the perception of anonymity, rather than the fact, that empowers people to unleash the most unpleasant aspects of their personalities. The road rage phenomenon has been attributed to the relative sense of anonymity that we feel when we’re behind the tinted glass of our vehicles. Of course, unless you’re in a stolen car or have removed your license plates, you’re not really all that anonymous.
Online anonymity is likewise often more perception than reality. Most Internet forums require a valid email address to register and use the service, and those email addresses can often (although not always) be traced back to the real person behind the mask if obnoxious behavior crosses the line into illegality (threatening, bullying, etc.).
Another aspect of perceived anonymity is that even if we use our real names, we feel more anonymous when talking to strangers vs. people we know and think of as friends (even if they’re only long-time online friends we’ve never met in person). I think another factor that inhibits bad behavior on Facebook is the ticker – that little pane on the right side that shows your friends the comments you make, even when those comments are in response to someone else’s posts, or in a public group or on a fan page. If you’re always aware of the fact that Aunt Sophie might see your comment, you’re more likely to think twice about posting vulgar remarks.
If anonymity causes bad behavior in those who are anonymous, what it causes in those dealing with them is fear. The faceless, nameless threat is always more frightening. This can be used effectively when deliberate intimidation is desired. The SWAT team is scarier than the regular uniformed police officer not just because of their automatic weapons but also because of the black helmets that hide their faces. There’s usually no name tag, nothing to identity these black-garbed entities as people or differentiate them from each other.
The hackivist group whose name embraces the concept of hidden identity, Anonymous, likewise hide their faces with masks when appearing in public, inspiring fear and frustration on the part of those who are the targets of their cyberattacks.
There’s no denying that anonymity can be a good thing. Alcoholics Anonymous and its spinoff groups have built a highly effective self- and mutual-help and support model based on the idea. Workplace surveys are often conducted anonymously in order to get honest feedback from employees, who otherwise might not state their true feelings for fear of reprisals. Identities of underage molestation or child abuse victims are often kept anonymous to avoid media harassment and further trauma.
Those who favor anonymity often claim it’s their right as a part of constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech. I find it difficult to believe that the 18th century equivalents of trolling and flaming were what the founding fathers had in mind when they constructed the first amendment.
Certainly anonymity has its place. There are people who have a legitimate need to hide their identities: stalking victims, domestic violence victims, “accidental celebrities” made famous by a chance of circumstance such as winning the lottery. But with the vast majority of people, it seems the negative effects of anonymity outweigh the positive.
In the “real world,” it’s difficult to trust someone who pretends to be someone else, or who is just a “mystery man” (or woman). In the IT world, identity is the basis of trust. Without valid identity verification, security systems fail and the threat level is unknown. Spammers, fraudsters, hackers, attackers and other cybercriminals depend on anonymity to avoid responsibility for their crimes. Minor league Internet trolls hide behind it to avoid responsibility for their angry and hurtful words.
It’s been suggested that one day we’ll all have to have verified identities to log onto the Internet at all. Every user would be issued a digital certificate, obtained from a certification authority after proof of identity is provided, and no one could get online without it. The technological, logistical and administrative details would, of course, be a nightmare to implement currently, but there’s a good chance that someday in the future, such a system may exist. Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s almost a certainty that some would find ways to circumvent such controls. My guess is that in this case, there would exist both the “secure” Internet where those with verified identities play, and a dark “undernet” inhabited by those who still operate under the cloak of anonymity. As in the physical world when certain parts of town are taken over by criminal elements, that area could become a dangerous place for the innocent to tread – and its inhabitants would inevitably spill over into the “good parts of town” from time to time.
As with so many things in today’s world, anonymity is a complex subject with no simple answers. It can be a problem – and in other circumstances it can be a solution.