A while ago, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about anonymity online, and why it sucked. This was in the wake of the ‘Civil Serf‘ (remember her?) kerfuffle, when a blogger working in government said some things she shouldn’t have done, thinking she was protected by anonymity. She wasn’t of course, and got found out.
Generally speaking, I’m in favour of people being transparent online about who they are: it builds trust and adds credence to what people are saying. There are exceptions of course, for whistleblowers and political activists, for whom being open about their identity could be dangerous.
For me, the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory usually holds true:
I was reminded of the topic a few weeks back, when I posted about forums, and specifically 4chan. 4chan is a remarkably popular site, and also a remarkably foul one, which is why I’m not linking to it (not because I disaprove, just that I wouldn’t like to be responsible for someone having their internet access taken away from them). It’s an ‘image board’ – basically a pretty simple forum where people post images or text in thread discussions. Sophisticated it ain’t.
What sets 4chan apart from many online communities is that anonymity is not only tolerated, but encouraged. This freedom to post without reprisals results in some truly shocking things being said, but for those with the constitution to sift through it, also some genuinely creative stuff. Quite a few of the popular internet memes started on 4chan – including LOLcats and Rickrolling. Fine, hardly the stuff of huge cultural significance, but creative and cool, and worthwhile.
Anyway, there’s a great article about 4chan, and its founder, Christopher Poole (aka ‘moot’) in Technology Review, which you really ought to read in full:
Support for anonymous communication often comes down to a standard set of arguments: people should have a place where they can speak truth to power (blow a whistle on corruption, assess whether an emperor has clothes) without fear of reprisal; they should also have a place where they can be true to themselves (explore an unconventional sexuality, seek treatment for a stigmatized disease) without risking ostracism and worse. But while Poole embraces these arguments, what he says in defense of the anonymity on 4chan is at once less high-minded and (in ways he is only slowly coming to understand) more far-reaching: “People deserve a place to be wrong.”
The article links to Poole’s talk at the Ted conference, which is both interesting and short:
Identity is a massive issue, particularly for government, and especially where services are being delivered. Yet in terms of the fluffier, engagement stuff I wonder whether we need to be too bothered about anonymity in every case. I’m obviously not recommending that we use 4chan as a consultation platform. Although… no. It wouldn’t work. Would it? No. Definitely not.
Maybe it’s easier sometimes to keep the barriers to entry as low as possible and be prepared to have to sift through an awful lot of stuff to find the gems. Put the burden on the askers, not the answerers.