On anonymity

On anonymity

Summary: What are my true feelings about anonymity on the Internet? It sucks. Here's why.

TOPICS: Security

I should have (re)named it Keen's code of (mis)conduct. Minus 28 votes, 72 (mostly critical) comments... Wow! I never realized I was so spankingly popular.

"Eh, Adolf Stalin, faschocommunista girlie, tell me what do you REALLY think about anonymity..."

One of my more historically erudite critics anonymously emailed asked me over the weekend (don't the anonymous ever take a day of rest?) in response to my (mis)conduct grenade. As a polemicist, I know that I've got my finger on the techno-cultural G-spot when I'm simultaneously accused of being a fascist and a communist. 

So, Mr Anon, this is what I REALLY think about anonymity. Close your eyes for a moment. Release all that anger. Breath deeply. Relax. Then imagine something quite unimaginable. Imagine that you could only surf the Internet if your identity was fully revealed. Total disclosure, my friend, no hiding behind invented names, sock handles or made-up addresses. This identity would reveal name, place of residence, age, place of birth -- all the information that is already available on an identity card or passport (anything beyond this -- such as sexual preference, ethnicity, religious or political affiliation -- wouldn't be legally required but could be added to give more flesh to the formal ID). Then open your eyes again. What would you see?

You would see an online community of polite "citizens" rather than a mob of anonymous hooligans. With the knowledge that others know fully who we are, the vast majority of us would behave like responsible aduilts rather than ill-disciplined children. There'll be no more bullying Wikipedia editors with fake PhDs, no more sexually famished men pretending to be women in chat rooms, no more invented make-believe people with corrosive, make-believe versions of the world. Instantaneously, the Internet would become a physical community -- the realization of that now corrupted cyber-utopian dream. Even an faschocommunista girlie like myself might become an advocate of citizen media.

Need proof? Just read Aristotle's Politics or De Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Both argue convincingly that the more familiar the community (or what Aristotle called the Polis), the more civilized the citizenry and the more enviable its politics. Beyond theory, the evidence in favor of full revelation is all around us. In situations where everyone knows the full identity of everyone else -- in neighborhood communities or at school meetings -- people are generally extremely civil toward one another. That's because full identity shames us into behaving like responsible and compassionate human beings.

Okay, Mr Anon. You can open your eyes now. We're back in the cyberswamp. And it's still infested with anonymous creepy-crawlies. What are you wearing? 


Andrew Keen

Berkeley California


Topic: Security

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  • Not True

    What you have described is Orwellian. The reason for the good behavior wouldn't be because of the basic goodness in human nature coming out, it would be fear of reprisal from a larger (and, more than likely ((not to mention ironically)), an anonymous) entity. I, personally, wouldn't change my actions if I were known by my real name, nor do I care if someone expounds their anger in a derogatory manner because of the anonymity. Remember, even Aristotle was petty. After being rejected for headmaster of Plato's school, he left Greece and taught Alexander the Great everything about the rest of the world in the hope that he would attack Greece. Personal knowledge of a person doesn't make that person more humane, it just allows you to see the motive behind the anger. Anonymity is just whispers in a cup brought to the forefront... pure, unadulterated honesty.

    Master Dingo
    • And your point?

      If people know who you are, it's easier to hold your to account for what you do. The big reason why anonymity is so popular on the Internet is that people want to be able to say whatever they feel like without any negative consequences.
      John L. Ries
  • Who would administer this transparent Utopia?

    The flaw in your proposition, Andrew, is that some kind of power structure is required to hold individuals to account, and whoever controls that power structure gains an advantage over everyone else. What happens if they then start to abuse that power? Quite simply, they begin to use their control of the system to act covertly, and can easily use their power to suppress any attempts to publicize or curtail their actions.

    That's the core reason why the right to anonymity must be preserved in a free society. Of course citizens must use that right responsibly and risk detection and legal redress if they don't. But total transparency enforced by society is, as another of your respondents notes, an Orwellian nightmare.

    I'm also less confident than you in the freedoms available within close-knit communities. Often their superficial harmony owes much to the suppression of non-conformist behaviors.

    phil wainewright
  • Non-governmental Retaliation

    How many people who make very reasonable, informative postings here on ZDNet would no longer be able to for fear of losing their jobs if they could not do so anonymously?

    There are countless reasons why a person would want to post anonymously that have nothing to do with inappropriate behavior.

    But fortunately for you, we not only live in a country with free speech, we have a free economy. And servers are cheap.

    My recommendation is that you setup an online community where nobody is anonymous. Validate the identity of every member. Charge a small processing fee to do this.

    If people really prefer a anonymity-free environment, they will flock to your online community. Sell the idea to parents who have kids on MySpace but don't have the heart to kick them off. I bet many would be willing to open their wallets to get their kids into a controlled environment.

    Don't involve the government in what the free market can do more effectively, provided it is actually what the people want. I trust a vote with the wallet over a vote with a ballot anyday.
    Erik Engbrecht
  • Anonymity

    Part of the voyeuristic appeal of the internet is anonymity but for people looking to actually accomplish something productive(exchange information, purchase something) anonymity is a major drawback. You see people willing to pay for access to communities where there may or may not be anonymity among members, but there is accountability to those operating the site. Knowing this, people actually behave and so the community works and more people are drawn to it. As long as we're citing political philosophy, let's bring in Hobbes' Leviathan - we're moving from a wild and uncontrolled 'state of nature' to organized societies with rules, structure and, yes, taxes. Hobbes observed correctly that in a unstructured wilderness where life was "nasty, brutal, and short" the strong man who could provide security would become king. It's no different on the web: if you can provide security for people as they go about their business, there is a lot of money to be made.