On anonymity

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

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