Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The problem of anonymity on the internet

There's a little kerfluffle in the blogosphere because an anonymous blogger has been outed. Michael Eisen posted an interesting comment of the episode and I want to add my 2 cents to something he says at: On anonymity in science and on Twitter. Here's the part I want to address ...
A lot of people who I interact with on Twitter, and whose blogs I read, have chosen to tweet and write under pseudonyms. This puzzled me at first, but I have come to realize that there are a LOT of good reasons for people to mask their real identities online.

Anonymity allows people to express their opinions and relate their experiences without everything they say becoming part of their personal permanent record. It affords people who are marginalized or in tenuous positions a way to exist online without fear of retribution. Pseudonyms help create a world where ideas matter more than credentials. And they provide some kind of buffer between people – especially women – and the nastier sides of the internet.

The myriad and diverse pseudonymous voices out there make the internet a richer and more interesting place. Maybe it’s weird, but I consider many of these people whom I’ve never met and whose real identities I don’t know to be my friends.
Here's the problem. I agree with everything that Michael says but there's still something about hiding behind a pseudonym that makes me uneasy. I much prefer dealing with people who use their real names. I grew up believing that it was admirable to stand up and be accountable for your beliefs and opinions no matter what the consequences.

Yes, I'm well aware of the fact that it's a lot easier for a tenured professor to say this than for someone who is in a much more vulnerable position. Michael Eisen also knows this—read his post. That's part of the problem. We understand that the "consequences" of speaking out against authority can be quite severe and we both understand that there's value in hearing from certain anonymous voices.

I guess where I differ from Michael Eisen is that right now I don't think I follow any blogger whose identity isn't known to me. It may be true in theory that ideas matter more than identity but, in reality, there just aren't very many examples. On the other hand, there are lots of examples where people use anonymity to say things they would never say in public even if their identity was concealed.

Does the upside of anonymity make up for the downside? That's the real question. I don't know the answer but I'm leaning toward "no."

I'd like to live in a society where you could never be punished for anything you say or believe. It makes me uneasy to live in a society that accepts the idea that you will be punished for your opinion and sets up ways of permitting people to say whatever they want without having to face any consequences. It seems like that's a way of giving up on the fight for freedom of expression and legitimizing the idea of systemic intolerance.

I try to get my students to speak up during class and express their views and opinions. I think it's an essential component of learning how to think critically. I try and get them to write essays where they defend a controversial idea, even if it's unpopular. I don't think it's a good idea if it becomes the accepted norm that you can only do this if you can be assured that nobody will find out who you are.

(I know most of the people who comment on Sandwalk but there are some who use pseudonyms. There's a good correlation between people who comment anonymously and those whose ideas don't deserve respect. There's also a powerful correlation between those who use their real names and those ideas are worth listening to even if they disagree with mine.

That's doesn't mean you shouldn't comment using a pseudonym. Just be aware of the company you're keeping.)